Star Wars: Outbound Flight (2006)
Written by: Timothy Zahn
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 453 (Hardcover)
Series: Star Wars
Why I Read It: I’m on a mission to catch up on all the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels that I missed since late 2005. The first step is to read all of the books I bought but never read, and then once I catch up with those, I’ll go and buy the books I missed and then read those. Whatever happens with the movies now that Disney’s in charge, Star Wars was my first SF-nal love, and I’ve missed these books and these characters.
The premise: ganked from BN.com: It began as the ultimate voyage of discovery — only to become the stuff of lost Republic legend . . . and a dark chapter in Jedi history. Now, at last, acclaimed author Timothy Zahn returns to tell the whole extraordinary story of the remarkable–and doomed–Outbound Flight Project.
The Clone Wars have yet to erupt when Jedi Master Jorus C’baoth petitions the Senate for support of a singularly ambitious undertaking. Six Jedi Masters, twelve Jedi Knights, and fifty thousand men, women, and children will embark — aboard a gargantuan vessel, equipped for years of travel — on a mission to contact intelligent life and colonize undiscovered worlds beyond the known galaxy. The government bureaucracy threatens to scuttle the expedition before it can even start — until Master C’baoth foils a murderous conspiracy plot, winning him the political capital he needs to set in motion the dream of Outbound Flight.
Or so it would seem. For unknown to the famed Jedi Master, the successful launch of the mission is secretly being orchestrated by an unlikely ally: the evil Sith Lord, Darth Sidious, who has his own reasons for wanting Outbound Flight to move forward . . . and, ultimately, to fail.
Yet Darth Sidious is not the mission’s most dangerous challenge. Once underway, the starship crosses paths at the edge of Unknown Space with the forces of the alien Chiss Ascendancy and the brilliant mastermind best known as “Thrawn.” Even Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, aboard Outbound Flight with his young Padawan student, Anakin Skywalker, cannot help avert disaster. Thus what begins as a peaceful Jedi mission is violently transformed into an all-out war for survival against staggering odds — and the most diabolical of adversaries.
Timothy Zahn’s unique mix of espionage, political gamesmanship, and deadly interstellar combat breathes electrifying life into a Star Wars legend.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay. And I also want to point out: there will be spoilers, at any given moment, for the entire run of Star Wars books up until the date the current book was published. So if the Star Wars are something you want to get into, stop now and read THIS instead. I don’t recommend anyone reading this review unless they’ve read the book I’m reviewing now, due to aforementioned spoilers, so stop now or — if you have read the book — carry on!
Discussion: So it’s been years since I’ve read Timothy Zahn. Mind you, I’ve not read anything of his outside of his Star Wars work. Last time I read a Zahn Star Wars book was Survivor’s Quest in 2005, so I’ve forgotten just how seamless his Star Wars storytelling can be. I think of everything I’ve read since I’ve gotten back on the bandwagon, this has been the most seamless and enjoyable. No, there’s no Luke & company, and Obi-Wan and Anakin have a sub-sub plot. Their appearance in the story is organic, but their exit felt somewhat abrupt, though understandable due to what we learn in later books (namely, the Thrawn Trilogy, which I barely remember the details of, to be quite honest).
Despite not remembering my Thrawn trilogy very well (it WAS one of the first few Star Wars books I read back in the nineties), I do remember the character Thrawn. Getting his origin story and the origin story of Outbound Flight itself was quite interesting, and Zahn knows how to craft his viewpoint characters to garner the maximum amount of sympathy, empathy and curiosity. So we learned all we needed about Jorus C’baoth through the eyes of his Padawan Lorana Jinzler, who’s abilities and personality has been crushed by C’baoth’s overbearing presence. We also see C’baoth through Obi-Wan, with some rather ironic moments when Obi-Wan watches Anakin interact with the Jedi Master. It’s clear that C’baoth would’ve rather trained Anakin himself, and it’s clear that Anakin has nothing but admiration for the Jedi Master, despite the fact that Obi-Wan is very aware of C’baoth’s flaws. To observe Thrawn, we get smuggler Car’das, whose rather hapless in comparison to his captain. Regardless, they end up in Chiss space by accident, and it’s the first time Thrawn, let alone any of the Chiss, have interacted with the Republic. It’s a great introduction to Chiss culture, because our characters are getting it for the first time, so the reader is too. And while I was already familiar with it, I really enjoyed coming in at the start.
Other POVs are also interesting: we have a pawn of Sidious’ who is also Palpatine’s right-hand man, Doriana, is quite the interesting read too. He’s not aware that Sidious and Palpatine is the same person, and Zahn does a good job making it believable that Doriana wouldn’t pick up whatever clues are available. If there’s one hiccup to Doriana’s otherwise interesting and intelligent character, it’s that: how can he be around Palpatine all day, every day, and not notice some kind of similarities between him and Sidious? Zahn smooths that out well, but it may cause some readers issues.
An issue for me was Zahn’s naming: Car’das. C’baoth. Ugh, the apostrophes!
There, that’s my complaint.
Wait, I have one more: Zahn does have what I consider to be an annoying habit of taking well-known phrases we use in daily conversation and changing it just enough so that the reader still gets it, but it fits into the Star Wars universe, only in that the phrase couldn’t have come from Earth because no one in the Star Wars universe is from Earth. If that makes sense. One such phrase on page 274:
“Here they come,” Car’das murmured, wondering if Thrawn had finally sliced off more than he could serve.
That’s just awkward to me. Because the colloquial phrase is “biting off more than you can chew,” and frankly, Zahn’s change doesn’t make much sense. How can you slice off more of something than you can SERVE to others? I get what Zahn was doing, but he should’ve just used the colloquial phrase and been done with it.
At any rate, Zahn does a wonderful job interweaving various Star Wars storylines so that this book feels like a realistic piece of story within the larger universe. In the hands of some writers, such connections feel more like shout-outs, and said shout-outs have neon signs pointing to them so the author knows the READER knows what they did there. Not so here. What I picked up happened because I’ve read the other books in the series to date. Otherwise, it would’ve felt like natural development and foreshadowing (with the exception, I think, of Vergere, whose story was introduced in Rogue Planet and may not make much sense to any reader starting with Outbound Flight. But the reference to the Vong? SO AWESOME. It tickled my brain with all kinds of possibilities: while I know I’m forgetting what it was that Vergere did during her time with the Vong to keep them away from the Republic, one has to wonder: if Sidious hadn’t taken over, if Sidious hadn’t eventually teamed up with Thrawn and the Empire became the force it did (which sparked the Rebellion, which kept the galaxy on high alert), would the Vong have invaded sooner? I love the possibilities, and moreso, I love the way Zahn casually wove all of this into the story. It feels so natural, and that’s something I really appreciate.
And remember how, in Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader, I wished we’d see more of what happened when Jedi met their family members? I got my wish with Lorana. Granted, it was only a snippet, but it was an interesting snippet, especially considering the legend she became in her own family despite them not knowing her as a person, and comparing that to the timid Jedi she actually is. I did find myself wondering if perhaps we see a Jinzler in Zahn’s original trilogy (for that matter, what about Pressor? That felt a little heavy with foreshadowing) and that’s why it was included, but whatever the case, I was happy to see some of that tension.
We also see an early use of the Jedi mind meld that’s used so much in The New Jedi Order and beyond (and by beyond I mean The Dark Nest trilogy). I can’t remember if it was discussed in Thrawn’s original trilogy, but I had no qualms with C’baoth figuring it out here and putting it to use (despite it being used for the dark side, considering).
And speaking of C’baoth, what a piece of work. He’s so clearly dabbling in the dark side from the start it isn’t even funny. It’s just sad that the others either turn a blind eye or are too afraid to speak up. Of course, Obi-Wan does, and it does not good, so perhaps Lorana’s insight later was right: it was always too late to save that man.
Thrawn, on the flip side, is delightfully smart and clever. I loved reading about the Chiss. I know some people are huge fans of Boba Fett and the Mandlorians, but give me the Chiss any day. They are FAR more interesting to me. While some readers might find Thrawn’s ability to maneuver difficult to swallow, it definitely kept me on my toes for the whole book, because while I have vague memories of what happens to Thrawn later down the road, I can’t wait to see what happens and how it all unfolds. I did have some confusion about the role Car’das played to trick the Vagaari: I originally thought he was acting on his own volition and Thrawn just knew exactly how to manipulate things so that Car’das thought it was his own idea, but later, I couldn’t help but wonder if Car’das was in on it. I had the same issue with Ar’alani’s role in everything that happened. Whatever the case, it’s a minor issue. I will say that tying up all the loose ends in the Chiss storyline was a bit fuzzy: some things happened that didn’t make sense to me, but still, I consider it to be a minor issue. Frankly, by time the book was over, I was more concerned about how we got from there to the Thrawn trilogy itself, and I’m hoping a later Zahn book explores this transition (like how Thrawn finally ended up working with Palpatine, how they found C’baoth, etc).
My Rating: 7 – Good Read
The hiccups I had with this book were very, very minor. I enjoyed the hell out of reading this. For the most part, it was smooth reading, and Zahn has a wonderful way of tying events in this book to events that happen prior to and long after the events of this book, and that made everything utterly delightful for me. Reading this makes me want to re-read Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy (starting with Heir to the Empire, which is a GREAT gateway book to the Expanded Universe), which I may do some day when I feel I have the time available. Zahn tells a great yarn without overly relying on familiar characters from the films (though Anakin and Obi-Wan do play a solid role in the book) while making care for characters you’ve not met before. I was utterly thrilled with this novel, and now I’m really, really looking forward to all of the Zahn-penned Star Wars books I haven’t gotten around to yet. In terms of readability, readers who’ve read everything up until this point will do very well with this. Newer readers may have issues, but I’d like to think the book’s strong enough to stand on its own two feet, so long as you enjoy reading SF in general. It’s got a good arc, and you really feel for the characters (and really hate the ones you’re supposed to hate). This has been the best Star Wars Expanded Universe novel I’ve read since I started back up in December. I hope future books are just as good.
Cover Commentary: I’ve always liked this cover. The coloring is nice, and if you remove the titles and the author names, it’s still a very SF-ish cover, and that’s cool.