Get to know the ‘Star Wars’ Grand Admiral: How to read the Thrawn novels in order

Grand Admiral Thrawn and Ezra Bridger Via Disney Plus

Star Wars has never been short of iconic villains, but there’s always room for more. Just under a decade after the original Star Wars trilogy reached its Death Star-destroying conclusion in movie theaters, author Timothy Zahn introduced a new threat to the galaxy. 

Grand Admiral Thrawn, more formally known as Mitth’raw’nuruodo, has grown to become one of the most exciting and anticipated menaces in a galaxy far, far away. His debut may now be locked under the non-canonical Star Wars Legends banner, but this devastating lieutenant of the Empire couldn’t be kept contained. Since Disney cleared the Star Wars canon in 2014, Thrawn has been reintroduced to core continuity through new books penned by the man who knows him best, Timothy Zahn, as well as making his series debut as a major villain in Star Wars: Rebels.

Thrawn is a threat unseen since Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. After Grand Moff Tarkin was lost with the first Death Star, Darth Vader took charge of the Empire’s forces, and the franchise was increasingly dominated by the deep lore that had pitted Jedi against Sith for millennia. The prequel and sequel trilogies walked the same path. Yet, the fascinating dynamic of the Sith mobilizing a dictatorship to finally achieve dominance of the galaxy, albeit for a short time in the scheme of things, is an essential part of the franchise 

The Emperor’s deep understanding and manipulation of military might has been best explored outside the core movies — it makes sense the cunning Sith would employ the greatest tacticians and military minds. It also makes sense that the smartest and broad-minded of those admirals and generals would fully understand the military advantage of a Sith Lord coordinating their vast power. 

Thrawn is very much part of that balance. A member of the Chiss, with startling blue skin and red eyes, he’s a supreme military leader who grew into fan affection as he regrouped the scattered and disorientated forces of the Empire after the Emperor’s apparent death at the Battle of Endor in Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi

Well aware of the Sith and the Jedi, Thrawn is the perfect manager of the imperial fleets and, within the order, a stark opposition to that other great lieutenant of the Empire, Darth Vader.

Creating a new threat

Interviewed by Star Wars: Insider, Zahn detailed his thought process when taking on the daunting task of creating a villain who could follow in the footsteps of the Emperor and his apprentice.

“Vader and the Emperor ruled by manipulation and fear, so, how about somebody who would lead through loyalty? What kind of character could inspire that type of loyalty? He needed to be a strategic and tactical genius so that they’d know they had a good chance of winning.” 

Zahn continued, “[Thrawn] cared about his troops. He was willing to accept good suggestions from subordinates. And then, finally, since we did not see a lot of aliens in the Empire, I wanted to make him a non-human, on the grounds that, if he got to be a Grand Admiral, he had to be something very special.”

Thrawn’s journey into the franchise has been interesting, with much of his work not considered canon, leaving shows like Rebels and the forthcoming Ahsoka to reframe him along with books written in the new continuity. He’s appeared in other novels (notably Zahn’s non-canonical Survivor’s Quest) and other media, including comics and video games. As early as 1994, he cameoed in Star Wars: TIE Fighter. But Thrawn was shaped in novels. 

One of Grand Admiral’s key tenets is that to beat an enemy you have to understand them — their art, culture, and philosophy. Taking a leaf from the Grand Admiral’s strategy, here’s how to weave in and out of the canon, using the Thrawn novels to get to know him better.

Thrawn by publication

Images via Bantam Spectra

Timothy Zahn is said to favor reading Thrawn’s journey by publication date. However, the first trilogy and follow-up duology are now considered non-canon (and contradicted by the recent live-action Star Wars, including Episode VII — The Force Awakens). Reading them in the spirit of the Star Wars Legends banner before jumping into the main timeline provides the best insight into the Chiss military genius.

Legends: The Thrawn Trilogy (1991-1993)

  • Heir to the Empire (1991) / annotated edition (2011)
  • Dark Force Rising (1992)
  • The Last Command (1993)

Legends: The Hand of Thrawn Duology (1997-1998)

  • Specter of the Past (1997)
  • Vision of the Future (1998)

Canon: Thrawn (2017-2019)

  • Thrawn (2017)
  • Thrawn: Alliances (2018)
  • Thrawn: Treason (2019)

Canon: The Ascendancy Trilogy (2020-2021)

  • Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising (2020)
  • Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good (2021)
  • Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil (2021)

In addition, the 2006 Zahn novel Outbound Flight expands on Thrawn’s early tussle with the Jedi as the proto-Empire attempted to stop the Galactic Republic’s expansion, as mentioned in Heir to the Empire

Is it jarring to jump from canon to Star Wars Legends? The non-canon universe disrupts the Star Wars galaxy in several significant ways. It runs with the assumption made before George Lucas’ prequel trilogy put it straight, that clones were the enemy in the Clone Wars and not troops of the Galactic Republic. That gives clones, particularly veterans of the conflict, a substantially different role in the galaxy. What used to be the expanded universe also took the Skywalker clan in a different direction to the Sequel trilogy, as Luke struggled with the responsibility of training Leia when she and her twins develop Force powers.

Thrawn canonical and chronological reading order

Image via Del Rey Books

If you’re a devout adherent to the Star Wars canon, the new Thrawn trilogies can be read around the Grand Admiral’s only appearances in Star Wars series so far — the third and fourth seasons of Rebels. Here’s the chronological reading of Thrawn’s journey in official continuity leading up to the events of A New Hope.

  • Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones (movie, 2002)
  • Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising (novel, 2020)
  • Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good (novel, 2021)
  • Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil (novel, 2021)
  • Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (movie, 2002)
  • Thrawn (novel, 2017)
  • Star Wars: Rebels (season 3, episodes 1 – 22, 2017)
  • Thrawn: Alliances (novel, 2018)
  • Star Wars: Rebels (season 4, episodes 1 – 10, 2018) 
  • Thrawn: Treason (novel, 2019)
  • Star Wars: Rebels (season 4, episodes 11 – 16, 2018) 
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (movie, 2016)
  • Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope (movie, 1977)

So far, core continuity has yet to pull Thrawn into the ABY era — the period after the destruction of the first Death Star, which quickly saw the defeat of the Emperor and the rebellion’s transition to the New Republic. Although series’ set early in this era, like The Mandalorian, have left heavy hints.

It’s the period where Thrawn left his first compelling impression on fandom, so the canvas is wide open for the Grand Admiral to rewrite his history on Disney Plus, and quite probably in novels yet to come.