With Outbound Flight, Timothy Zahn completes his two-book series examining an expedition into unknown space during the time of the Republic in the Star Wars universe. He also gives us the first meeting of Grand Admiral Thrawn (one of first book-only creations for the Star Wars universe) and gives us a demonstration of how he became one of Emperor Palpatine's greatest military minds. Unfortunately, while the book is enjoyable, it suffers from two major characters being shoehorned in and a main plot that isn't really that interesting.
In Survivorís Quest, Luke and Mara Jade Skywalker are brought in to explore the remains of Outbound Flight after it being thought destroyed for fifty years. In Outbound Flight, we see the beginning of the expedition, spearheaded by Jedi Master C'Baoth. The Senate is cutting funding for the project, which brings C'Baoth to the office of the Supreme Chancellor, Palpatine, to demand that he fight for it. Palpatine, with his own motives for getting the expedition off the ground, lures him to the planet Brolf to solve a trade dispute. Events on that planet will enhance his stature and make Outbound Flight almost a certainty. However, he doesn't foresee Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker being added to the Jedi crew by the Jedi Council. Meanwhile, a smuggler on the run from an infuriated Hutt is forced beyond known space by a hyperdrive malfunction, and they stumble upon a Chiss warship, commanded by a very intelligent Commander Thrawn. All of this comes together in a battle of wills and intelligence, with three sides all facing off against each other. Who will win? And how does Outbound Flight end up where Luke and Mara find it?
Outbound Flight dovetails nicely with the events of Survivorís Quest, and it is enjoyable seeing Thrawn for the first time, when he is still unfamiliar with the area of space that readers are all familiar with. They have never heard of droids, so he is fascinated by the warrior droids that the Trade Federation has (which are obtained in a fight with the Trade Federation ship sent to destroy Outbound Flight). He demonstrates his superior intelligence many times in this book, and while we don't see the invitation to join Palpatine (I believe that happened after he became Emperor), we do see what most likely prompted it. Thrawn, as always, is a fascinating character, keeping plans within plans, so nobody is ever sure exactly what's happening until things go his way. His only flaw as a character: he is almost too perfect. He never seems to miss anything, and if things seem to be going against him, you know it's a trick.
The part of the story dealing with the smugglers and their interaction with Thrawn is what keeps the book going. Unfortunately, the story of Outbound Flight itself isn't nearly as interesting. C'Baoth is an arrogant fool, and while that is nothing we haven't seen before with him, he just doesnít hold the readerís attention. Attempts to humanize most of the C'Baoth scenes is made by including his Padawan, Lorana Jinzler, but that doesn't work. While she is a nice character, she doesn't help. The beginning of the book has Obi-Wan and Anakin (who is fourteen years old and still quite impulsive) keeping an eye on him, and they help somewhat. Zahn does capture their relationship wonderfully; one can almost hear Ewan McGregor speaking Obi-Wan's lines.
Which brings up one of the other problems with the book. A bit of false advertising on the dust jacket implies that Obi-Wan and Anakin are around for the entire book and that they are involved in the inevitable confrontation between Outbound Flight and the Chiss. That is not the case, as is obvious to anybody who has read the first book. They cannot be on the ship when disaster strikes; they have to be around for subsequent movies. No; they are dumped off before Outbound Flight leaves Republic space, and the scenes on the ship slow down even more. Their role in the book feels extremely forced, as if we need them around to make the story interesting. The problem is that it ends up being true.
Sadly, when the action moves to the ship, it is merely Obi-Wan and Anakin reacting to C'Baoth's obvious descent to the Dark Side. It is treated like a revelation toward the end, but with all the prideful statements, arrogant boasts, accumulation of power by C'Baoth, there is no doubt that is what's happening. The fact that this is considered a startling development is just annoying.
The book culminates in a thrilling climax that makes the rest of the book worth getting through. Three sides face off, and C'Baoth's arrogance finally gets the best of him. Thrawn's plans are finally revealed, and we see exactly how things finally work out. It sets up Survivorís Quest beautifully. This single problem with the ending is the misdirection Zahn employs by hiding the thoughts of one of the characters. We see his thoughts, which seem to point to events occurring one way; then Zahn reveals that he was part of the plan to begin with, and everything is the exact opposite. This can be an effective writing technique, but not without its perils. Otherwise, though, the last one hundred pages are wonderful.
It is too bad that it takes so long to get there, though. The book moves quickly, however, which makes it an easy read, thus making getting to that ending a lot more enjoyable than it might have been otherwise. For those of you tired of Thrawn, his being the the main reason to read the first three-quarters of the book may not be a good thing, but that is what Zahn excels at. Just for the further information in the Star Wars universe, Outbound Flight is well worth reading.