Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn – Audiobook Review

Thrawn Cover.jpg

Publisher: Random House Audio (11 April 2017)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 16 hours and 56 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

While Disney are currently releasing quite a large number of Star Wars tie-in novels and comics, none of them quite had the history behind them that Thrawn did. Timothy Zahn is probably one of the best authors of Star Wars fiction of all time, having written several books in the previous Star Wars expanded universe (now rebranded as Star Wars Legends) before Lucasfilm was bought out in 2012. Without a doubt, his most iconic contribution to the Star Wars universe was the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn, who was introduced in his 1991 book, Heir the Empire, the first book in Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy. Grand Admiral Thrawn was the Empire’s greatest tactician and naval commander, who led the war against the protagonists of the original Star Wars trilogy following the events of Return of the Jedi and proved to be an effective major antagonist. Thrawn swiftly became a fan favourite, and Zahn revisited the character several times.

While Thrawn was an amazing character, many assumed that he was unlikely to be seen again after Disney shelved the original expanded universe to allow for their own stories and characters. However, Disney surprised many when they announced that Thrawn would be brought back to their extended universe in the Star Wars Rebels animated show. Thrawn was introduced as the show’s main antagonist for the third and fourth season and he shone as the villain of the show, bringing his tactical abilities and unique view of war to bear against the rebels. Brought to life with the voice work of the extremely talented Lars Mikkelsen, Thrawn is easily one of my favourite things about the show’s last two seasons and was a fantastic addition to the plot.

Disney also decided to include Thrawn in their slowly building collection of Star Wars novels, with a whole new Thrawn trilogy commissioned from Timothy Zahn. Given the unique opportunity to have a second go at introducing one of his most iconic creation, Zahn has so far written two books in this series, Thrawn and Alliances. I read and reviewed Alliances last year, but I unfortunately missed getting a copy of Thrawn when it first came out. With the third and final book, Treason, coming out at the end of July, I decided to finally go back and check out an audiobook copy of Thrawn.

In the Star Wars Legends canon, Thrawn was active for a long period of time, essentially from before the events of Attack of the Clones until several years after the events of Return of the Jedi, with a lengthy service in the Imperial Navy. In this book, however, Zahn has to reintroduce his character in a much earlier and compacted period of Star Wars history, as his character could only have come to prominence between Revenge of the Sith and the third season of Star Wars Rebels in the Disney canon. I was quite keen to see this new version of the character, especially as Zahn gets to once again show how an alien managed to rise to the highest of ranks in the xenophobic Imperial military.

Several years after the fall of the Galactic Republic and the Jedi, the Empire reigns supreme throughout the galaxy and is always looking to expand its control. A routine survey of an unexplored world in Wild Space uncovers a small, ramshackle settlement with items featuring writing in an unknown alien language. As the Imperial survey team investigates, they find themselves under attack from an unseen adversary who manages to inflict heavy causalities with minimal resources. Retreating back to their ship, the Imperials discover that their attacker, a blue-skinned, blue-haired alien, has stowed away on their transport. The alien identifies himself as Mitth’raw’nuruodo, a member of the Chiss Ascendency, a legendary race from the Unknown Regions. The Imperial commander takes Mitth’raw’nuruodo, or Thrawn, to Coruscant to be presented to the Emperor, who he impresses with his tactical ability and his mysterious connection to the Clone War General, Anakin Skywalker.

Taking Thrawn into his service, the Emperor makes him an officer in the Imperial Navy, along with his translator, cadet Eli Vanto. As Thrawn and Vanto are first enrolled in the Imperial Naval Academy and then assigned junior roles on a ship, they face opposition and resentment from other members of Navy. However, thanks to Thrawn’s unparalleled tactical and strategic mind, as well as his ability to understand and predict the actions of his opponents on the battlefield, the two are able to rise in the Imperial hierarchy.

As Thrawn is quickly promoted up the ranks, he starts to become obsessed with the enigmatic Nightswan, a brilliant rogue tactician who has been helping criminals and dissidents defy the Empire across the galaxy. At the same time, Thrawn’s inability to understand the political realities of the Imperial Navy proves to be a major threat. Luckily the politically ambitious Arihnda Pryce is willing to provide help, as long Thrawn assists with her plans to gain political power and become governor of her home planet of Lothal. As rebellion spreads through the galaxy, Thrawn leads the assault to cut it down as he heads towards his promotion as Grand Admiral.

This was a pretty outstanding novel. I absolutely loved Thrawn and it is probably the best canon Star Wars novel in that I have so far had the pleasure of reading. Zahn did an amazing job revamping his iconic character by presenting a fantastic new story that not only harkens back to the author’s original novels but also fits the character perfectly into the Disney timelines. Thrawn is an excellent balance of character work, action, political intrigue and exploration of the Star Wars universe, all of which adds up to an incredible novel that I was nearly unable to stop listening to and which results in an easy five-star rating from me.

The events of this book take place over the course of nine years, between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. More specifically, it starts 11 years after Revenge of the Sith, and continues directly at the start of the third season of Star Wars Rebels, approximately two years before A New Hope. Thrawn is split into two separate storylines: one that follows the rise of Thrawn through the Imperial Navy and another that focuses on the machinations of Arihnda Pryce as she becomes governor of Lothal. The Thrawn storyline is mostly told from the perspective of Thrawn’s companion, Eli Vanto, although a few chapters are shown from Thrawn’s perspective alone. While the two storylines start off showing Thrawn and Pryce’s separate rises to power and are not initially connected, once the two characters start working together, their stories mesh together a lot more. While I had a stronger preference for the parts of the book focussing on Thrawn, I did quite enjoy the sections focusing on Pryce, as they had some compelling elements and showed a different side of the Empire. The two separate storylines mesh together quite well, and together they tell a complete and intriguing story that highlights how the characters obtained the relevant positions in the Imperial hierarchy that they had when introduced in Star Wars Rebels.

At the heart of this book is the focus on Thrawn, an absolutely amazing central protagonist, whose escapades and adventures are some of the best parts of the book. Zahn has done an amazing job reinventing Thrawn for this new era of Star Wars history, keeping all the character traits that made him such a hit in the original expanded universe, while fitting his character timeline into a much shorter period. Thrawn is still the same highly intelligent alien with an unmatched tactical mind and an appreciation for the culture and art of the various people he encounters. However, in this universe, he achieves his rank of Grand Admiral in a far shorter period of time. Starting with his rescue on a remote planet after ambushing Imperial forces (the entire scene is a rewrite of Zahn’s 1995 short story, Mist Encounter, although with a few necessary changes), this book shows him joining the Imperial Academy, and then climbing the ranks all the way up to Grand Admiral within a few short years. The entire story of Thrawn’s early career in the Imperial Navy is absolutely fascinating, and I really enjoyed this look at the character’s history, especially as his rapid promotions were due to the multiple intriguing military actions he oversaw. His entire storyline is extremely well paced out, and the reader gets a full story that is incredibly captivating. This was a really clever reimagining of the character’s history, and it is a great story to tell.

Zahn does a great job showcasing Thrawn as an utterly brilliant individual who is clearly smarter than everyone else he encounters. There are some great characteristics to Thrawn, like the way he is able to get into his opponents’ heads and anticipate their actions and intentions. His shear analytic ability is showcased so many times throughout the book, most notably in the way that he analyses the emotions and body language of all the people he encounters. For example, whenever Thrawn is talking with someone, the reader gets a short description of the facial reactions or emotions that the character talking to Thrawn is exhibiting. I’m unsure what this looks like in the hard copy of the book, but in the audiobook version the narrator uses his chilling Thrawn voice rather than his baseline narrator voices. From these short descriptions, the reader gets an idea of what Thrawn thinks the other character is thinking, and it is deeply fascinating to see how this affects Thrawn’s actions. I loved that the author continued to show how Thrawn gains insight into a people’s culture and personalities through their art. Throughout the book, Thrawn is shown appreciating a potential opponent’s art and culture, and then using the conclusions and observations he gleams from the items to alter his strategies or the way that he deals with them. This is a fantastic character trait that I am glad Zahn continued to use in his works.

Probably one of the best things about the character of Thrawn in this book is the inventive and brilliant strategies that he comes up with to defeat his enemies. Throughout the course of the book, Thrawn utilises some deeply inventive plans for both large-scale conflicts and smaller battles, and it is always very entertaining to watch these plans come to fruition. I loved some of the strategies that Thrawn used in this book; whether he is swamping a shielded fortress with artificial tidal waves or using Clone Wars era buzz droids to take out a pirate ship, the end result is just spectacular. In many ways, the Thrawn in this book is a bit like Sherlock Holmes, if Sherlock worked for an evil space empire. His opponent, Nightswan, is essentially Moriarty (a man nearly as smart as Thrawn, who sells his tactical abilities to members of the underworld), and the author uses this to make the battle scenes even more intense, as a brilliant attack from Nightswan is countered by an even more sophisticated move from Thrawn. In addition, Thrawn also has a loyal sidekick in Eli Vanto, who is essentially the Watson to Thrawn’s Sherlock. Not only are there certain similarities between the two within the story, such as the way that Thrawn takes Vanto and train him in his methods, turning Vanto into an extremely competent strategist, but Zahn also uses him in a similar literary way to Watson in the Sherlock Holmes novels. Vanto is used as a proxy for the audience, so when he questions Thrawn on how he came up with his plans or anticipated his opponents, the audience gets a full explanation within the scope of the story. Thrawn was an extremely awesome character in this book, and his presence helps turn this into an outstanding read.

In addition to the character of Thrawn, Zahn also looks at Governor Arihnda Pryce, another major antagonist from Star Wars Rebels. Zahn spends a good amount of time showing Pryce’s past and how she went from a nobody to a powerful planetary governor with major political connections and a history working with Grand Admiral Thrawn. I liked this look at Pryce; her story is pretty compelling and it offers a great look at the political side of the Empire. Pryce is already a pretty despicable character in Star Wars Rebels (she is responsible for the tragic death of one of the main characters), but this book does a masterful job of showing just how evil she is. While it starts off showing her experiencing early hardship and difficulties, she quickly stops being a character you can root for the moment she has any sort of power within her grasp. The way she turns on her friends and her extreme act of self-preservation towards the end of the book are pretty dark, and you cannot help but dislike the character even more after reading her full arc in this book. This was some really good character work, and Zahn does an amazing job showcasing Pryce’s motivations and despicable nature.

If you are a fan of massive and electrifying space battles, there is a lot for you to love in Thrawn. Zahn has packed this book with a huge number of large and impressive battles between Imperial ships and the various pirates and rebels that are encountered throughout the story. There are some really fun ship-to-ship battles throughout this book, and they are absolutely spectacular to watch unfold. Thanks to the brilliant adversary that Thrawn faces for most of the book, the characters face some unique opposition, such as Clone War era ships, like the vulture droids, and an impressive island base with massive guns. These result in some amazing sequences, especially when Thrawn comes up with a surprising strategy to defeat the opposition. I had a lot of fun listening to these battle sequences, and they are a real highlight I feel that many readers will enjoy.

Thrawn takes quite an interesting look at certain parts of the Star Wars universe, and fans of the series will enjoy the author’s canonical deep dive into the Empire at the height of its power. Quite a lot of time is spend showcasing the ins and outs of the Imperial Navy, and readers get a good idea of how it operates and its system of command as the main character rises through the ranks during the course of the book. In addition to the military side of the Empire, the storyline focusing on Governor Pryce highlights how brutal Imperial politics is during this period, as she attempts to gain power and influence. Zahn also includes a number of key characters from Star Wars lore and inserts them into his story. Characters such as Grand Moth Tarkin and Colonel Wullf Yularen (a background Imperial character in A New Hope who was given an expanded role in The Clone Wars animated show) are used quite successfully in this book and offer some interesting insights into additional aspects of the Empire. There are also the obligatory hints at the Death Star (seriously, nearly every piece of Star Wars fiction set in the period has some mention of a “secret Imperial project”) and other elements of the Star Wars movies. I quite enjoyed this intriguing look at the Empire between the events of the first two trilogies, and it helped with the story.

Like most Star Wars tie-in novels, Thrawn is intended more for dedicated fans of the franchise, although I felt that this book would be particularly accessible to those readers with only a basic knowledge of the Star Wars franchise. Zahn does an excellent job explaining key aspects of the Star Wars universe that fans who are only familiar with the movies might not understand, and the book features some really fun and exciting moments. As a result, this might be the perfect book to try if you are interested in exploring the Star Wars expanded universe for the first time, especially if you happened to enjoy Thrawn in Star Wars Rebels. There really is so much in here for dedicated Star Wars fans to enjoy, and those readers who grew up with Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy will no doubt be extremely curious to see this new version of the character.

Like most of the Throwback Thursday books I review, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Thrawn rather than read the physical copy. The Thrawn audiobook is narrated by veteran Star Wars audiobook narrator Marc Thompson and runs for 16 hours and 56 minutes. I have mentioned before that listening to a Star Wars audiobook is an intriguing experience, as the productions are filled with all manner sound effects, including a number of iconic sounds from the Star Wars franchise. Thrawn continues this tradition, featuring a huge number of sound effects in pretty much every scene. These sound effects are really effective at creating an ambiance and atmosphere, and the reader gets a whole other experience of the events occurring in the book. This includes a background susurration during parties and large gatherings or the sound of blaster fire during a battle sequence. While I really love how most of these sound effects work, I did have a slight issue with an effect used to alter the voices of a certain alien species. The producers added a high-pitched screeching echo to the voices of the aliens known as the Afe in order to simulate their unique vocal patters as described in the book. However, this sound effect is extremely distracting and unpleasant, and I found it hard to listen to the dialogue of the Afe characters. While these characters were only in the book for a short while, their voices were extremely memorable and it is hard to forget that screeching sound. On the plus side, the audiobook also featured several pieces of John Williams’s epic music from the Star Wars films at key parts of the book, which helped enhance several of the scenes and bring the audience into the story.

In addition to all the sound effects and music, the Thrawn audiobook also featured the vocal talents of narrator Marc Thompson. Thompson is an extremely talented voice actor, and his work in Thrawn was pretty amazing. He has an excellent voice for the character of Thrawn that not only sounds like Lars Mikkelsen from Star Wars Rebels but which also carries all of the character’s intelligence and charm. Thompson comes up with a great voice for Eli Vanto, utilising an accent that screams space yokel and which stands out from the voices of other Imperial characters in this book. I was also quite impressed with how Thompson was able to imitate key characters from the Star Wars universe. For example, Thompson does a great Emperor Palpatine voice and also comes up with passable imitation of Grand Moth Tarkin. I felt that Thompson really got the heart of many of the characters he narrated, whether by showcasing Thrawn’s cool intelligent manner or by replicating the arrogance that comes off many of the book’s Imperial characters. As a result, I would wholeheartedly recommend the audiobook version of Thrawn, as not only do the producers continue to make good use of sound effects and music, but they also use an amazing narrator to bring this story to life.

I had an absolute blast going back and listening to Thrawn for the first time. This is an exception piece of Star Wars fiction and Zahn does an outstanding job bringing his iconic character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, into the new Disney canon. Featuring a ton of amazingly entertaining moments and some excellent character work, Thrawn is an exceedingly fun book that will prove to be extremely appealing to both hardcore Star Wars fans and novice readers. This was a wonderful five-star read, and I cannot wait to see how Zahn wraps up this trilogy.

Usagi Yojimbo, Vol 32: Mysteries by Stan Sakai

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Publisher: Dark Horse Books

Publication Date – 10 July 2018

 

After a year I have finally gotten the new volume of Usagi Yojimbo, one of my favourite long-running comic series.  Now I and other fans of the long-eared samurai can finally enjoy another set of exhilarating adventures in Stan Sakai’s version of feudal Japan.

Usagi Yojimbo is a great series that has been running since 1987, three years after the character was originally created.  In a world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, the series is set in the early Edo period of Japanese history, during the time of the Shogun and the wandering samurai.  The series was originally supposed to feature human characters and a protagonist based on the famous historical samurai Miyamoto Musashi.  However, the series was changed to feature animals after the artist drew an early version of the hero with rabbit ears and created the series’ titular yojimbo, Miyamoto Usagi.

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The Usagi Yojimbo series follows the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi through feudal Japan.  After the death of his lord, Usagi has become a ronin, a masterless samurai, and has spent the last few years wandering the country seeking employment as a yojimbo, a bodyguard.  Throughout his travels, Usagi finds all sorts of danger and adventures, and is often drawn into a range of conflicts throughout the troubled landscape, facing threats both natural and supernatural in origin.

With 32 collected editions over 30 years, as well as the two additional graphic novels and the spin-off series, Space Usagi, Usagi Yojimbo has developed a dedicated fanbase.  Those who have not read this series may be familiar with it due to its frequent crossovers with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Characters from both franchises have crossed over into each other’s respective comic book series several times.  In addition, Usagi has appeared in all three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television shows, often with some side characters.  One of my first exposures to the characters of Usagi Yojimbo was during The Big Brawl arch of the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, and I’ve been a fan of the character ever since.

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Stan Sakai’s series is a hybrid of western graphic novels and Japanese manga.  The style and format of the comics come across as more of a classic western style, but the story content and the series’ art is heavily influenced by Japanese culture and history.  Every issue is filled with incredible depictions of Japanese customs, history, folklore and mythology, and includes realistic and historically accurate illustrations of feudal Japanese weapons, clothes and buildings.  In addition, the dialogue includes a number of Japanese words which are translated in text, and the characters are all named using traditional Japanese naming conventions, with the family name presented before the given name.

Mysteries is the 32nd collected edition of this series, and contains issues #159-#165 of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  These issues see Usagi reunited with his friend Inspector Ishida as they investigate a series of mysteries in Ishida’s jurisdiction.  There are four main stories, including The Hatamoto’s Daughter, Death by Fugu, the two-part series The Body in the Library and the three-part series Mouse TrapMysteries also contains two of the shorter Chibi Usagi stories that Sakai writes with his wife, Julie, which feature cute versions the franchise’s characters.

Readers of the latest volume of Usagi Yojimbo are in for another visual treat as Sakai continues to highlight the delicate beauty of the Japanese landscape and fantastic architecture of its towns with his spectacular artwork.  Each of the portrayals of the anthropomorphic characters in their period accurate clothing is amazing, and the reader will be astounded by the author’s desire to make his comic as aesthetically realistic as possible.  However, the real visual highlights of this comic are the action sequences that see the protagonists engage in a series of elaborate sword fights against a variety of opponents.  The artistic styling of these sword fights is both exciting and intricate, which allows the reader to imagine how these battles would occur in real life.  Mysteries contains some great examples of this series’ fantastic art form, and the reader will love the creativity that inhabits every panel of this book.

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While most Usagi Yojimbo stories are standalone episodes, the separate stories featured within Mysteries share several connections with each other.  All of them are set within the same town and feature the character of Inspector Ishida.  In addition, several of the cases are connected by a shadowy crime boss, although the full nature of this connection isn’t fully known until the final story in the volume.

As you may be able to guess from the title of the volume, all of the main stories featured within Mysteries feature a murder and the following investigation by Inspector Ishida and Usagi.  Inspector Ishida is a high-ranking member of the Shogun’s police and is renowned throughout Japan as one of country’s most effective detectives.  Usagi has teamed up with him before in a number of adventures, including a great story, Murder at the Inn, back in Volume 29, which featured Usagi, Ishida, and Usagi’s frequent companion Gen investigating murders in a locked-down inn.  There are some great stories in the Mysteries volume, especially as Sakai has crafted together some intriguing mysteries in such short entries.  Several of the big mysteries and crime stories are connected into an elaborate overarching narrative that examines the criminal underworld of feudal Japan.  Two of the stories feature some really complex murder mysteries that flit back and forth between a number of suspects and contain motives that are very unique.  The final entry, Mousetrap, is the longest story in the volume and features an excellent tale about a thief getting caught in a middle of a fight to control the area’s organised crime and the sinister figure that has been manipulating the events of the previous stories.

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Sakai ensures that his examination of feudal Japanese society carries through to each of these stories and their investigative arcs, affecting the characters’ investigations.  For example, only members of a lower caste are allowed to touch the murder victims’ dead bodies, which hinders the protagonists from properly examining the bodies to work out the cause of death.  There is also a fantastic investigation of the role of the inspectors in feudal Japan and how they bear the authority of the Shogun.  It also allows Ishida to show off his fighting skills with the jitte, one of my favourite Japanese weapons.

In addition to the returning Inspector Ishida, this volume of Usagi Yojimbo sees the return of several characters from previous stories.  Our favourite thieving duo of Kitsune and Kiyoko make a return in the middle story, The Body in the Library.  The fox thief Kitsune was first introduced in 1992 and has become one the series’ main recurring characters, adding significant amusement to the stories she appears in through her schemes, humour and continued casual theft of the other characters’ valuables.  Her young companion, Kiyoko, was introduced in a later story and serves as her apprentice in the life of crime while taking up many of her mentor’s bad habits.  Their inclusion in this story adds significant comic relief to an otherwise dark story of murder, and it is always fun to see what this mischievous duo are up to.  The mysterious masked thief Nezumi returns for a second adventure and is a major player in the book’s longest story, Mouse Trap.  Nezumi was introduced in the Volume 20 story After the Rat, and acts as a public Robin Hood character in Inspector Ishida’s town.  He is used to great effect in this new story, being framed for murder in a way reminiscent of his first appearance in the series.  Sakai continues to taunt his audience with the mystery of Nezumi’s identity and motives, and it is great to see this interesting and formidable character interact with Usagi for the first time, especially with their differing definitions of honour.  Readers should also keep an eye out for a certain recurring snitch who has played a similar role in a number of prior Usagi stories, despite the main characters failing to remember how treacherous he is.

One of the best parts of the Usagi Yojimbo series is the incorporation of intriguing and unique parts of Japanese culture into amazing action based comic issues.  Throughout the series, the author has utilised a number of great Japanese cultural elements in various stories, including giant kites, giant drums, pottery, swordsmithing, tea ceremonies, seaweed farming, games of chance and a huge number of mythological creatures and legends.  These stories often contain descriptions and informative depictions of the cultural activities in question, and the author works them into a fun adventure or creative mystery.  Mysteries contains two of these stories.  The main one, Death by Fugu, focuses on the preparation of fugu, the meat of the poisonous pufferfish.  This story contains an excellent description of what fugu is and the preparation required to eat it.  Death by Fugu is a powerful and tragic tale that prominently uses the art of fugu in its mystery, and definitely one of this volume’s standout stories.  The other entry, The Body in the Library, takes a brief look at the examination and trade of western medicines in Japan.  While this is not examined in as much detail, it is a fascinating to see what impact western medicines could have in feudal Japan and to see it used as a motive for a series of murders.

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Once again Stan Sakai has produced a powerful and fantastic new volume of his iconic Usagi Yojimbo series.  Fans of this series can look forward to seeing Sakai’s iconic art style and detailed cultural insights that are a love letter to Japan and its fascinating history and society.  Mysteries contains a range of outstanding new stories, and readers will enjoy unwrapping their mysteries with Usagi and the fan favourite Inspector Ishida.  I wish I didn’t have to wait a whole year for the next volume of this amazing series.

My Rating:

Five Stars