Timothy Zahn began telling the stories of Grand Admiral Thrawn, arguably the Star Wars universe’s most popular Expanded Universe character, 30 years ago. Since then, Thrawn has survived prequels, sequels, canon-leveling acquisitions of the Star Wars brand, with Zahn returning over the years to carve out the blue-hued villain’s backstory. But with the trilogy-capper Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil, due out Nov. 16, Zahn tells Polygon “he’s filled in about as much of Thrawn as I can.” Well ... maybe. The Mandalorian season 2 promised a potential live-action debut for the character in a future Star Wars series, and with that comes room for what Zahn does best: peering into the unexplored space of the Star Wars timeline to discover entire universes.
Zahn again proved himself to be one of Star Wars’ most agile storytellers with the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy. The prequel books further defined Thrawn, the autocratic Chiss Ascendancy empire, and a handful of new characters, and without creating friction in the larger continuity.
“[The goal of the trilogy] was to show another chunk of Thrawn’s life, and his part in the Chiss Ascendancy out in the Unknown Regions,” Zahn says. “Part and parcel of that was the chance to build the Chiss culture [...] the building of the how the politics work, how the families work, and then putting Thrawn in the middle of all of it. And as you world build, you always find things you weren’t expecting, as you do the consequence testing. ‘If the culture does this, what are some of the consequences down the line?’ And that’s always fun and rewarding, too.”
Many of Zahn’s original Thrawn stories have been retired as “Legends canon,” but the author says part of his creative drive was to reclaim those bits of continuity and chisel them back into the Star Wars universe through the prequel stories. Dave Filoni’s inclusion of Thrawn in Rebels, and a number of appearances written by other authors over the years, have created a slight challenge; Zahn specifically recalls needing to rewire the hierarchal order of the Chiss “ruling families” established in other books in order to make the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy adhere to his vision, but none of the retconning frustrates him. True to his creative spark, he has a canon answer for any discrepancies fans discover. “Things like that that had been suggested elsewhere [...] I suspect those were propaganda things that just deliberately lied to, to people and the rest of the galaxy, just keep them off balance!”
Lesser Evil also gives Zahn a chance to look beyond his fan-favorite creation. Though the book focuses on Thrawn’s exploration of the First Family of the Chiss and a society on the brink of war, it’s very much an ensemble piece, according to Zahn. And while the wider perspective may throw off some Thrawn diehards, it’s all part of the author’s hope for a dimensional character study.
“I know people want to read about Thrawn, but he doesn’t do all these things in a vacuum. It’s not that he’s not like Superman, who can do everything by himself. And I wanted to build a cast of characters — some of whom appreciate him, some of whom put up with him, some of whom hate his guts all the way — and just put those in and say “We don’t like Thrawn but he’s good at what he does. And bottom line is we are all Chiss together.”
Polygon’s featured excerpt of Lesser Evil (see below) spotlights one of those key characters: Captain Roscu of the Clarr Family.
“She is not Thrawn. She does not like Thrawn. She has gone up against him a couple of times. And in her mind, she has lost every time. Now the reader gets the chance to see what actually happened — did she lose or did she decide to choose defeat? The idea is always to flesh out any of these characters — either the the ones you consider the good guys, the bad guys, or the ones you don’t necessarily like but you understand where they’re coming from. Try to make them all feel like real people to the readers.”
Lesser Evil connects the remaining dots. Zahn says the very end of the new book goes directly into the beginning of Thrawn, the kickoff to his Imperial trilogy. It’s a novel about fateful choices and an array of consequences. It’s an ensemble piece, even as Thrawn evolves into the notorious figure he’s known to be. And it’s the end of Zahn’s time writing Star Wars, at least for now. Currently the author doesn’t plans to write any new Star Wars books, though he has ideas. He teases a story set 1,000 years prior that would dig into the origins of the Starflash weapon — introduced in the Ascendancy trilogy as “a wild card,” Zahn says. And there could be a reason to explore the nine-year gap once in Thrawn’s timeline once we know how he factors into the live-action Star Wars shows.
“I’m hoping there will be opportunities to write books in that in that era. Until then, I’ve basically told all of Thrawn’s story [...] and I’m treading water at this point. But it’s nice warm water!”
Read on for an exclusive excerpt (in text and audio) of Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil
As the mysterious Jixtus pushes forward the final stages of his plan to destroy the Chiss, more families and Chiss officers will find themselves tested. Including, Captain Roscu of the Clarr Family. A captain with a checkered past, whose decisions may seal the fate of the entire Chiss Ascendancy...
Clarr family captain Clarr’os’culry was in her office, working on her second cup of hot caccoleaf, when she got the alert that an alien ship had arrived over Rhigar.
She was at the Clarr homestead defense center in thirty seconds flat. “Duty officer?” she invited briskly as she strode to the command chair in the middle of the ring of displays and sat down.
“Single alien warship moving into high orbit,” Lieutenant Clarr’upi’ovmos replied, just as briskly. “Configuration and size match the battle cruiser that was reported over Avidich two days ago. The three Clarr destroyers that were in that sector are moving to intercept, and the two frigates have taken up equatorial guard positions in case this is a feint or first of a two-prong. System Patrol’s ships are moving into backup positions.”
Roscu nodded, running her eyes over the displays. Battle cruiser wasn’t so much a specific class as it was a convenient label for midsized alien ships until their capabilities could be better defined. In this particular case, factoring in the earlier reports from the Mitth Patriel on Avidich, she would tentatively place it between a Chiss frigate and a heavy cruiser, probably at the smaller end of that range. If it decided to be a problem, the patrol ships plus the Clarr destroyers orbiting Rhigar ought to be able to handle it. “No indication of hostile intent, I presume?”
“No, ma’am,” Rupiov said. “And the destroyers report the alien weapons are peace-sealed. They’ve hailed us in Meese Caulf, Taarja, and Minnisiat, but I assumed you’d want to respond to them in person.”
“Yes, I would,” Roscu confirmed with a flicker of satisfaction. It had taken a while to whip the homestead defense forces into shape when she’d first taken this job, but they were finally starting to act like proper military professionals. Rupiov in particular was rapidly becoming an excellent second-in-command. “Did they sound particularly fluent in any of the languages?”
“Their Taarja was probably the clearest,” Rupiov said. “Unfortunately, that’s the hardest for most of us.”
“We didn’t do things in the Expansionary Defense Fleet because they were easy, Lieutenant,” Roscu said tartly. “We did things because they needed to be done. Give me comm.”
“You have comm, Captain.”
Roscu cleared her throat. “This is Captain Roscu, commander of the Clarr family homestead defense force,” she said in Taarja, trying not to wince. It really was an unpleasant language for the Chiss vocal apparatus. “Identify yourself, and state the purpose of your visit to the Chiss Ascendancy.”
“I am called Jixtus,” an alien voice came back, raspy yet strangely melodious. The Taarja words were clear and precise, but there was a hint of a strange accent beneath them. “I travel with Generalirius Nakirre aboard the Kilji warship Whetstone. I’ve come to your world to deliver your Patriarch a warning.”
Roscu felt her eyes narrow. Mitth Patriarch Thurfian’s report had been suspiciously sketchy on what this Jixtus and the Mitth Patriel on Avidich had talked about. “Explain,” she said, turning her attention to the tactical display. The three Clarr destroyers were already in attack positions, and the planet’s general patrol ships were closing in at backup positions. “What sort of warning?”
“I believe your family to be in danger,” Jixtus said. “I ask permission to speak about the threat directly with your Patriarch.”
“The Clarr family is flattered by your solicitude,” Roscu said. “May I ask why you’re being so helpful?”
Jixtus chuckled, a dry, raspy sound. “For payment, of course,” he said. “I am a broker of information. I learn from those who have secrets, then sell to those who would best profit from those secrets.”
“I see,” Roscu said. At least he wasn’t pitching a tale of selfless altruism or something equally ridiculous. She didn’t have much respect for mercenaries, but she did understand them. “I’m sure you’ll understand that I can’t disturb Patriarch Rivlex without something more on this threat than merely your word as to its supposed existence. If you’ll provide me with the details, I can decide whether or not to bring it to his attention.”
“Will you also then be judge on whether payment is justified?” Jixtus asked pointedly. “Your offer carries the risk of enriching you while impoverishing me.”
“You’re a stranger to the Chiss Ascendancy,” Roscu said. “You may therefore be forgiven your suggestion that the Clarr family would cheat you. I assure you that your information will receive full payment for its value.”
“That value to be judged by you, of course.” Jixtus gave a sort of whistling sigh. “I suppose I have no other choice. Very well. If you will give landing instructions to my shuttle pilot, I shall come down and deliver to you the details of this threat.”
“There’s no need for that,” Roscu told him. Out of the corner of her eye she saw one of the status displays change, and she looked over to see a new message: Defense Force ship Venturous en route; ETA three hours.
She made a face. Three hours. So much for the Defense Force’s highly touted ability to protect the Ascendancy. Fortunately for the people of Rhigal, the Clarr were ready. “This communication is secure,” she said. “You can give me the details right here and now.”
“Is it secure?” Jixtus countered. “Are the Clarr then alone on your world?”
Roscu frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean this threat is not coming from outside,” Jixtus said, lowering his voice as if afraid others were listening in. “The danger is, in fact, coming from others of your kind.”
Roscu sent another look at the tactical. After the Ascendancy’s tangle with General Yiv, she’d assumed Jixtus’s alleged threat would come from the remnant of the Nikardun forces, or possibly from someone new arriving in Yiv’s wake. For that matter, the threat might even be Jixtus and these Kiljis he was riding with.
But from the Chiss themselves? Ridiculous. None of the other Nine would be foolish enough to take on the Clarr.
Unless, of course, by threat he meant some political machinations were in the works. That sort of thing happened all the time, and the Clarr and their allies could deal with that without paying some meddlesome alien for information they probably already had.
Still, that was an alien warship up there. Even if Jixtus’s information was a waste of time, there might be other ways Roscu could gain from this encounter. “Understood,” she said. “Unfortunately, the Patriarch’s standing policy is to refuse landing permission to non-Chiss vessels.”
“I understand,” Jixtus said. “With danger pressing so closely all around you, you would be unwise indeed to allow an unknown into your midst. A shuttle’s worth of soldiers within your very gates could inflict unspeakable damage.”
Roscu felt her eyes narrow. Threats of danger she could hear and dismiss. But insults against her and the Clarr family were another matter. “You don’t know much about Chiss if you think even one shuttle would be any threat to us,” she said. “Your entire warship would represent little more than an exercise for our defending forces.”
“What did you say?” Jixtus said, sounding almost flustered. “How did you know?”
Roscu looked at Rupiov, got a puzzled shrug in reply. “How did I know what?” she asked.
“That the threat is indeed represented by a war exercise,” Jixtus said. “How did you know of your enemies’ ships’ practice attack?”
“Wait a minute,” Roscu said. “What practice attack? What are you talking about?”
“You have a depth of knowledge and wisdom we did not expect to find among the Chiss,” Jixtus said. “But I cannot say more when others may hear. If I may not visit your world and your Patriarch, perhaps you can send a representative aboard the Whetstone for a more secure conversation.”
Roscu chewed at the inside of her cheek. But really, why not? There wasn’t anything to lose—surely Jixtus wouldn’t try to harm her or hold her hostage, not with a group of Chiss warships holding the Whetstone in their targeting sights.
On the contrary, there was a lot to be gained by accepting such an offer. The Mitth Patriarch had sent Jixtus away without trying to get a closer look at the Whetstone or even to learn more about Jixtus and the Kiljis. Now the Clarr family was being offered the chance to do both.
“Very well, I accept,” she said. “I’m sending you orbit information. Reposition yourself as instructed, and I’ll be there shortly.”
“We shall eagerly await your arrival.”
Roscu keyed off the comm. “Feed him a mid-altitude orbit,” she told Rupiov. “Make it a polar loop.”
“A bit tricky to get to one of those from their current vector,” Rupiov pointed out.
“That’s the point,” Roscu told him. “Let’s see how much trouble they’re willing to go through to talk to us. And make sure the orbit never puts them directly over the homestead.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Rupiov said hesitantly. “You’re really going up there?”
“Why not?” Roscu asked, watching the orbital data flow across the comm display as it was transmitted to the Whetstone. She couldn’t decipher the numbers as quickly as a trained nav officer could, but it all seemed correct.
“Alone?” Rupiov pressed. “They’re aliens, you know. We don’t know what they’re capable of.”
“That’s all right,” Roscu assured him. “They don’t know what I’m capable of, either. More to the point, this is my chance to get a close look at that ship, inside and out, and to actually meet these people. Neither of which the Mitth bothered to do.”
Rupiov’s lips puckered in a smile. “No, they didn’t,” he said. “That should make for some interesting conversations in the Syndicure.”
“And possibly some good leverage points,” Roscu agreed. “Get me a shuttle and pilot. I want them ready to fly as soon as possible.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Rupiov said. “They’ll be outside the main entrance in fifteen minutes.”
Fifteen minutes. Just enough time for Roscu to tie back her hair, change into her dress uniform, and get to the main entrance to meet the shuttle. Whatever these aliens were really here for, she wanted to make her best impression on them.
Especially since the Clarr family dress uniform went so well with a holstered charric. And since it also had a nice little concealed pocket that was perfect for a two-shot backup weapon.
If Jixtus was planning trouble, he would indeed not know what she was capable of. Not until it was far too late.