Star Wars races, by and large, aren’t really all that alien. The ones that are tend to be there more for background flavour, because the races we do spend time with are either humans, or just human-ish enough that what little we learn about their cultures already feels familiar. But the Chiss, the people of Thrawn (Mitth’raw’nurodo if you’re nasty), have always been anything but.
In the old Expanded Universe, this was thanks to the tireless work of Thrawn’s creator, Timothy Zahn. Already one of its most influential architects from its earliest days, Zahn almost single handedly fleshed out the Chiss people — and an empire of their own, the Ascendancy — beyond Thrawn as a race of inscrutable, distant, and secretive species watching with those keen crimson eyes from beyond the fringes of Star Wars’ galaxy far, far away. They’ve always stood apart from most Star Wars aliens figuratively and literally, thanks to their isolationist culture. But their collective tone and lens on what we take to be tacitly “Star Wars-y” about Star Wars also spins it all around on us; they’re outsiders looking in at us, outsiders to a galaxy we’ve spent decades being familiarized with.
For the past few years, since Disney and Lucasfilm’s rebooted Star Wars canon brought the illustrious Grand Admiral back for Star Wars Rebels, Zahn has once again had the chance to slowly but surely re-introduce much of the backstory and worldbuilding around the beloved tactician as he has, across a trilogy of novels, re-told the tale of how Thrawn joined Palpatine’s Galactic Empire. But with a brand new trilogy, Thrawn Ascendancy, kicking off with Chaos Rising’s release at the start of the month, Zahn removes the comforting familiarity of Star Wars as we know it and invites us to re-explore the society and life Thrawn left behind in the titular Chaos.
What this gives us then, is a Star Wars book quite unlike anything we’ve experienced so far in the last six years — in ways that are good and bad, depending on what you want out of a Star Wars reading experience. If you want, for better or worse, a Star Wars book where Things Happen, the sort of thing you can gleefully add to your canonical lexicon as Important Events on a timeline, Chaos Rising is absolutely not it. In fact, sometimes it feels like less of a novel and more like a lorebook, albeit one that mostly involves Zahn re-litigating and re-canonizing many ideas and elements he had about Thrawn’s people back in the old Expanded Universe.
[referenced id=”1238078″ url=”https://gizmodo.com.au/2020/08/chiss-names-are-some-of-star-wars-coolest-bullshit/” thumb=”https://gizmodo.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/07/e7zp5ctv9lkbifshujbu-300×169.png” title=”Chiss Names Are Some of Star Wars’ Coolest Bullshit” excerpt=”Star Wars is full of cool bullshit which is, in many ways, why we love such an absurd behemoth in the first place. Space wizards with laser swords? Extremely bullshit, and very cool (some of the time). Blaster pistols? They go pew pew, what’s not to love. Starfighters? They go…”]
And what I mean by that is nothing much in the way of a plot actually happens in Chaos Rising. There’s the ghost of one, sure: an attack by unknown beings on the Ascendancy’s capital world, the Chiss home of Csilla, sends Thrawn and his allies on a mission to uncover the real force behind a peculiar threat to the almighty Chiss rule in the titular Chaos. But… that’s about it. Chaos Rising is, primarily, interested in engaging with the process of worldbuilding, bringing us everything we need to know about Chiss society, from the divided sides of its familial and military rule to the way it operates as an Imperial force to other species that exist in and around its borders.
If culture is the way to a civilisation’s heart, as Thrawn so loves to artfully analyse in his many appearances, Chaos Rising as a text presents the Chiss as a haughty, at times impenetrable people, too proud to see how cruel and, at times, utterly vile their attitude to the galaxy beyond their own superiority actually functions. They’re tactical masterminds, yes, giving us scene after scene of exquisitely described battlefield manoeuvres and pinpoint perfect attack strikes. But the Ascendancy itself as a society is presented as one with cracks that are starting to appear for even its most ardent followers.
While this is incredibly fascinating, it does indeed make Chaos Rising an intimidatingly inscrutable work to engage with, whether you’re an Expanded Universe superfan or someone who only knows the character from Rebels. The lack of a driving throughline in the narrative, combined with the preponderance for over-explaining things rather than naturally laying them out for the reader to pick up on, makes the book, much like the Chiss themselves, hard to get a read on at first. It’s primarily a mood piece, inviting you to explore the Chiss Ascendancy as a society rather than as a plot.
It might be, stripped down to its basest form, a list of factoids someone can cull and put on Wookieepedia, but it doesn’t read like it. Zahn’s prose elicits an infectiously curious tone about the world he has laid out for these characters that makes you equally curious to explore it. At times, that can be difficult to do, considering the book’s wandering pace, scattershot focus, and — thanks to flashing between a current timeline and multiple past ones in the form of interstitial “memories” chapters — a haphazard sense of place.
[referenced id=”1255675″ url=”https://gizmodo.com.au/2020/08/star-wars-ventures-deep-into-thrawns-past-in-this-ascendancy-chaos-rising-excerpt/” thumb=”https://gizmodo.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/19/hrterbkkwntgcexarad3-e1597788907708-300×169.png” title=”Star Wars Ventures Deep Into Thrawn’s Past in This Ascendancy: Chaos Rising Excerpt” excerpt=”In Star Wars’ current canon, we’ve seen Thrawn’s rise as one of the Empire’s most cunning Grand Admirals. Books have shown us how he left his homeworld and the unknown regions to explore “our” side of the Star Wars galaxy, but Timothy Zahn’s latest trilogy is delving back into that…”]
The way Chaos Rising is framed and Thrawn’s own reticent, reserved nature also means that, despite being in the title, he barely feels like the protagonist. Yes, he’s present, he is the character the rest of our main cast orbits around. But we don’t really spend time with him intimately, in his head. He is on his mission as a commander, has a task to do, and does it regardless of the machinations and people around him. He might be younger than when we met him even in the first Thrawn trilogy, but he is still, for better or worse, mostly that same character, the distant and genius tactician whose outlandishly articulate plans always seem to go off with precise perfection.
While that may be disappointing for people excited to learn why Thrawn is the way he is when he leaves the Unknown Regions and joins the Empire, what it allows Zahn to do is lay some intriguing groundwork with the characters in Thrawn’s orbit. Intriguingly, the three characters Chaos Rising mines the most interesting things out of are its female protagonists. One of them is Admiral Ar’alani, a longtime Thrawn confidante and ally we’ve met in prior novels like Treason. The others are newcomers for this trilogy, Thalias and Che’ri, a young Chiss civilian and a child who share a unique role in how Chiss navigate their volatile corner of the galaxy.
Ar’alani is perhaps our most direct link to Thrawn; much of the novel, and the “memory” flashbacks littered throughout it, cover her time rising through the ranks and getting to know Thrawn, as much as a single person can get to know the reserved man. It is Ar’alani who navigates the political, militaristic, and familial dramas that run throughout the different facets of the Chiss’ divided hierarchical structures, playing the Games of Thrones-ian games between the Chiss military and the Chiss ruling elite mostly so Thrawn doesn’t have to. She also, unlike Thrawn, is allowed to be compellingly imperfect, getting to reflect on and work through her own flaws and mistakes while also giving us a lens into the flaws of Chiss society at large. She lays the groundwork for examining just why someone like Thrawn, so deeply enmeshed with the Ascendancy’s values, might ultimately want to break away from it (even for its own good).
But it’s Thalias and Che’ri who have the most compelling roles in Chaos Rising, even if they mostly operate as set-ups for arcs that Zahn will hopefully expound upon in the rest of the series. The two characters are, respectively, formerly and currently known as “sky-walkers”: a role given to Force-sensitive children who are placed aboard Chiss vessels to navigate the challenging and turbulent hyperspace paths that keep the Chaos protected from outside intrusion but also cut off from the wider universe. It’s not a job that lasts, apparently — whatever it is that the Chiss use to encourage a sky-walker’s “third sight,” as it’s described in the book, means their sensitivity to the Force fades by their early teens.
Thalias, being a former sky-walker herself, works her way onto Thrawn’s current mission to act as the caregiver for his assigned sky-walker, Che’ri, a role (also seemingly exclusively female) known as a “Momish.” But while they might not get much to do in terms of connecting to the wider arc of Chaos Rising, Thalias and Che’ri’s bonding over their struggles and doubts about the way Chiss with their talents are used by the Ascendancy makes for one of the most warmly human relationships in the entire book. Her nature as a civilian allows Thalias to comment and critique Chiss society in ways that even Ar’alani’s arc can’t.
On top of that, the lingering sinister nature of just how the Ascendancy treats Force-sensitives like this as honoured, but disposable, tools creates a drama worth mining (whether unintentional or not on Zahn’s behalf is unclear, but there’s an uneasy gender aspect to the entire sky-walker deal, as they and Momish caregivers seem to be presented as exclusively female Chiss). Admittedly this is something Chaos Rising doesn’t dive into too deeply, leaving it for future exploration in other books, but it’s a groundwork that is worth returning to.
Between its peculiar obsessions, its threadbare plot and distant titular character, and the very oblique nature of the Chiss that compels Zahn so much, Chaos Rising is a read that can be as daunting as it is alluring for someone who wants to read a slice of Star Wars that couldn’t care less about Jedi and Sith, or Imperials and Rebellions. Not even Zahn’s recent work with his first Thrawn trilogy, couched in the familiar time frame of the rise of the Empire, was allowed to quite be so indulgent as the author is here, relishing in everything from the tactical minutiae of space battles to the familial and political hierarchies of the incredibly fascinating race he helped create. Not every novel can, quite frankly, get away with having very little actually in the way of a tangible plot actually happen.
But there are two more books left in the Ascendancy trilogy, two more opportunities for Zahn to expound upon the intriguing ideas and character arcs he lays down in and around Chaos Rising’s fascinatingly fleshed out world — even if those ideas and arcs are, primarily, focused on characters who are not actually Thrawn himself. Whether or not Chaos Rising is an indulgent primer to an actual plot to come remains to be seen, but if it is? It is a treat worth sinking your teeth into, although it may prove to be a little too rich for its own good at times.
Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising is available now.