Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising (Thrawn 9)

First of all, having now finished the ninth book in this series, I can’t tell whether Zahn loves communism or hates it.

On the surface, I am offended by Zahn’s unfiltered contempt for syndicalism and admiration for imperialism. But is that really the point? I find myself agreeing with his every critique of ancom as someone who lives it every day, and wondering if he’s trying to make a deeper point…

Thrawn Ascendancy Chaos RisingWow that’s a lot of titles, let’s break it down. It’s a Star Wars book. The title of this trilogy is Thrawn Ascendancy which is the fourth book series about Thrawn the character. The title of the book is Chaos Rising.

The overall arc of this quadruple-series forms a compendium of loosely related books focusing on a single eponymous character. The first series begins with Heir to the Empire and tells the story of the end of his life. The second series starts with Specter of The Past and tells the story just after his death. The third series starts with Thrawn and tells the story of his early Imperial career. The fourth series in the series of serieses starts with this book, Ascendancy and tells the story of his career in The Ascendancy’s Expansionary Defense Fleet before he joins The Empire. I suspect the Ascendancy series will end with him somehow orchestrating the events of the Thrawn series. All the books kind of jump all over the place in time. This one is split between his memories of childhood with Ar’alani and their time together in The Expansionary Defense Fleet.

This enormous number of books is primarily focused on one character and his semi-disingenuous service to a fascist empire. In reality it always seems like his real loyalties are to his original career with The Ascendancy, a syndicate which has become deeply corrupt and oligarchic over a long period of time.

This high-key resonates with me as someone who works at a global ancom ngo and suffers daily through the tumults of a committee life, replete with unofficial oligarchs representing obscure semi-secret power blocks who constantly use the overall mission as a means of scoring points towards irrelevant competing social interests rather than advancing the actual mission of the organization.

One of my favorite lines in the whole series comes during the previous book, Treason when Eli Vanto explains that he has no idea what the third-part of Chiss names means (Chiss have a three part name), but it seems to have some connection to some social concept that he doesn’t understand. This is exactly how Thrawn  feels about literally everything, and I can 100% relate to that. In this book, Ar’alani defends Thrawn from a political attacks while explaining to her subordinate that the people attacking Thrawn don’t care that he was right; they just hate him in general because he isn’t like them or because they can’t understand him; they are missing some sense of solidarity with him precisely because his tactical brilliance makes him an unpredictable factor in their mental calculations.

Thrawn knows that this is a weakness for him, a blind spot as he would say. He commits to trying to explore and understand politics as an important realm of tactics. This is a challenge which Ar’alani says he will never overcome even if he tries. She compares it to someone trying to learn music but just being tone-deaf. She talks about her hope that she or someone like her will always be there to defend him.

Part of this story which is really interesting is the way Zahn starts by showing us Thrawn as a member of a racial minority group in a fascist state who seizes power through tactical brilliance by defeating those who have power over him. At every point, his efforts are two-fold. He is trying to ascend in the ranks while also trying to understand both the opponents he is facing and the opponents he will eventually face. It’s very interesting to see the evolution of the character through the books to an earlier time in his life when he faces similar challenges within his own racial group on the basis of class.


Throughout Chaos Rising, we see nine ruling families in the syndicure which constitute “official” power-blocks. They leverage every possible thing that happens throughout the universe as an excuse to get one over on one another. They do this in the name of leading The Ascendancy. Many people see their own personal short-term interests as the same as the interests of the overall group, without any real regard for the real needs of the overall group or the overall mission of the organization. This 100% resonates with my experience in the queer nonprofit world; most people in leadership give zero fucks about the purpose of the organization, they are only interested in scoring points against one another in the eyes of their power-blocks. I suspect this is a deeper truth about humanity and its inherent flaws and limitations, especially with regard to the inherent and inevitable chaos that comes from the effects of small-group tribalism within large groups. This seems to be what Zahn is trying to touch on in this book.

These nine official power-blocks in the story are made up of countless unofficial power-blocks which are all spending all their time and energy on infighting while there are serious existential threats coming at them from every direction, going unacknowledged and unchallenged. In many cases, political infighting leads to the leaders actively suppressing the truth of the existential threats facing the larger community in exchange for politically expedient short-term victories over one another. This is the most germane thing I have read in a long fucking time. This is the modern world in a nutshell.

Thrawn is set apart from the rest of his people by his devotion to focusing on directly confronting existential threats and real mission goals rather than wasting time and energy on infighting and scoring political points within The Ascendancy. I can not underline this enough. This alone is the reason I have read nine books on this and why I will continue to read however many more Zahn decides to write.