Despite my love of all things Star Wars, I haven’t kept up as much with the new books and shows coming out of Lucasfilm and DelRay recently. Honestly I think I’ve held myself back, wanting to use this project as a farewell cruise through the Star Wars I grew up on before diving into the fresh and unexplored waters of the Disney canon.
Because of this lack of exposure, I am now in the strange position of talking about Grand Admiral Thrawn without having any true idea of what many fans think of the character now that he’.s been reintroduced in Rebels. What little research I’ve done while avoiding spoilers for new canon media I’ve yet to consume indicates that creating author Timothy Zahn does not consider the two incarnations separate characters and that those of you coming to this from a Disney-canon-only background should have a fairly good idea of who Thrawn is. So without any more hedging, let’s dive in to Outbound Flight, by Timothy Zahn.
We begin in the Unknown Regions of the galaxy as three smugglers with a broken hyperdrive make a blind jump to escape an angry Hutt. The junior crewman aboard the smuggling vessel is a young man barely out of his teenage years named Jorj Car’das (who, fun fact, is typically depicted as looking exactly like a young George Lucas due to his appearance in the cover art for the Japanese version of the novel he debuted in).
Car’das and his crew mates find themselves rescued by unknown vessels and brought before Commander Mitth’raw’nuruodo of the Chiss Ascendancy. The Chiss are a species who inhabit a section of space some distance from the Republic, and Commander Mitth’raw’nuruodo wishes to know more about the Republic once he is made aware of its existence. Though he and the smugglers both speak a language called Sy Bisti used by numerous trading organizations, the Commander offers to teach Car’das the Chiss language in exchange for being taught galactic Basic. Seeing little other choice, they agree, and due to difficulties pronouncing his full name are granted permission to call the Commander by his “core name” Thrawn.
Meanwhile Jedi Master Jorus C’Baoth, makes a deal with Supreme Chancellor Palpatine: resolve a particularly thorny mining dispute for the Chancellor and he in turn will make sure C’baoth’s pet project, Outbound Flight, gets funding. The project, in sum, seeks to weld six dreadnoughts to a central storage core and use this ersatz colony ship to explore the Unknown Regions and then set off to explore other galaxies entirely.
The Jedi Council have doubts about C’Baoth, particularly because of his overly forceful, arrogant personality and frequent assertions that the Jedi should be obeyed because they are Jedi. It skirts very close to practices forbidden to Jedi and Mace Windu asks Obi-Wan to accompany C’baoth on Outbound Flight, at least until it reaches the edge of the Republic.
Unfortunately, like in Shadow Hunter Obi-Wan appears to be here as a way to draw readers familiar only with the films into the story. He does not directly contribute to anything after his introduction and serves only as a familiar face to ground newer readers. Fortunately, he’s portrayed well and his presence is not obtrusive even if it is unnecessary, and he exits the story two-thirds of the way through to return to the Republic.
Back in Chiss space, Car’das learns more about Thrawn. The young Commander is clearly brilliant, demonstrating intelligence and education alongside a fierce sense of duty to his people. To that end, Car’das learns that of late Thrawn has been deeply troubled by the actions of a nomadic species of pirates and slavers called the Vagaari who operate just beyond the boundaries of Chiss space.
Thrawn is convinced the Vagaari will eventually pose a threat to the Chiss, and his moral outrage over the suffering they inflict on innocents causes him no small amount of irritation with the Chiss policy of “peaceful watchfulness.” He asks Car’das’s opinion on the morality of a preemptive strike and appears to genuinely value his input and consider it.
Thrawn brings Car’das along on a mission to observe the Vagaari in action but Thrawn cannot resist the opportunity to capture a gravity well device the Vagaari have developed which forces vessels to drop out of hyperspace by simulating the mass shadow of a planet and fooling the hyperdrive itself.
Almost as soon as Outbound Flight departs, tensions begin flaring between C’Baoth and the non-Jedi crew. Even his former Padawan Lorana Jinzler is unable to mediate effectively after C’Baoth almost immediately forces the issue of Jedi control of Outbound Flight. He asserts command authority without consulting the ship’s captain, begins assigning punishments for infractions without trials, and worst he begins taking Forceful children of any age from parents against their will to train a new generation of Jedi Knights. C’Baoth’s absolute conviction of his own righteousness and the right of the Jedi to “lead and guide” as he puts it quickly leads to him becoming a tyrant over Outbound Flight.
Car’das, meanwhile, received a shock when Thrawn asks him to come on another excursion with him, only to discover that this time there’s a Trade Federation battle group lurking on the edges of Chiss space. As it turns out, Outbound Flight has been approved by Palpatine only to have his trusted agent Kinman Doriana (who serves Sidious directly and isn’t aware of Palpatine’s true identity) ambush and destroy it to eliminate these Jedi before they can colonize the outer reaches and escape his rapidly advancing plan for their deaths.
Thrawn demonstrates his tactical genius when the Nemoidian in command of the fleet ignores his requests for peaceful communication and launches fighters. Sitting just beyond the range that the central control computer can command the droid fighters, he repeatedly sends one of his own fighters flying in from the same vector, only to break off at the last minute each time the droids are ordered to move and intercept. Suddenly, on one such attempt, his patrol fleet lunges for the gap as the droid starfigters pursue his fighter well out of position despite the Federation ordering them to return. As it turns out, Thrawn realized the commands were using a rolling encryption, and sent his ship coming in from the same vector every time so that the only part of the droids orders which would change was the encryption itself. He then broadcast his own orders to block the Federation and slipped past their fighter screen without firing a shot.
In short order Thrawn disassembles and captures the Trade Federation fleet. In the process of discerning their intentions, he learns of Outbound Flight, and even manages to get Doriana to contact Sidious directly to ask him about his motives. Sidious spins a story about a race of invaders known only as The Far Outsiders he has become aware of. Sidious claims that if Outbound Flight is allowed to continue, it will encounter and provoke these invaders to attack before the galaxy is ready and asks Thrawn to destroy Outbound Flight for him.
It’s fairly obvious to anyone who knows Sidious his justifications, while not incorrect, are not the actual reason he wants Outbound Flight destroyed, but it’s enough to give Thrawn pause.
While all this is happening, Chiss government officials are tightening the screws on Thrawn. They view his proactive approach to threat assessment and the numerous combat engagements he’s initiated as reckless and Car’das realizes Thrawn may be removed from command, taking any chance of he and his crew getting home safely with him. In desperation, he steals a shuttle and flies to the Vagaari, tricking them into attacking the Chiss in hopes of either proving Thrawn correct and saving his command or else winning his friends’ freedom in the aftermath.
Everything comes to a head as Outbound Flight is torn from hyperspace by Thrawn’s captured gravity well. He contacts C’Baoth, warns him he’s entering Chiss Ascendency space, and gives him numerous opportunities to turn back. C’Baoth refuses outright, leading to a near mutiny on Outbound Flight and for even the Jedi aboard to question whether C’Baoth is going too far. Simultaneously, the Vagaari fleet arrives and without warning begins attacking Outbound Flight. Thrawn uses this as justification and with the captured Federation ships he engages and destroys most of the Vagaari. C’Baoth finally snaps and contacts Thrawn to begin Force-choking him to death. It’s the first time we ever see Thrawn losing control of a situation and it seems he’s done for until Doriana re-tasks some droid fighters to attack Outbound Flight using special bombs Thrawn had intended for the Vagaari.
The bombs kill everyone aboard Outbound Flight, except for Lorana Jinzler and a group of mutineers she’d been escorting in the storage core. Thrawn is clearly horrified by what’s happened but recognizes it’s too late to do anything about it. He rescues Car’das from the Vagaari, revealing that he’d planned all along to maneuver Jorj into doing exactly what he did so the Vagaari could be eliminated.
In the end the survivors of Outbound Flight crash land on a habitable world largely unaware of the events that destroyed their ship, but with a deep distrust of Jedi gained from the experience. Thrawn ensures his political safety by giving the gravity well technology to the Chiss Defense Fleet, and Doriana offers Car’das a job creating an information network amongst the smugglers of the Republic. Thrawn also reveals to Doriana that he already knew about the Far Outsiders, as the Chiss have actually encountered them and Thrawn hopes that when the time comes the Republic and the Ascendency can work together to stop them.
Personally, I found that I vastly preferred the Thrawn plotline in this book to the C’Baoth sections. The Thrawn of Outbound Flight is a sympathetic character. Seeds of darkness surely lie within him as he repeatedly espouses the motto that he will do whatever it takes to protect those he percieves as his to protect. However, he’s clearly motivated by a strong sense of duty, courageous, and willing to put himself and his career in great danger to stop a threat and free the slaves of the Vagaari.
C’Baoth, on the other hand, is pretty corrupt by the time we first meet him. He’s venal, arrogant to an astounding degree, and so overwhelmingly self-righteous I’m amazed the Jedi haven’t kicked him out. There is no doubt from page one of his inclusion that he will end up falling to the dark side and honeslty there is no significant change in him once he’s done so except that he’s willing to back up his bluster with Force chokes by that point.
Taken as a whole Outbound Flight is a busy, yet not overly complicated book. A lot happens over the course of the novel but I never felt lost even when maneuvering the waters of Chiss politics or figuring out Thrawn’s tangled web of plans inside other plans. It’s an exceptional book, and I highly recommend it to fans of Thrawn or Star Wars in general.
Next week, trouble brews as we close in on the beginnings of a war that will split the galaxy apart..