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The Last Debate and the Ending of an Age

Katie

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legolas

“The Last Debate” is more like a “last discussion,” a “last planning meeting,” or perhaps a “last Gandalf monologue with which everyone is quickly on board.” This isn’t a criticism. A debate at this point would feel out of place. Our heroes have just been granted a miracle, an impossible reprieve. But what can you do next? What to do when you’ve been given a miracle, you’ve survived, but you simply immediately require a bigger one?

The whole chapter is tinged with a sense of giddiness, fear, hope, and confusion. People like Legolas look to a future beyond the war, but one that is different, uncertain, even frightening. Cut off from what had come before. Éomer’s eucatastrophe is built on the back of Gimli’s week of horror, a time he came barely bring himself to recall. And when the captains gather together to plan a course for what’s to come, they quickly agree that the most hopeful path is virtually indistinguishable from self-annihilation.

The Last Debate

“Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault,” Gandalf begins at the meeting of the captains. “The next will be greater.” It might come across as a narratively jarring moment for those uninitiated to Tolkien’s pacing. We’ve shifted quickly from a moment of narrative and emotional climax to one where… our heroes aren’t even entirely the protagonists anymore. Of course, they still are in a certain sense. But it’s still an interesting and rather bold move on Tolkien’s part to follow up such a vibrant, effective set piece as Pelennor Fields with its stars scrambling to fill a supporting role to quieter characters who have been off screen for so long.

From a thematic point of view, of course, this is essential. Tolkien’s physical battles, as important as they may be, are always secondary, always a corollary to something more key. We saw this last chapter when Aragorn gained renown in Minas Tirith for his healing powers rather than his ghost brigade, which he didn’t even both to bring. It would make little sense to have this strand of narrative culminate in a big battle before shifting over to Frodo and Sam, implying an equivalence in their missions despite the fact that they are playing dramatically different roles.

It’s also thematically on point in its skewering of Sauron’s lack of imagination. Sauron has always struck me as the sort to be quite proud of himself for being able to see the weaknesses in others. He probably thinks he’s a goddamn scholar of the human (elven/dwarven/you get it) condition because of his ability to see how others could fail. How intelligent! How edgy. Of course, Sauron’s certainty in himself is his own undoing (Aragorn’s certainty, hard-earned and open-minded, sounds nicely as its counterpoint). Non-Saurons are simply Lesser-Saurons: they would hide without the Ring or fight rashly with It. Playing into this isn’t quite prudence, as Gandalf notes. But it’s a solid play predicated on Sauron’s weakness and their own tentative, tottering strength.

legolas

Seen and Unseen

Now that we’ve gotten our spaghetti plate of plot threads all (relatively) back together, I’d be curious to see what everyone thinks about Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli’s adventure happening almost entirely off screen. Much like the Ents’ assault on Isengard, I do think that it loses a bit from being told in retrospect.

We hear Legolas and Gimli describe the moments they saw Aragorn really come into his own as an open leader of large numbers of people (and ghosts) rather than see it happen ourselves. We don’t see Legolas and Gimli for a very long time! And, from what snippets Tolkien does give us, we missed some very cool and atmospheric ghostiness. I was especially a fan of Gimli, ever the wordsmith, describing the army right before Aragorn released them. “The Shadow Host withdrew to the shore. There they stood silent, hardly to be seen, save for a red gleam in their eyes that caught the glare of the ships that were burning.”

But in the end I think it was a good choice to keep the focus away from Aragorn, and instead give us Eomer’s moment on the Pelennor. It’s a more thematically important moment than the taking of the fleet at Pelagir, despite the cool, ghostly atmosphere of the latter. I do sometimes wonder, though, at what story would have emerged had the choice been reversed.

Legolas, Gimli, and Future Might-Have-Beens

While there’s good stuff all over, I do have to say that my favorite part of the chapter, by a long shot, is simply Merry, Pippin, Legolas, and Gimli hanging out by the Houses of Healing. They’re among the funniest characters in The Lord of the Rings and they are very well-paired here. Merry and Pippin so often bring out the best and most honest in others, and the tension between Legolas’s and Gimli’s wildly disparate approaches to the world creates a nice sense of dynamism and tension. Tolkien delightfully plays it up almost to the point of parody as they enter Minas Tirith: “Legolas was fair of face beyond the measure of Men, and he sang an elven-song in a clear voice as he walked in the morning; but Gimli stalked beside him, stroking his beard and staring about him.”

Beyond that, though, their conversation also strikes a tenor that new in this section of The Lord of the Rings. Legolas and Gimli immediately begin discussing how, after the war, they could call on some good dwarven stonewrights to fix up shoddy Minas Tirith masonry and some trusty elves to plant some flowers and make the place less drab and lifeless. There’s a sense of hope, of the future, of time expanding outward and the world improving from what it currently is. But there’s also the sense of that hope being suddenly and somewhat truncated.

“It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in the Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”
“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,” said Legolas. “And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.”
“And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,” said the Dwarf.
“To that the Elves know not the answer,” said Legolas.

It’s clever that the first look at the future, of a post-Sauron world, comes from an elf, a dwarf, and two hobbits sitting around the citadel of Men that is likely to be the focal point of the future. It’s such an ambiguous future: obviously better than the immediate present, but still heavy with the sense of loss. The world will be Different. That’s very sad in a lot of ways, and a lot of people over the rest of the story are gonna be sad about it. But it’s not—or not necessarily—bad. This becomes even clearer when Legolas sees some seagulls, the Middle-earth brand of wildlife doomed to launch mid-life-crises for elves whose lives have no mid.

legolas

you too would love the sea if you were an elf

“Look!” he cried. “Gulls! They are flying far inland. A wonder they are to me and a trouble in my heart. Never in all my life had I met them, until we came to Pelagir, and there I heard them crying in the air as we rode to the battle of the ships. Then I stood still, forgetting war in Middle-earth; for their wailing voices spoke to me of the Sea. The Sea! Alas! I have not yet beheld it. But deep in the hearts of all my kindred lies the sea-longing, which it is perilous to stir. Alas! for the gulls. No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm.”

I’ve always liked that Tolkien’s “dying world” (hmm) atmosphere is predicated not on death but on movement. The elves aren’t… disappearing, or dying, or Losing Their Magic. They are simply going somewhere else, to a new place. That is super sad in a lot of ways! I am a historian and I cry into my tea every morning that I can’t chill with medieval scholars in Timbuktu or scratch crass graffiti into Pompeiian walls with Roman bros or learn to paint pretty landscapes in Song China. Gimli gets it.

“Say not so!” said Gimli. “There are countless things still to see in Middle-earth, and great works to do. But if all the fair folk take to the Havens, it would be a duller world for those who are doomed to stay.”

definitely only wonderful and beautiful things happen there

But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Tolkien’s world is not a world of consistent linear decline. Things don’t start beautiful and get bad. I mean—they get bad a lot if you read The Silmarillion, but it is very hard to be kind in a world with so much beautiful jewelry up for grabs. But in the large scheme of things, for Tolkien, change is sad but fundamentally neutral: as in all things, it depends on the choices that you make. There’s ample space made for sadness and loss, but at its core I think it’s a rather optimistic way to view the world.

wait, no, shit—

In any case, more on this later. I am very interested in Tolkien’s sense of nostalgia. But I think I’m going to save any more thoughts for a later chapter (or just a later essay in general). It’s more complicated and optimistic than it’s often painted to be, at any rate.

Final Comments

  • “Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” I didn’t quite fit this in anywhere above, but it’s a nice quote, kind and comforting. Except when you think of it for too long and realize that we’ve messed things up enough now that the weather, uh, is kind of ours to rule now only in the sense that we’ve made it so bad and its just always a hundred degrees now and oh my god WHAT HAVE WE—
  • It was interesting to me that Denethor appeared so frequently in Gandalf’s sales pitch at the meeting of the captains. This works to re-emphasize the works thematic beats. But I also do wonder if it’s meant to indicate that Denethor is, simply put, still very much on Gandalf’s mind. Gandalf is very good at talking people away from despair, presenting them the choice and allowing them to make the hopeful one. Denethor not only rejected Gandalf’s philosophy, he did so bluntly and brutally. We never delve all that far into the deeper folds of Gandalf’s psyche, but I do wonder if it did a bit of a number on him.
  • Speaking of Denethor—it continues to be a fun thought experiment to imagine how much more difficult the dude would have made everything for the last two chapters. You want a last debate? Denethor would have given you a last debate.
  • I thought that Legolas’s comment about Tolkien at Pelagir to be intriguing: “In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his will, had he taken the Ring to himself. Not for naught does Mordor fear him. But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Lúthien?” It’s another nice parallel / contrast between Aragorn and Sauron.
  • Imrahil has always felt like an odd character to me. He feels very… illustrious, like a high medieval courtly knight in a story where those are in short supply. So when he calls Aragorn his liege lord and says that “his wish is to me a command” like some kind of Disney Prince, I was a half-way through a powerful, extended eye roll. But then my boy Imrahil steps in to be the voice of reason and reminds everyone that some heed should be given to prudence that that it’d be a shame to survive their maniac run at the Black Gate only to turn around and find the whole country burned and ravaged. Sorry, Imrahil, you’re good. Do your thing.
  • I’m not sure it’s intentional or meaningful, but I was struck by the fact that when Gimli and Legolas are discussing how they can spiff up Minas Tirith, Gimli phrases it as “when” Aragorn comes into his own. Legolas phrases it as “if.”
  • Prose Prize: For a while they walked and talked, rejoicing for a brief space in the peace and rest under the morning high up in the windy circles of the City. Then when Merry became weary, they wen and sat upon the wall with the greensward of the Houses of Healing behind them; and away southward before them was the Anduin glittering in the sun, as it flowed away, out of the sight of even Legolas. In the context of this chapter’s hope and uncertainty this has that that sense of a kind of lovely moment frozen in time before everything changes. You know the sort—if this made it into the film version it would have been shot during the golden hour.
  • Contemporary to this Chapter: Frodo and Sam walk, and keep walking. My poor little dudes.

Art Credits: The film still is from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. All other images, in order of appearance, are courtesy of Lorenzo Daniele, Ted Nasmith, aegeri, and, introducing, the “Beleriand” article on The One Wiki to Rule them All.

Katie spends her days reading about medieval history and her evenings wondering if it’s too late to drop out of graduate school and become an astronaut.

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WanderingUndine
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WanderingUndine

Good priorities, Legolas. Minas Tirith does need more gardens. I noted that Gimli wants to replace parts of the city. Legolas wants to add things to it. “For all who come to know [Aragorn] come to love him, after a fashion.” Nowadays, that sort of thing would likely get a character labeled a Mary Sue. I found “their hearts were hot” an unusual description of despair and fear. Gulls don’t go inland in Middle-Earth? I’m not generally much of a Legolas fan, but here I want to hug him. Sea-longing is a miserable feeling, one I’ve had for much of… Read more »

Ira Shantz-Kreutzkamp
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Ira Shantz-Kreutzkamp

That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing, it paints a vivid picture.

Bo
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I’ve always viewed Lord of the Rings as a sad kind of change, as a lamenting of an age past. The elves are leaving, the Ents are vanishing, much of the land will likely not recover from the scourge of Sauron’s forces. Your reread and analysis has made me reconsider, especially from the viewpoint of the series as Tolkien’s crack at a historical record and distaste for interpreting any of it as allegory. Like you said, change is just change. History always changes and goes through peaks and valleys, golden and dark ages. His Middle Earth writing tries to show… Read more »

WanderingUndine
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WanderingUndine

I mentioned the Silmarillion Primer last time, but here’s the index: https://www.tor.com/series/the-silmarillion-primer/ It’s wonderfully entertaining, readable, and detailed.

Angelina
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I think it’s interesting that Tolkien’s view of change is more or less Catholic view of change: that it exists, that it brings an end to many beautiful and great things, but none the less it means that other things, even more beautiful and great, can be brought to life. And generally the Catholic/Orthodox model presumes that we change for the good, until we reach our peak and then will be the last great trial and the last great change (birth of the New World). Because to pass the trial the majority needs to be at their best at its… Read more »

Tique
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Tique

I’m glad The Silmarillion is less “everything is declining!111” than LoTR. The Magic Goes Away is usually a huge cause of eye-rolling for me, yes we get it everything was better in the good old days.

Perhaps I’ve been tainted by lesser books who seem to be in a constant conservative grip of Old World Blues.

Maidens and Mules
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Maidens and Mules

The title of this chapter is both fitting and deceptive. It doesn’t really refer to the final discussion between Gandalf and the others about their endgame. This discussion is only a few pages and is mostly Gandalf telling the others what’s what and them mostly agreeing with him. Except for Imrahil who basically says, “that’s a good idea, but we shouldn’t forget the city’s defenses.” The bulk of the chapter is taken up by the discussion between Legolas, Gimli, Merry, and Pippin. This is the true last debate IMO. The story of the Paths of the Dead acts a backdrop… Read more »

WanderingUndine
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WanderingUndine

It’s been said that Tolkien thought sadness was essetial to beauty, that the beauty of elves and maybe of Middle-Earth came partly from the sadness of their inecitable fading. I don’t buy that philosphy personally, and don’t know whether to buy Tolkien’s belief in it.

Analysis

Tragedy in Lady Knight

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Image courtesy of Random House

The dedication to Lady Knight reads “To the people of New York City, I always knew the great sacrifice and kindness my neighbors are capable of, but now the rest of the country knows, too.” It’s a somber beginning to a book about the tragedy of war. Obviously, it talks about the events of 9/11, and the book was published in 2002, barely a year afterwards. It’s the grimmest of Pierce’s books so far, but like the dedication, it also shows the most kindness.

Spoilers for Pierces previous work. Warnings for mentions of abuse and the murder of children.

(more…)

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Creator Corner: An Interview with Author Lee Blauersouth

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Do you like superheroes who are queer? Found family? Complicated family dynamics? If so, meet Lee Blauersouth, author of Secondhand Origin Stories, a book with all of the above, plus so much more. I met Lee at WisCon—at Alex Acks’ book release actually—and my conversations with them were some of the most interesting and fun I’ve had in a while. So of course, I just had to have an interview to learn more about their history as a writer, their book, and their experiences as a queer, disabled writer. 

Gretchen: So, are you a lifer or a recent convert when it comes to writing? What inspired you to start writing?   

Lee: I think I started writing fanfiction at around age 28. After several years of that, I realized that the stories I most wanted to tell really didn’t fit with the characters and universes I was drawing from in my fanfiction, so I decided to try my hand at original writing.

G: Speaking of original writing, your novel Secondhand Origin Stories is about superheroes, what made you want to write a superhero novel?

L: Is it awful if I say spite? I’ve ingested a lot of superhero stories in various formats over the years. And there were things I kept waiting for them to do that they just weren’t doing. So eventually I got fed up and wrote the queer, disability-focused, US systems-aware, superhero family drama I’d been craving.

G: Similarly, YA gets a lot of flak from some corners of the internet for being a ‘lesser’ genre (which is bullshit), what made you want to write YA rather than for another audience?

L: I don’t think I ever decided “I’m going to write YA” so much as that I wanted to write this specific story, which was best told through the points of view of the 4 teen characters. I’m not even sure “YA” is the most accurate descriptor, given that by the end of the book half the main characters are 18 years old. I just remember my late teens and early 20s as being this really complex, exciting, stressful time of my life and that’s just such an obvious source of story material. Especially in a genre traditionally obsessed with origin stories, transformations, and identities.

G: Absolutely. So with DC and Marvel churning out many superhero films and TV shows, do you think books still have a strong place in telling stories about superheroes?

L: I wouldn’t be writing them if I didn’t! Each medium has its strengths and drawbacks, but I love superhero novels because of how easily they let you slide into the characters thoughts, emotions, bodily experiences, and point of view. Prose is just great for getting into a character’s head for a super intimate experience. Since superheroes have traditionally been mainly represented in more visual mediums, I think there’s a hunger for this sort of point of view in the genre. The AO3 tags of Marvel and DC properties would certainly seem to suggest so, anyways.

G: Tell me about writing superhero stories as a queer person. What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face? Any unexpected blessings or silver linings?

L: I think being queer (and disabled) informs a lot of the way I think about bodies, changes to bodies, social vs private spaces, and family. I hope this gives my work a flavor and a focus that sets me apart from a lot of the mainstream superhero stories. On the other hand, it’s really hard to figure out how to work that into an elevator pitch when the expectation for superhero stories is much more action-packed.

G: How did your experience as a queer person influence the story you wanted to tell in Secondhand Origin Stories?

L: I think the biggest thing is the idea of found family. I’m one of those fortunate queer folks who’s very close to their family or origin—they’re very accepting (we’ve often commented that my wife is my mom’s favorite daughter). But even so, I have a fairly extensive queer found family, too.

I think found family narratives are a big part of why superhero team stories mean so much to so many queer folks. It feels homey and reassuring to have these characters we love living with found families. When I started writing Secondhand Origin Stories, my wife and I had just started the adoption process, so I was thinking a lot about what these found families look like when you take them out multiple generations. So, in my story you have a superhero team acting as found family, and then a 2nd generation of queer teenagers, building their own networks on top of that base.

G: You’re also a comic book artist, right? Tell us more about that!

L: I’ve been writing since my late 20s, but I’ve been drawing since I could hold a crayon. I actually have much more experience drawing than writing. I fell into comics specifically because above all, I love telling stories. Weirdly, I’ve never written a comic beyond one schmoopy autobio comic. My wife wrote all the other comics I’ve drawn!

And being able to make my own cover is pretty fun.

G: I wish I had that skill, for sure! On the topic of other projects, society likes to tell us that we can ‘have it all,’ but that can seem really hard to do these days. How do you balance your writing, drawing, work, and being a parent?

L: I just have to let every day be what it is. Some days I get to write or draw and some days I don’t. On the days I can’t, I try to at least give the story or project a little space in my brain- while I’m waiting between clients or driving or washing bottles. It helps keep my enthusiasm up so that when space does open up in my schedule, I’m more likely to feel ready to dive in.

But a lot of credit goes to my wife and my family (origin and found) for how much they help—especially with taking the baby for a while.

G: What stories/authors inspire you when you’re feeling out of steam or the creative juices aren’t flowing?

L: There are a ton of stories that have inspired my creative works over the years, but when I need to work up my own creative energy I actually tend to go to nonfiction. Shows like “Abstract” or “Chef’s Table” are nonfiction shows about creators working in different mediums than me, but it’s all about their creative journeys and what inspires them to reach for excellence. I find their pre-recorded enthusiasm contagious.

G: I love that. So what’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?

L: Right now my creative life is consumed by the sequel to Secondhand Origin Stories, which is going to be placed largely in a huge medical clinic in rural Minnesota. In my day-job life I’m a therapist who works with a lot of clients embroiled with the criminal justice system. That means I see a lot about the way the power structures of the medical world play out, and I intend to apply that to the world of superheroes.

G: That sounds exciting, inspiring, and challenging all at once. Anything else you want to share with us before we go?

The audiobook version of Secondhand Origin Stories will be coming soon! Follow me on Twitter for more updates and to see my drowning my sequel-writing pain in large mugs of tea: https://twitter.com/AmmoniteInk

G: Thanks again for chatting, Lee!

L: You’re welcome!

Secondhand Origin Stories is available for purchase online and in retail stores. Make sure you check out Lee’s website for more information and stay tuned for my review of Secondhand Origin Stories coming later this month!


Images Courtesy of Lee Blauersouth

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Thrawn: Alliances Improves on its Predecessor

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Everyone’s favourite blue skinned, red-eyed, evil Sherlock Holmes returns for his second canon Star Wars novel in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn: Alliances. I am happy to report that it is worth the read and an improvement on it’s predecessor, even if it falls into some of the same traps.

Why do we care about this book?

For those who don’t know, Grand Admiral Thrawn is essentially the most iconic character of the Star Wars old canon expanded universe (now designated “Legends”). Zahn’s 1990s Thrawn Trilogy is credited with rekindling interest in the franchise post-Return of the Jedi, pre-The Phantom Menace time period.

Evil blue Sherlock mid deduction

The original Thrawn Trilogy is now part of the Legends universe and hence, no longer part of the official Disney canon. Thrawn’s appeal as a character however, has remained strong with the fans. This appeal that saw him parachuted into Star Wars: Rebels (Rebels) as the reigning big bad for the final two seasons. It also spawned a novel, Thrawn released in 2017, exploring the characters backstory and rise to the rank and crisp white uniform of Grand Admiral within an Empire that didn’t really like offering opportunities to non-humans. Thrawn: Alliances is simultaneously a sequel to that novel and to season three of Rebels.

The story reaches across two timelines, each focusing on events that take place on and around the planets of Batuu and Mokivj. Timeline one takes us back to the last year of the Clone Wars. It features the primary characters of the titular Thrawn, Jedi General Anakin Skywalker (somehow less wooden on paper than on screen) and, delightfully, Senator Padme Amidala (who is getting her own book soon!!). The plot focuses mainly on Padme’s investigation of the disappearance of her handmaid/intelligence operative Duja and Anakin’s investigation of Padme’s subsequent disappearance.

Clone Wars Timeline

Joining Anakin for his investigation is pre-Empire Thrawn, a commander in the Chiss Ascendancy. It’s a delight watching these two play detective and seeing their two opposing views of the world clash. Zahn’s Anakin manages to be very true to the character we were given in The Clone Wars and the murderous piece of cardboard we got in the movies. He’s very action oriented, cocky, and self assured, traits that probably spawn naturally when you’re the most powerful Jedi alive. He kind of reminds me of Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk: he’s not so arrogant that you dislike him, but arrogant enough that you laugh when someone punches him in the face.

How much do you reckon they paid Hayden Christensen for his likeness?

He also has a clear berserk button when it comes to Padme’s safety and is, I don’t really know how to say this, a little stupid? He tends to walk into traps a lot (a trait he shares with his son) and Thrawn has to save his ass on more than one occasion.

“If Padme was here, and if they had hurt her, her attackers would need to suffer a little before they died”

—Anakin, being entirely reasonable and Jedi-like

Speaking of Thrawn, he is less of an entity in the early timeline than he is in the later one. His main role in the early timeline is as a foil for Anakin. Thrawn is calculated while Anakin is emotional. Anakin rushes but Thrawn moves deliberately. Basically Anakin is almost a one-man battle tank, while Thrawn is more of a special forces commando. Pairing Anakin and Thrawn together helps demonstrate many of Anakin’s flaws as a human being and as a soldier.

The real delight in this timeline though, is Padme. Full disclosure, there isn’t really much deep character work done with her here. What there is, however, is volumes of Padme overcoming obstacles by being extremely competent, intelligent and brave. This might seem like a pretty low bar to clear, but after seeing her spend the entirety of Revenge of the Sith barefoot, pregnant and crying (while all scenes of any kind of substance were cut), it is pretty damn refreshing.

Furthermore, her actions do give us some small insights into her character and I’m all about them. It’s very welcome to see her use her kindness to actually find allies on a hostile planet. She uses subtlety instead of a blaster to achieve her objectives when appropriate. There is a deliberation and thought process there that isn’t really present for Anakin. You see a lot of Leia in her and rightly so, but it’s interesting how she parallels Thrawn a little as well.

The actual MVP of this book

When Padme finally meets up with Thrawn and Anakin, it is illustrative that she immediately recognises that Thrawn has an ulterior motive for helping them. Straight away she begins assessing what the implications of this are for their mission and survival. In most novels with Thrawn as a main character, he tends to stand head and shoulders above the other characters in terms of acumen and manipulative ability.  In Alliances, Padme stands as his intellectual equal.

Empire Timeline

The other timeline, set just after season 3 of Rebels, features Thrawn in a more prominent role, this time paired with Darth Vader. Palpatine, sensing force related weirdness sends them into the same system they first met years before to investigate. The main fun here is seeing the interactions between the two. Zahn’s structure of having two parallel timelines also allows information from the past to colour interaction in the future.

Vader is Vader, but you still see the echoes of Anakin in him, especially his lack of patience with Thrawn’s methods and his constant insecurity when he thinks Thrawn might be mocking him. Thrawn, on the other hand, is still shrewd and calculating but instead focuses his intellect on trying to develop mutual respect. Thrawn is more sincerely trying to prove the validity of his viewpoint than manipulate Vader, making a better focus for his character.

“You ask a great deal of trust, Admiral… I will not be mocked or toyed with.”

—Oh Darth, mighty Sith Lord still feels undervalued and condescended to.

Giving Thrawn equals in the form of Vader and Padme is definitely the best choice Zahn makes in the novel. The previous book, while serviceable as an origin story, featured far too much of Thrawn solving problems while everyone looked on in awe. It was just a line of knots for Thrawn to untie with his intellect while the other characters clapped for him. Here at least, it’s a contest to see whether he will win over Vader or Vader will finally lose his patience. Vader, surprisingly, manages to learn from Padme and identify that Thrawn has a hidden agenda this time too. The Dark Lord stops the usually unflappable Chiss in his tracks several times, a refreshing dynamic change from their Clone Wars pairing.

Minor characters like Commodore Faro, Thrawn’s second on the ISD Chimaera and Vader’s second in his stormtrooper strikeforce, Commander Kimmund, also get some POV time. These make nice breaks from the super serious time you spend in Thrawn, Vader/Anakin and Padme’s head. Faro spends most of her mildly worried that Vader is just going to murder her boss and take the ship. Kimmund, meanwhile, fixates on the fact that he’s currently the fourth commander his strikeforce has had. He spends most of the book trying not to give Vader a reason to go all ‘Admiral Ozzel‘ on him. Further cameos from Rebels characters such as Rukh and Vult Skerris help add to the colour of the book and give it the feel of existing within the Star Wars Universe.

“Lord Vader wasn’t going to be pleased. At all. And maybe the squad was about to get its fifth commander.”

—Stormtrooper Commander Kimmund, after a less than stellar day.

Thrawn: Recurring Issues

There are a couple of big issues with this book, despite its fun aspects. You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t really talked about the plot of the book in this review and that’s because it’s pretty basic. Find this person, blow this up, take this ship, the plot serves only as a conduit for characters interacting with each other in fun ways. It kept me guessing, but possibly because I didn’t care about it too much? A better plot would have turned Alliances from a good read into a great one. Zahn is a talented writer and I seriously doubt he couldn’t have pulled it off.

The second problem is a one shared with the previous novel: the problem of Thrawn himself. Thrawn just seems like a really nice, reasonable, relatively forgiving, mentor to his crew kind of guy. All available evidence in the text supports this conclusion. He doesn’t blame people for mistakes outside of their control and he always takes the time to explain things to his underlings. He protects his crew from Vader’s wrath and has faith in their abilities. Faro even remarks on how no one in Thrawn’s fleet is engaged in the kind of petty political games of who gets credit for what that others in the Empire tend to play. By the end of the book, I wished this guy was my boss. Just listen to what Commander Kimmund has to say about Thrawn’s vessel:

“None of the senior officers had the self-centredness of men and women looking out solely for themselves, or the deadly inertia of people simply going through the motions. Everyone from Faro down seemed intent on working together to do their jobs and complete their assigned tasks to the best of their ability. The reason was obvious: Thrawn. The Grand Admiral was smart and subtle but never used his brilliance to show up or humiliate anyone. He demanded results but never perfection and had amazing stories of patience for those who were truly working to the best of their ability. He cared about his people, even to the point of standing up for them against powerful men like Lord Vader.”

—Commander Kimmund, describing some kind of employment nirvana amidst the space-fascism

I should not be wishing this guy was my employer. Nuh-uh.

The problem here, of course, is that HE WORKS FOR THE BLOODY EMPIRE! This is a horrific totalitarian regime that implements policies of genocide, torture, repression of basic freedoms, slavery and the building of giant planet killing death machines. It’s really hard to reconcile this nice guy Thrawn with the Thrawn that represents all this and the narrative makes barely any attempt to do it. There’s a few vague references to threats lurking in the Unknown Regions, but beyond that, not a peep.

The previous novel experienced similar issues while Thrawn rose through the ranks of the Empire. In it, there is a sequence where Thrawn’s task force puts down a slave rebellion of Wookies and his second in command presses him on the issue of slavery in the Empire. Thrawn just kind of dodges the question and Zahn never really touches it again. It’s sad because it’s a potentially interesting subject area but the author clearly just doesn’t want to go there.

Even if you’re not totally into the titular character, Thrawn: Alliances still has a lot to offer. Zahn keeps you turning the page with sharp dialogue and interesting interaction between the key characters. It’s just a real shame he didn’t go that extra mile with the plot and with the book’s protagonist.


Images courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm

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