© 2006 Timothy Zahn
Five years after his ascendacy to leadership of the Republic, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine endorsed an extraordinary project: the launching of a flotilla of ships into the far expanses of space, on a journey to explore a distant galaxy. Headed by a tempermental Jedi, the bold project promised to invigorate the spirit of the galactic body-politic in an era of increasing corruption and declining faith in the government...but faith had something else in mind for this Outbound Flight.
Though Obi-Wan Kenobi and his adolescent apprentice Anakin Skywalker play minor parts in this story of political mystery and thrilling action at the galaxy's edge, the lead characters are a handful of smugglers whose malfunctioning hyperdrive delivers them into the hands of a mysterious commander from the "Chiss Ascendancy". The urbane military genius has a passion for understanding the personalities and nations he is put into contact with, and a gift for winnowing out the details from subtle clues. Those wits come into demand when a skulking agent of Lord Sideous causes his path to collide violently with those of Outbound Flight's. The story serves as an ominous prelude to the Yuuzhan Vong arc, as well as giving a full and proper introduction to one of Timothy Zahn's most admired characters -- Thrawn.
Thrawn never fails to delight when he appears. The character himself is utterly fascinating -- a "good" villain who is often more likable than than the heroes of the book who he opposes. Outbound Flight is the kind of a mystery-action thriller that Thrawn thrives in, impressing readers with his cunning, audacity, and ability to work steps ahead of his foes. He's as though he's a chess master playing in deep space: here, he goes against alien fleets, a covert agent, and his own people in attempting to strike the best effective blow for the Chiss. Although I've read previous mentions of the Outbound Flight 'disaster' and assumed the project wouldn't end well, Zahn kept me on my toes; the role played by Sideous is especially interesting; the character is so duplicitous, manipulating even his closest allies, that his ultimate motives remain in the shadows.
As usual for Zahn, this is a fantastic thriller, and an especially exciting one for fans of Thrawn.