This novel doesn’t function. It might make you think it does with a smokescreen of characters asking deliberately and authoritatively about their thought processes, but especially in today’s political climate, it’s important to see whether there is actually any substance under the talk. This novel is the literary equivalent of a Sudoku pamphlet. Thrawn does not grow or change. When other characters grow and change, the result is usually an increased appreciation for Thrawn.
What exactly they’re saving is one of the book’s many weaknesses. Some locations, like the iced-over city and the Mitth family homestead, are unique and cool. But the trappings of culture don’t make up for how most characters’ voices sound the same or how unwilling the novel is to really commit to anyone except Thrawn.
I enjoyed some of my time with Che’ri and Thalias, one child and one adult from the Chiss’s strange Force-sensitive sect where navigators lose their Force abilities during puberty. There’s so much potential for tragedy and character-driven pathos in this concept. What do these people feel about losing their powers? Why do they lose them? Where are the Chiss equivalents of Anakin and Obi-Wan, the poster pair for what being Force sensitive means to their culture? The book isn’t interested.
A few cute scenes between Thalias and Che’ri are shadowed by a weird gender essentialism. Almost all Chiss navigators are women, and Che’ri calls her absent teachers “momish.” Not only is it an immensely silly term, it concretes the idea that this isn’t as broadly applicable as a Jedi teacher-student relationship. Chiss navigators can only relate to one another as adopted mother and daughter, as far as this book is concerned. I’m both offended and bored.
This regressive attitude toward gender is present throughout the book. Funny how alien gender assumptions look exactly like traditional human ones. Characters are actually referred to as “females” in 2020! In 2020! History is not a linear path of social progression, but a Star Wars author who has been involved with the fanbase for decades should know better. This is just embarrassing.
Overall, most of the characters are tools, not people. Qilori sides with the bad guys because he thinks they’re likely to be the winning side, with no history or depth to his choice beyond that. None of the aliens feel alien. They talk like character whose entire identities are built around being smart and want everyone to know it. This, plus the occasional Star Trek-ish mention of facial features, is what Zahn thinks Star Wars aliens are. The villain is a cackling pastiche who kidnaps women. For someone famous for creating the Star Wars Expanded Universe’s ultimate villain, Zahn can’t actually write villains. Even in Thrawn: Alliances, the best of the canon books about the art-appreciating admiral, the antagonists are as bland as the blank spaces on the Sudoku grid.