A Guest Review of “Thrawn: Alliances”

As a part of Sci-Fi September, I invited a friend’s review of a favorite recent Sci-Fi read. First, I’ll introduce you to the reviewer.

Kimberly Kunker of Arador’s Rustic Shop (on Etsy)

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Kimberly Kunker operates Arador’s Rustic Shop on Etsy, which sells Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Renaissance Festival leather accessories, as well as leather journals and chain mail. She’s made belts, pouches and holsters for a number of Jedi, Sith, smuggler and Mandalorian cosplayers from around the country. As a novice cosplayer herself, she understands the desire to get a costume “just right” and the pride that comes from having handmade elements as part of a kit. Star Wars, Stargate, and Ender’s Game are among her favorite sci-fi series.

“Thrawn: Alliances” by Timothy Zahn

Back Cover Summary

Thrawn

“I have sensed a disturbance in the Force.” Ominous words under any circumstances, but all the more when uttered by Emperor Palpatine. On Batuu, at the edges of the Unknown Regions, a threat to the Empire is taking root its existence little more than a glimmer, its consequences as yet unknowable. But it is troubling enough to the Imperial leader to warrant investigation by his most powerful agents: ruthless enforcer Lord Darth Vader and brilliant strategist Grand Admiral Thrawn. Fierce rivals for the emperor’s favor, and outspoken adversaries on Imperial affairs, including the Death Star project, the formidable pair seem unlikely partners for such a crucial mission. But the Emperor knows it’s not the first time Vader and Thrawn have joined forces. And there’s more behind his royal command than either man suspects.

Kimberly’s Review

Genre: space opera

Rating: PG-13, for numerous fight scenes

First introduced to readers by author Timothy Zahn in 1991, Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of the few characters to make the transition from the Expanded Universe to Disney canon. Seeing Thrawn re-introduced in the animated Star Wars Rebels in July of 2016 was a dream come true for many fans. Zahn re-created his character for the new era. “Thrawn: Alliances” (July 2018) is the sequel to “Thrawn” (2017).

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Episodes on YouTube

This book has two parallel story arcs; the first set with Anakin during the Clone Wars, the second with Vader during the Empire. In the Clone Wars arc General Anakin Skywalker went to Batuu to find Padme after she was found missing. While preparing to land, he was intercepted and delayed by an alien who wanted to learn about the Republic. He struggled to interact with this unknown species speaking in a trade language he barely understood. Padme was portrayed as competent and smart; she helped Anakin and Thrawn escape when they were captured. Anakin’s impatience was seen in his desire to rush in and blindly attack a Separatist outpost. If you’ve seen The Clone Wars animated series then you know Anakin: impulsive, quick on his feet, and always ready to use his lightsaber to do the talking. Zahn split the point of view between Anakin, Thrawn, and Padme, which helped portray each character’s mindset and how they viewed each other.

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Clone Wars on YouTube

The Imperial arc pairs the Emperor’s enforcer, Vader, with his greatest military strategist, Thrawn. Both have secrets which they try but fail to keep from the other. The parallel arcs were masterfully interwoven and they showed how Thrawn and Anakin went from complete strangers to respected but tentative allies. In the Imperial arc, Thrawn thought Vader was a stranger he had to build trust with, not knowing that they had worked together during the Clone Wars. Vader thought Thrawn’s loyalty was split between the Empire and his native Chiss Ascendancy, and Thrawn knew there was something about Vader he could not figure out. Thrawn wanted to keep his native planet and his people a secret, but he was still loyal to the Empire. Vader would have rather been sent to any other part of the galaxy than to a place where he had memories of Padme.

Competition is crucial to the Imperial hierarchy; Thrawn worked his way through the ranks, but Vader is outside the standard chain-of-command. As such, the men under their commands are unsure of how to handle themselves when aboard Thrawn’s Star Destroyer. Vader had to act as if he did not know anything about Thrawn or the planet they were on, but Anakin’s memories kept surfacing and getting in the way. Zahn’s decision to have Vader refer to Anakin as “the Jedi” showed his conflicted nature and his attempts to suppress his former life.

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Thrawn’s strategic thinking helped temper Anakin and later Vader’s reckless and impulsive nature. Thrawn is the Sherlock Holmes of the Star Wars universe; he makes deductions based on visual, verbal, and artistic cues. One reason Vader is such an enigma to him is because he can’t get a good visual read on him. Thrawn always has a long game in mind and has contingency plans in place. For the mission on Batuu to succeed, Vader needed to trust Thrawn’s intel and learn how to navigate through uncharted hyperspace lanes using a Chiss Force technique which Thrawn could only describe second-hand since he was not Force-sensitive. Only their combined abilities allowed them to succeed and find the underlying cause of the Force disturbance. At the end of the book—when Vader flew one of Thrawn’s new TIE Defenders—his piloting skills and command style allowed Thrawn to correctly deduce that he was once Anakin Skywalker. Thrawn had revealed some of his species secrets by telling Vader they had Force-sensitive children, and Vader revealed his former identity by relaxing his guard when he returned to a starfighter cockpit.

About Arador’s Rustic Shop & Owner, Kimberly

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Kimberly, an avid fan of J. R. R. Tolkien, has been hooked on fantasy ever since she first read “The Hobbit” in third grade. She became interested in making chainmaille in high school and learned to visualize medieval weapons and armour from “The Lord of the Rings” movies.

The name of her shop comes from Tolkien’s Elvish, meaning “Lord of the Land/Royal Lord.” Arador was the 14th Chieftan of the Dunedain, an ancestor of Aragorn.

Her products are solid, functional, and affordable, turning natural rustic materials into the same simple and timeless designs as the Elves and Rohirrim wore.

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Star Wars crafts at Arador’s Rustic Shop (Etsy)

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Part 3: Action-reaction in fiction as Newton’s Literary Third Law

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction…” Newton’s Third Law, thus stated, uses the words action and reaction to refer to the physical forces operating on two interacting objects. These forces exist simultaneously (equal magnitude, opposite direction), as in the image below.

OJ_action-reactionSS

*** Be forewarned: The writing analogy strays from the simultaneity implicit in Newton’s Third Law. ***

In WriterSpeak (with a little simplification), Newton’s Third Law could be translated as follows: “Every (protagonist) action sparks an opposing (antagonist) reaction.” Conversely, each enemy attack creates some situation to which the hero must respond.

Why? Not necessarily because the antagonist is a bad person (he may not be a person at all), but because he and the hero have clashing goals (e.g., The Fugitive‘s Dr. Richard Kimble vs. Deputy Samuel Gerard).

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Dr. Richard Kimble (played by Harrison Ford) professes his innocence and Deputy Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) says, “I don’t care.” (But guess what. He cares.)

On a basic level, the central conflict of every novel is founded on this tug-of-war interaction between a hero and his opposition. The antagonist acts (cause). The hero reacts (effect). For every action taken, some change occurs that invites further response. Plot is, by definition, a sequence of events linked by action and reaction—by cause and effect. (More on that here.)

On a large scale, we can see this basic tug-of-war structure across Star Wars episodes 4 to 6. In A New Hope, the rebels destroy the Death Star. (Hero victory!) But then The Empire Strikes Back. (The hero withdraws to lick his wounds.) Finally, in Return of the Jedi, hero Luke not only overcomes the antagonist (Darth Vader), but also rescues him from the dark side. (Permanent victory! The central conflict is resolved.)

Back and forth like lumberjacks moving a two-person saw, the hero and villain push and pull, perpetually digging in deeper. It’s not always as straightforward as hero vs. villain, but the point is, your hero isn’t working in a vacuum (er—unless you’re writing sci-fi). But even if he is in a literal vacuum, it’s not clear sailing to the finish. He’s dodging space debris where there should be a planet, getting caught in a tractor beam, and being diverted into smelly garbage mashers by a pushy princess (all because he’s coming up against that antagonistic force).

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Motivated by some personal need, the hero presses forward in pursuit of his goal. That goal is what’s driving him forward. But he must meet with opposition or else the story sags. After all, opposition stems from that all-important ingredient of good fiction, which finds its origin in that action-reaction push and pull: Conflict!

What do you think? What are the forces of antagonism in your own story? Do you enjoy a story more when the antagonist is blatant (as in Star Wars and Silence of the Lambs) or when it’s more subtle (as in The Help or Forrest Gump)? Leave a comment below (and drop your email here) for a chance to win a 2500-word critique or an e-copy of Janice Hardy’s book Understanding Conflict. To enter the “special giveaway” with the option of winning a $25 gift certificate from Better World Books, visit the permalink here and follow the instructions.

Missed the first two? Check them out here: Part 1: How Newton’s First Law mimics character motivation. AND Part 2: How a character’s internal change mirrors Newton’s Second Law.

Part 2: How a character’s internal change mirrors Newton’s Second Law

A brief recap

Last time, we talked about the external events surrounding our hero’s humble beginnings. Rather than starting out heroic, he or she tries to avoid the journey set before them.

  • During the reaping for The Hunger Games, the last thing Katniss wants is to volunteer to be a tribute.
  • In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s first reaction to Gandalf’s news about the ring is to give it away (to reject the journey).
  • Luke, too, in Star Wars: A New Hope, makes excuses for why he can’t go with Obi-wan.

They’re not looking for adventure, but their outward circumstances change in a way they can’t ignore. Outside force. Outward circumstances. Protagonist decisions leading to action. All these things fall within the realm of the plot—the physical journey: External changes. But the “outside force” triggers internal changes as well…

just like the debris expelled from Earth’s surface into orbit during the creation of the moon… (*WARNING: TANGENT ALERT!*)

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Okay, so maybe an Earth particle blasted into space by a meteor doesn’t make for a great character…

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But, I digress…

Internal Change (the realm of character arc)

In the first chapter, our protagonists are likely to be stuck in a rut—internally at least. They believe some lie, or they’re haunted by their past, or they’re hampered by besetting flaws that prevent them from fulfilling their dreams. Or maybe they’re hampered by a flaw because they believe a lie that was first stamped into their brains during some past traumatic event (i.e., their ghost or wound). The point is, most characters need to change (internally), but they can’t do it on their own.

Then along comes the “outside force” (e.g., meteor), and soon thereafter the protagonist’s decision launches him on a journey that takes the rest of the book to complete. Like the initial “outside force” that first sets your protagonist in motion, new external circumstances and events (all related to the central conflict) present new challenges for your hero to overcome. During the course of the journey, he struggles against various obstacles that force him to address his inner issues until he emerges, a changed man.

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But how does all this relate to Newton’s second law?

F = ma, a = F/m

Newton’s Second Law is most familiar to people when it’s expressed as a formula. Force equals mass times acceleration

With a little rearrangement, this becomes: acceleration equals force divided by mass. In other words, there are two variables responsible for changes in the acceleration of a body: The Force (may it be with you) and the mass:

(1) Variations in the Force (↑F, ↑a … ↓F, ↓a)

In physical terms, the rate of change in velocity—i.e., acceleration—of a particular body is proportional to the total force acting on that body. Imagine shoving a shopping cart with a big vs. little oomph. (These are technical terms here, so you might want to jot some notes.) Obviously, the bigger oomph produces the greater acceleration.

In WriterSpeak, a character’s overall internal change will be proportional to the magnitude of difficulties he or she must overcome. In other words, the greater the forces acting on a character, the more he or she changes.

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(2) Variations in the Mass (↑m, ↓a … ↓m, ↑a)

In physical terms, the greater the mass on which a given total force acts, the more sluggish the acceleration. That is to say, your shopping cart is harder to push once filled.

In WriterSpeak, the more sluggish or stubborn the character, the greater the forces needed to bring about a given change. In other words, more challenging trials will be required to reform Jack the Ripper than to convince Elizabeth Bennet to marry Mr. Darcy.

So, Newton’s second literary law speaks to the magnitude of a character’s internal change (or arc)…

The bottom line here is that every heroine needs impetus to overcome her issues. The more we want her to change, the more pressure we need to apply in the way of plot hurdles and difficult choices (i.e., internal and external conflict).

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After all, characters are the most stubborn of people. They don’t learn from their mistakes the first time around. They aren’t self-enlightened individuals who spontaneously decide to become better people overnight. They scoff at their mentors, presuming they themselves know better—until struggle and hardship teach them otherwise. Only after they’ve experienced the full constriction of their flaws can they embrace the idea of change.

How about you? When you recognize flaws in yourself, do you find them easy to overcome? What about your characters? How is the magnitude of their arc proportional to the difficulties they have to face? Leave a comment below (and drop your email here) for a chance to win a 2500-word critique or an e-copy of K.M. Weiland’s book Creating Character Arcs.

Come back next week to peruse the next article in this series: Story Physics, Part 3: Action-Reaction in fiction as Newton’s Literary Third Law. Missed the first one? Check it out here: Part 1: How Newton’s First Law mimics character motivation.