Sometimes it’s hard to write an honest review about something that you’ve looked forward to for so long. You have expectations in your head that can make it hard to separate from your critical thoughts. You have characters that are your favorites that you want to see certain endings and stories for. If you’re like me, you’ve read a lot of fanfiction that’s helped shaped your own headcanon.
I feel like I should give some of my Thrawn background, because it is a factor of how I see the character. I’m a relatively new Thrawn fan. I’ve heard about him for years, but Star Wars: Rebels was my first real introduction to the Chiss. I fell in love with the character and started to dive deeper. 2015 Thrawn was my first novel I read with him. It set the bar incredibly high, and is still one of my favorite Star Wars books to date. Thrawn: Alliances shortly followed, and then I finally started going through the original EU trilogy. I’m in the middle of Dark Force Rising, and I plan to read Last Command and Outbound Flight hopefully before the end of the year. I’m very much a child of the new canon with Clone Wars being my entryway into the Star Wars fandom. With 2015’s Thrawn forming how I see the character, all the other books have been compared to that.
Which brings us to Thrawn: Treason.
I do like a lot of parts of this book. Eli Vanto’s return and narrative are wonderful. I listened to the majority of it on audiobook, so I always love hearing Marc Thompson voicing the character. It was a real joy to see Eli’s return and to see how far the once Ensign has come.
I’ve heard of Ar’alani, read lots of fanfiction on her, wrote a little of her in my own fanfic, and scoured her Wookieepedia page. As my first real introduction to her, I was so impressed. What an amazing woman. I want to be her girlfriend. Ar’alani is smart, bold, but also recognizes when she needs to trust others. Her crew clearly respects her. She knows all of their skills and utilizes her crew well. She was wonderful to get to know.
I always love Imperials bitching and sniping at each other, so every scene with Krennic and Tarkin had me smiling. Ronan was a fun new character introduced to be a mini-Krennic on the Chimera. I also loved that Timothy Zahn gave Ronan several moments to grow and really shine.
Karyn Faro has also become one of my favorite canon characters. It’s been a joy to see her rise through the ranks since 2015’s Thrawn.
I found myself really enjoying individual moments. Certain plot points made me cheer or laugh. I can’t get over Ronan’s cape, two death troopers named Pik and Waffle, and Thrawn was the Sherlockian character I’ve expected him to be.
As I started day two of reading and I was a little over halfway through, I thought the book was… fine. Just fine. It wasn’t blowing me away. I didn’t hate it either. I felt sort of “meh” about the entire story, but I had hopes that it would get better.
Then, it didn’t. It was just fine the entire way through. Looking back, it’s my least favorite of the three canon Thrawn novels. 2015’s Thrawn set the bar. With Thrawn: Alliances, I don’t think Zahn set out to write a comedy, but I rolled around laughing in almost every chapter. For the sheer madness of Thrawn trolling Vader as well as Anakin being a little shit with younger Thrawn, I enjoyed the wild ride of Alliances. I was hoping that Treason would somehow follow suit.
But I was really let down by this book finding real issues with the writing, plot, character moments, and all the questions left unanswered while pondering over the new ones. I mulled over it a few days, talked with my best friend who also read the book and found issues with it, discussed it with my friends online who either loved or disliked the book.
I finally really put my finger on what it was about the book that could make or break this novel for a person:
It all comes down to what you want to see in a Thrawn novel.
Some of this comes back to expectations. There were very clear things I wanted to see in this book that just didn’t happen. That’s on me. That’s my fault. Just because a piece of media doesn’t meet what I wanted to see doesn’t mean that it’s bad. Sometimes media isn’t what you want it to be. That’s fine. That’s what fanfiction is for.
But there were issues with writing, character development, and plot points that I found bland, boring, and confusing.
Let’s first get out of the way my first issue with the novel.
The summary of the book states “As Thrawn works to secure his place in the Imperial hierarchy, his former protégé, Eli Vanto, returns with a dire warning about Thrawn’s homeworld.”
That’s a lie.
It never happened in the book the way it’s stated here. The Chiss and Eli aren’t even actively seeking out Thrawn. The Chiss and Thrawn just so happen to stumble upon each other. There’s no dire message from his home world. It’s a complete accident that in a galaxy with tens of thousands of planets, the Chiss with Eli happen upon the one star system that Thrawn just happens to be investigating.
The very premise that we got before the book ever came out is misleading. It’s dictating the story to be something entirely different. As I was reading, I was waiting and waiting for this dire warning from Eli. It never came, and left me really frustrated that for months leading up to the novel, I felt like I was lied to as a fan. I don’t know if this was a misstep by Del Rey or Lucasfilm, but the novel summery set up a false premise. The book they promoted was what I wanted. It’s not the book we actually got.
I will say that this is based in a general pet peeve I have with Star Wars as a whole. In a huge galaxy with a bajillion people and tens of thousands of planets, somehow the same twenty people just so happen to keep running into each other. When Eli and the Chiss found Thrawn through sheer dumb luck, it hit that pet peeve real hard.
I’m also very much a character focused person over plot. Good character work can carry a piece of media for me even if the plot isn’t the best (looking at you, Once Upon A Time). Thrawn: Treason is very plot heavy. There’s barely any time for the characters to breathe. I’m not even sure how time passes in the book or if Thrawn sleeps at all. The book ends with a magical week passing when it only feels like a day has passed. Writing passage of time isn’t Zahn’s strong suit… neither is giving characters’ descriptions. I’m pretty sure Ronan is just a sentient cape.
So if you’re a plot focused person, I think you’re really going to love this book. If you’re a character focused person, I can see you being really disappointed like me.
For example, the battle math.
There are huge chunks of this book that’s just battle math. If precise space battles, coordinates, vector talk, and stuff like that is your jam, then you’re going to get a huge kick out of it. For me, I felt like I was back in math class again:
If six Tie Fighters are slingshot over the Chimera at this degree and speed while heading towards these vectors, then twelve Tie Defenders come out of hyperspace in this vector at this degrees and speed, with the invisible cloak cylinder drifting through real space at this speed, which will hit the Grysk ship first?
The answer is I don’t care.
2015’s Thrawn and Alliances both had battle math. But they didn’t have SO MUCH of it. Every single fight in Treason was drenched in this. It completely slowed down the battles and made them boring and tedious to read. I was too busy trying to figure out what was actually happening in the battles that it took away from these big character moments or reveals. I had to fight the urge to skip entire paragraphs of battle math just to get back to dialogue that actually mattered. Battle math is fine in small amounts. But with the quantity of it in Treason, it killed much of the quality of the book. Yes, Mr. Zahn, I know you can write a space battle. I don’t need to have so much of it that I don’t know what’s going on in the narrative.
Because what I care about is the actual characters.
Let’s look at Eli critically for a moment. Again, I love Eli Vanto. I thought he had a great story, and I appreciated a lot of his development. The actual plot of the story did Eli a lot of justice giving him many moments to shine.
But if you’re invested in the Eli and Thrawn story from 2015’s Thrawn, then I can see where you were disappointed. Star Wars Explained mentioned this in their review of Treason, and I had to agree with them that there’s really not much development in the Eli and Thrawn friendship.
In fact, Eli spends the majority of the book wondering if Thrawn will even talk to him. He doubts their many years together wondering if they’re even friends anymore. Granted, Eli is also aware of the situation they’re both in. Most of the Imperials see him as a traitor. Thrawn has to be careful around Eli and the Chiss, and Eli recognizes that. This all make sense in the narrative, and I’m okay with it.
But when we get the only scene where they’re alone, there’s nothing. Thrawn asks Eli about his mission with the Chiss and then leaves. It’s not two longtime friends touching base or checking in with each other. It feels nothing like all the wonderful character work from 2015’s Thrawn when it was so easy to tell where their relationship stood. As a reader, I’m not even sure if they’re even friends anymore. Thrawn clearly trusts and respects Eli, but in the only scene where they’re alone, he acts like a manager at a job.
I’m not looking for some huge musical number about friendship with them. This isn’t My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. But even just having a simple line of Thrawn saying, “It’s good to see you again, Eli,” to quell Eli’s fears throughout the novel is needed. I would happily swap in this single line of dialogue instead of pages upon pages of battle math.
I do like Zahn, but I don’t think he’s the most emotional writer. It’s easy to see where his strengths are like writing strategic battle scenes and playing in every Sherlockian trope out there while writing Thrawn. But it’s disappointing, because he can write really meaningful relationships too. There’s a reason Thrawn and Eli’s friendship was such a big and really well done part of the first canon novel. But it feels like he’s completely backslid from where he was just four years ago when it comes to these characters.
I would really love to see someone like Claudia Grey have a chance to tackle Thrawn. Her novel Master & Apprentice had a wonderful balance of fighting, strategy, intrigue, and she also tackled all the male relationships really well. If she wrote Treason, I think this would be a very different story.
I’m also sorry to my Thranto ship fans. You’re going to be really disappointed…
Karyn Faro suffered the same shortcomings when it came to plot over character work too. There were gaps in plot that needed to happen. For example, the novel sets up early, following from Alliances, that she’s not supposed to ask about Eli. She wonders what Thrawn did to Eli. She’s aware there’s rumors…
…and then we never get that scene. We don’t get the scene where Eli walks onto the Chimera. We don’t get to see Karyn’s reaction. I assume she’s surprised, but is she happy to see her friend? Is she angry that Thrawn hid that from her? Does she have to downplay all of this because Eli’s a “traitor.” We don’t know.
None of this would be a problem if it wasn’t brought up later in the book. Karyn specifically thinks at the end that she wished she got to say goodbye to Eli, meaning that at some point, they spoke during the novel. We don’t see it, though.
Hey, plot? Don’t refer to scenes earlier in the book that aren’t actually there. Especially if it’s a scene that could have had some big character moments that would have strengthened the plot, reinforced Karyn’s story and thoughts towards Thrawn, and made for an interesting moment.
All of the character work from Eli and Karyn pale in comparison to Thrawn’s lack of character development. I want to state again that I had many expectations of what the “treason” in the title “Thrawn: Treason” would be. And again, that’s on me for wildly speculating.
But if I can go into a little bit of what my speculation was, we need to go back to one of the final scenes of 2015’s Thrawn which dropped a huge bombshell that changed Thrawn’s entire character for me. He told Nightswan that he infiltrated the Empire to either strengthen it or to weaken it from the inside. This moment made me wonder about his character. In all the little battles he lost in Rebels, did he lose them on purpose for his true mission? Was Thrawn even a villain or really a hero on the wrong side? This point didn’t come back up in Alliances. So when I first heard the title Thrawn: Treason, the 2015 reveal was the first thing my mind flashed to. This seemed like the perfect place to bring up that moment and delve into it.
Which didn’t happen, and I’m sure you’re seeing a pattern of disappointment here.
It makes it more frustrating, because Thrawn didn’t actually do anything treasonous in the book. He wasn’t out of character at all from the previous books. Which was another peeve of mine, because Treason followed the same story of Alliances. Zahn rehashed the exact same plot points with slight differences.
Thrawn: Alliances basically went like this:
Vader: Thrawn! You’re a traitor!
Thrawn: No I’m not. I serve the Empire.
Vader: But your people are here! Traitor!
Thrawn: I can help both the Empire and my people. And we’ll defeat the Grysk like this [insert battle math here]. And here’s how I did it [Insert Sherlockian tropes here]. See? I’m not a traitor.
Vader: I guess you’re fine then, but I still don’t like you.
Now reader, replace all the “Vader” with “Ronan.” Treason and Alliances were the same plot. The only difference is the details. Treason was just the less fun version of the story.
Thrawn wasn’t even really challenged in this book either. With Treason, Vader always loomed off to the side. We knew that Thrawn wasn’t going to die, but the rest of the crew was always in danger of being shanked by a lightsaber. The book had so much built in tension with Vader’s very presence. If Thrawn slipped up once, then he could lose someone on the Chimera. Treason doesn’t have that challenge for Thrawn. He’s just Sherlocking his way through the story with ease. Which is why I think the 2015’s bombshell about him strengthening the Empire or weakening it could really have made the story pop. Having Eli actually bringing a dire warning from his home world would actually challenge the Chiss’ loyalties. Thrawn never had to make any hard choices.
Which is a missed opportunity. If you have seen the finale of Star Wars: Rebels, you know that in a few days of the story that Thrawn is about to be taken away by the purrgil. This book could have made him choose either the Empire or Ascendancy to put him into a mindset of like, “Whatever I choose, this Lothal thing will make or break me” and then space whales come. If he chose the Empire, then he could be in the Unknown Regions to face the Ascendancy. If he chose his people, then he actually has an out with the space whales coming.
I guess what this boils down to where was Thrawn’s supposed treason in all of this? I would have loved to see the title character actually have to make some hard choices and live with the consequences.
Which brings me to the final scene:
Why couldn’t that be in Thrawn’s point of view and not the Emperor’s? That final scene could bring home the entire novel, showing the audience where Thrawn’s mind about the Empire and the Chiss truly lie. It could have saved the entire novel by saying, “This is what Thrawn was thinking the entire time, this is where he stands on the Empire, this is his final thoughts days before the space whales.” The epilogue could have been the setting for the Rebels finale, and it, again, was a huge missed opportunity.
I don’t think we actually needed this book. I don’t feel like there were many fans clamoring for Thrawn’s adventures in the four episodes he was missing from season four of Rebels. In fact, I would be happier to have waited for the Thrawn and Ezra story than waste my time on a lackluster story where nothing really new happened. Zahn mentioned last year at Dragon Con that he can’t touch Thrawn and Ezra’s story until he knows what Dave Filoni is going to do with him. That is what I believe the majority of fans are waiting on.
All this said, this book feels like a lot of set up for something that’s coming. I’m sure with time when we have more canon material, Thrawn: Treason will make more sense in the big scheme of things. Perhaps Zahn is setting up for a novel to reintroduce the Chiss Ascendancy properly into the canon. Eli would serve as a great audience point of view character for that tale. But currently on it’s own without any other context, Thrawn: Treason falls flat for me. It’s a fine book, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
If 2015’s Thrawn was a 10 out of 10 for me, and Thrawn: Alliances was a 7.5 out of 10, then Thrawn: Treason is a 5 out of 10. It’s right in the middle. Not bad. Not great.
Just completely fine.
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