Ascendency: Chaos Rising is Zahn’s Best Thrawn Book Yet

Kelly Lynn Thomas

The first entry in a new trilogy about everyone’s favorite Chiss super strategist, Thrawn Ascendency: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn, takes readers back in time to Mitth’raw’nuruodo’s early days as an officer in the Chiss Ascendency’s Expansionary Defense Fleet. 

While we’ve certainly gotten hints about the Chiss Ascendency and the Expansionary Defense Fleet in previous Thrawn books, this is our first deep dive into the whys and hows of Chiss governance and culture. 

Because the events of the Ascendency trilogy take place in the Unknown Regions, at the fringes of the galaxy where the Skywalker Saga takes place, Timothy Zahn presumably had almost total creative freedom in spinning this tale—and it’s beautiful.

Thrawn shines best when he has a complex problem to solve, and in Chaos Rising, he has several.  The book jumps back and forth between the past and the present. The Memories sections focus on Thrawn’s academy days and his early relationship with Admiral Ar’alani, then known as Irizi’ar’alani, or Ziara. Past events feed into and affect the current problem, which involves a mysterious attack on the Chiss Ascendency and several destroyed refugee ships in nearby systems. 

On top of the mystery he has to solve for the good of the Ascendency, some strong political forces are working against Thrawn behind-the-scenes because of a past mistake. Thrawn, of course, is oblivious, and it often falls on Admiral Ar’alani to save him in that regard. 

Zahn also does a good job of explaining why Thrawn is so bad at politics in a great scene that lets the reader in on Thrawn’s own frustrations with himself.

The Thrawn we meet in Chaos Rising is the same Thrawn we meet in the previous three books and on Rebelsbut he’s younger and more inexperienced. He knows what’s right, but not always the right way to go about doing things. He’s made mistakes that haunt him despite an otherwise flawless record, and we see him grow and change over the course of the events of Chaos Rising, thanks in large part to the friendship and tutelage of Admiral Ar’alani. 

We already know Thrawn and Ar’alani make an excellent team from Thrawn: Treason, but Chaos Rising takes us deeper into their relationship and working partnership. The sexual tension between the two hinted at in Treasoncomes to the surface in this entry, particularly in the scene where Ar’alani has Thrawn prove his ability to deduce an enemy’s strategy from their artwork.

In this scene, which takes place in the “Memories” portion of the book, Ar’alani invites Thrawn back to her quarters so he can study her sculptures, and then takes him down to the gym to spar a few rounds. “Two people who don’t want to or can’t admit they’re into each other and fight out their feelings” is one of my all-time favorite tropes, so pardon me if I just ate up this scene like candy.

What also becomes abundantly clear throughout the book is that even if Thrawn and Ar’alani have feelings for each other, they can never act on them. (Another favorite trope of mine.) Both are wholly committed to the Ascendency and their military service, so much so that they’re willing to risk their careers, family connections, and even their place among the Chiss to chase down the unknown threat that’s presented itself. 

Zahn introduced the Chiss sky-walkers—young Force-sensitive girls who can navigate through hyperspace—in Thrawn: Treason, and in Chaos Rising we get to meet several and follow their stories as they travel with Thrawn and Ar’alani across the tumultuous area of space known as the Chaos. 

One of my favorite things about this book is how we get to see Thrawn through the sky-walkers’ eyes. While they are fully formed characters in their own right, with their own desires and conflicts, they give us a window into Thrawn’s more tender side as well as a broader look at Chiss society in general.

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Longtime Timothy Zhan or Thrawn fans probably need little convincing to pick up this book, but it’s also great for those unfamiliar with either the character or the extended Star Wars universe in general. Aside from a brief run-in with Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars (which ties into Thrawn: Alliances), there’s no crossover with other important galactic events or characters, making this a perfect entry point for those new to the world of Star Wars books.

And for those who prefer audiobooks, longtime Star Wars narrator Marc Thompson does a typically stellar job on Chaos Rising (my one nitpick is that I never, ever enjoy his cockney accent; it just feels out of place in Star Wars for me). 

Whether you pick up the print, digital, or audio version of Chaos Rising, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Now please excuse me while I go read some Thrawn/Ar’alani fanfiction.