By the Doctor
Greetings Ladies and Gentlemen, and our readers! The Doctor is in, and I’ve got a review of Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn for you. This is the third book in Zahn’s Ascendancy trilogy (which also includes Chaos Rising and Greater Good), and since Berg hasn’t reviewed those for you before, I’m going to touch on all three books a little, in order to talk about Lesser Evil as a part of the whole.
The Ascendancy trilogy is set at the tail end of the Clone Wars. According to the timeline in the front of Lesser Evil, all three books are set in-between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith – but it’s actually a little more complicated than that. Without getting in to spoilers, I’d agree that you could place the first book, Chaos Rising, firmly there, but based on...certain revelations at the end of Lesser Evil, Greater Good is probably dipping in to the timeline of Revenge of the Sith and certainly Lesser Evil post-dates it, at least partially. That said, this is not a criticism of the choice to place these on the timeline as they have been – for aesthetic and clarity purposes the choice to group all three books in the trilogy together makes sense, particularly as the events in each book follow on directly from the conclusion in the previous. [Side bar, if you’re as fascinated as I am by these kinds of editorial choices with regards to supplementary material such as the timeline, one of the editors at Del Rey, Tom aka @DarthInternous on Twitter, has a fascinating Twitter thread regarding the evolution of the timeline included in Star Wars novels from the Legends/Expanded Universe days to the New Canon, which you can read here.]
To some extent, the precise timing of the Ascendancy trilogy doesn’t matter a great deal anyway. These books take place almost entirely in the domain of the Chiss Ascendancy, with only one (extremely well done, delightful, brilliantly written, color me both pleased and impressed) foray into Republic space that takes place in Chaos Rising (I cannot say anything about it without giving it away, and the surprise is worth it, so just read it. It’s the first book in the trilogy, so you’re not needing to read through the whole thing before finding out if you agree with me or not). However, these books are actually setting up the groundwork for the next Thrawn trilogy (which Zahn, pulling a Lucas you could say, actually wrote first and is already complete, so once you finish the Ascendancy trilogy you can continue right along with Thrawn in … Thrawn. That’s it, it’s just Thrawn [followed by Thrawn: Alliances and Thrawn: Treason]). That trilogy does directly interact with our “main” Republic timeline of events, and indeed, the touch points that Zahn offers in the Ascendancy books, and in Lesser Evil in particular, do a good job of grounding our sense of “when”.
This is important, because as I stated before, Ascendancy offers very little in the familiar, outside of our favorite blue-skinned red-eyed Grand Admiral (here Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo). If you have read Zahn’s previous New Canon trilogy, there are some other familiar Chiss faces you’ll enjoy having back in this book (including one of my favorite badass Admirals, Ar’alani). But otherwise, at first blush these books could practically be read as their own universe separate from Star Wars. They get very heavily, at times densely, in to Chiss politics, both with respects to the Expansionary Defense Fleet (of which Senior Captain Thrawn is a part) and its relation to the Chiss governing body of the Syndicure, but also with regards to Chiss family politics which… complicated is not a strong enough word. And when I say Chiss family politics, we’re not talking about merely blood relatives and arguments amongst parents and children, but a governing system that involves the Nine Ruling Families, 40 lesser families, and internal political hierarchy within all of those families that dictates who has rank/power over who/what elements of the larger system. Helpfully, all three Ascendancy books contain not just a Dramatis Personae, but also a reference list to family ranks, political hierarchy, and military ranks within the Chiss Ascendancy (all of these are very much appreciated. Berg has written before about how the Dramatis Personae has been lacking in New Canon books such as the High Republic novels to their slight detriment, and I agree that it would have been useful in those books. I applaud the Dramatis Personae being used in the Ascendancy novels, particularly with the complex Chiss political structuring).
For me, none of the above is a negative. I love the weird dense politics of the Chiss, the completely new territory of the Ascendancy, the way that these books are seemingly doing their own thing but actually are setting up elements that later tie in to the larger canon. Frankly, it’s all so immersive that it doesn’t take long to pick up the Chiss military and family political structuring, or the naming conventions. It’s actually absolutely fascinating! That said, your Doctor is a weird nerd for that kind of thing, and I can see how if you weren’t this could be a little too dense and possibly confusing. For readers who are expecting the Republic, the Jedi, or any familiar elements outside of Thrawn, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you come to it with an open mind, it offers an enrichment of the Star Wars universe by treading new ground rather than re-hashing the same places/characters/events.
The trilogy, and Lesser Evil in particular as the conclusion, are very Zahn, by which I mean there are a lot of “oh fuck!” (yours truly said this out loud on multiple occasions while reading) moments where he makes a connection or a reveal of some detail that you weren’t expecting. There’s also plenty of both MacGuffins and uses of the Chekhov’s Gun principle. All three books include both the main timeline of the narrative and interlude chapters titled “Memories” which flashback to events prior to the main timeline that inform the main narrative both reflectively thematically and more practically by setting up events that later pay off in some of those “oh fuck!” moments.
The only real “bad” for me is (and this is about to be very very pedantic in a your-Doctor-is-a-book-nerd-who-used-to-work-in-publishing kind of way) the inconsistency in the binding of the books. Chaos Rising has black binding and blue edged pages. Greater Good has black binding but no blue edging. Lesser Evil has a cream binding and no blue edging. This is so very minor I feel ridiculous even typing it but I bring it up largely because I did find the blue edging on Chaos Rising a little distracting, at least at first. So push past that, because you won't have to deal with it in Greater Good and Lesser Evil. The actual dust jackets of all three are gorgeous too, so once they’re all on your shelf you won't even notice the binding inconsistencies (unless you’re sitting here writing a review with a pile of naked books next to you).
There’s a much longer conversation I want to have about Zahn, these books, and Thrawn, among other things, but you’ll have to wait for that… For now, go start the Ascendancy trilogy if you haven’t read the first two already, and pick up Lesser Evil if you have, because it’s an excellent payoff to the trilogy.