Star Wars: Outbound Flight (Timothy Zahn)
Three smugglers are fleeing from an angry Hutt crimelord when they inadvertently flee into the Unknown Regions. They are quickly snared by energy draining nets, and boarded by Chiss Defense Fleet ships, whom destroy the Hutt's ship after he tries to resist. The smugglers are treated graciously by Thrawn and his men, striking an agreement to share their culture with Thrawn in exchange for their pick of treasure from a recent raid. Meanwhile, Jorus C'baoth is attempting to obtain funding and support for the Outbound Flight project-an expedition to the Unknown Regions to claim and settle new territory. Unable to directly obtain the backing of the Galactic Senate, C'baoth agrees to resolve disagreement between the miners of the Barlok system and the Corporate Alliance. The Jedi Council reluctantly agrees, and sends Obi-Wan and Anakin to follow C'baoth and ensure he doesn't do anything risky. C'baoth and his padawan, Lorana, quickly realize Obi-Wan and Anakin are following them, C'baoth, seeking privacy, dispatches his padawan to distract them while he conducts the negotiations. The Jedi quickly sniff out a conspiracy to assassinate the leaders of the negotiations by flying a guided missile into the meeting room and detonating it, however they are unable to find the missile by the time the negotiations start the next day. The negotiations start with the conspirators still at large, and it isn't long before a small missile flies towards the building, Obi-Wan and Anakin are unable to stop it, and it flies through the hallways and into the meeting room, where it is quickly and easily dispatched by C'baoth. Wowed by his display of the force, the two sides hastily agree to C'baoths terms, and the matter is settled. The Senate is greatly impressed by this, giving C'baoth permission to resume the project with any resources he needs. The Jedi council is pressured into supporting him and allowing any Jedi who are willing to participate in the mission, Obi-Wan and Anakin are dispatched once more to keep an eye on C'baoth as the council has many doubts regarding the project. Palpatine has designs of his own, and employs an agent to, with the help of a Trade Federation fleet, destroy Outbound Flight.
Thrawn and the smugglers continue to learn about each other, trading cultural values, languages, and insight eagerly. Thrawn takes them to observe a battle between the Geroon and the hostile Vaagari, where they learn of the Vaagari's living shields (cells that pockmark the surface of their ships, occupied by their prisoners of war), and of their artificial gravity well technology. Thrawn and his small observatory force execute a dangerous mission to steal this technology from the Vaagari during the course of the battle. Thrawn violates a crucial principle of Chiss military doctrine by making a preemptive strike, and as a result his brother, Thrass, and an admiral from the defense fleet arrive to conduct an investigation. On Outbound Flight, problems quickly arise as C'baoth assumes complete control over the running of the ship and requests that the young children of families onboard the vessel be taken in for Jedi training. This, along with various minor transgressions, angers the non-Jedi aboard the vessel, and dissent grows, however the people are too afraid of the Jedi to openly rebel. Meanwhile, the Trade Federation fleet arrives at their ambush fleet, unaware that it is deep inside of Chiss space. Thrawn reacts to this by taking a small force and investigating. The Trade Federation quickly turns hostile, and Thrawn defeats them using patience and cunning, destroying most of their droid starfighters and all but one larger vessel. Thrawn and Palpatine's agent seemingly come to an agreement to destroy Outbound Flight. The expedition continues, with the new padawans learning to utilize all major functions of the dreadnaughts attached to Outbound Flight, however Anakin and Obi-Wan are pulled off of the journey at the last stop in known space by Palpatine, whom convinces them to deal with problems in a nearby system while Outbound Flight continues on. Thrawn asks one of the smugglers, Car'das, to become a prisoner of the Vaagari and lead him to the Chiss defense fleet so that they may annihilate them without repercussion, a bold move considering a member of one of the ruling families is now investigating Thrawn as well. The Vaagari move into the system and are wiped out courtesy of Thrawn's navy and reprogrammed battle droids that Car'das gave to the Vaagari to pacify them. Shortly after, Outbound Flight arrives, following failed negotiations with C'baoth, a battle ensues in which the Chiss, with the help of the Trade Federation's remaining ensemble of droid starfighters, prevail, crippling Outbound Flight. C'baoth remains defiant, stretching out with the force to strangle Thrawn, Thrawn is saved by Palpatine's agent, whom presses a button on Thrawn's command chair that causes all remaining starfighters to ram Outbound Flight at strategically designated locations. All aboard Outbound Flight are killed except for a handful of families and Jedi that were in the secure cargo hold at the time of the attack, including C'baoth's former padawan. While Thrawn is recalled to deal with the ruling families allegations of violating procedure, his brother Thrass, and Lorana attempt to move Outbound Flight to safety in a nearby star system occupied by the Chiss without the knowledge of the ruling families. The hyperdrive is unable to carry them the distance, and they are forced to try to land on an unfamiliar planet in an unexplored region of space, the landing does not go well however, and Lorana and Thrass are forced to sacrifice themselves to save the others onboard, whom do survive the crash, but their ultimate fates remain unknown. Thrawn is able to manuever his way around the allegations, and secures departure for his three Human friends, along with the treasure he promised them.
The plot was great, I really enjoyed the concept of Outbound Flight and also the various insights into both Thrawn's origins and Chiss culture that the smuggler's capture provided. Those two plot points, plus Thrawn's genius battle plans, are more than enough to sell the novel for me. Thrawn's planning may be seen as something of a deus ex machina but I greatly enjoyed it and had no problem with the way he deduced certain things in the heat of battle, even if the explanations sometimes felt overdone with the sole purpose of highlighting Thrawn's genius.These scenes could've been done better if they had utilized Thrawn's pont of view instead of the smugglers, this would have allowed for a more in depth look at his thought process and deductions, and wouldve made the book an even better read. The conflict between the Jedi and the regular crewmen aboard Outbound Flight was also riveting, the main interest of this being C'baoth's descent into madness and the fact that nearly all of his beliefs stand in stark contrast to traditional Jedi teachings, it would've been very interesting to see where these ideas came from but unfortunately he is never given a POV through the duration of the novel. The only real drawback to the plot was how long winded the exposition was, it took nearly 200 pages for Outbound Flight to actually commence, and the only real compelling scenes in that time span was when Thrawn was interacting with the smugglers, the negotiations on Barlok just did not capture my interest, and Anakin and Obi-Wan seemed to be tacked on simply for name value.
Thrawn returns much as he was in previous works, being a character Zahn created, there was little doubt that Zahn would manage to recapture all of the qualities that made Thrawn such a compelling character during his original run. He is still cold and calculating with a flair for interpreting artwork and analyzing both schematics and people, but he also displays an honorable, chivalrous side that was never really touched upon in the later (chronologically speaking) novels, though this doesn't necessarily contradict with his established character. Obi-Wan and Anakin are characterized fairly well, even if they aren't essential to the plot, Zahn nevertheless does a very good job of carrying over the development from Rogue Planet (set three years prior to Outbound Flight). Obi-Wan still feels overwhelmed by his prodigious apprentice, and Anakin is still taking in and learning about the world around him. The smugglers were somewhat bland and it definitely felt like they were added simply as a means of showing both Thrawn's genius and Chiss culture (via dialogue with Thrawn that reveal the inner workings of Chiss politics, and also eyewitness accounts of various ceremonies and the like). Our principal villain, Kinman Doriana, Palpatine's aide and secret servant to Sidious, starts off extremely badly. The idea of him rushing home from his job as Palpatine's aid/advisor to communicate covertly with the Dark Lord of the Sith (also Palpatine!) painted him in a very ridiculous, gullible light right from the start, and he never really recovers from that in my mind. His cool head in contrast to his fellow Trade Federation commander, Kav, was his only real distinguishing trait besides a tendency to be easily duped. Lorana and Jorus were a very interesting, different take on the Master/Padawan relationship among the Jedi. Jorus doesn't seem to respect anybody and preaches this to his padawan constantly, among other ill advised lessons. His padawan doesn't seem to take his lessons to heart however as she acts very differently, taking up for him in private but never practicing the intolerance and high mindedness that he preaches. On her own, Lorana isn't much of a character but in contrast with Jorus' teachings she becomes much more willful, independent, and consequently sympathetic.
Zahn is a master at capturing the Star Wars feel, through dynamic space battles and realistic dialogue, both of which this novel is stuffed with. The space battles, though generally small scale, are nevertheless brought to life even if none of the main characters are ever on the front lines. This is done by vivid descriptions of the action and a skill for ramping up the tension between the commanders of the forces, especially during C'baoth's encounter with Thrawn, but also to a certain degree with Thrawn and the Trade Federation fleet. The dialogue is very much in character, Jedi talk like Jedi, soldiers like soldiers, etc. There isn't much to be had in the way of ground combat, and not a single lightsaber duel during the entire novel, but nonetheless I couldn't put it down, mostly because I couldn't wait to see what Thrawn would pull off in the next space engagement. Descriptions of the environment and characters were short but sweet and I can't recall feeling confused about a setting, though the missile flying through the hallways of the meeting place seemed kind of ridiculous. I also liked the way Zahn handled the conflict between the citizens and the Jedi, opting to keep the tension between them instead of having the Jedi do something that quickly established the dominance of the Jedi that cowed the commoners into compliance was definitely a good idea because it prevented the dynamics onboard Outbound Flight from getting stale or one sided.
This book would be highly recommended solely because of Thrawn. The interesting take on Jedi and insights into Thrawn's origins/Chiss culture, in addition to mostly fleshed out and sympathetic characters, make this one of my all time favorites.