Spoiler Level: High
I was expecting a different kind of Star Wars book with this one; You don't often get a Star Wars premise on taking a great big ship to explore deep space. And I knew this was supposed to be a first contact story with the Chiss.
What I did not expect was Thrawn himself, Jorus C'Boath, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. As a result this is much more a story of political intrigue. Both among the Chiss, as Thrawn tries to stop threats to the Chiss Ascendancy that Chiss policy won't let him address until he believes it's too late, and among the Republic, as Darth Sidious takes further steps to thin out the Jedi in preparation for his upcoming rise to power. And being a proper Star Wars book, it has lots of big battles between the Chiss, the Vagaari and the Trade Federation.
Outbound Flight (the ship itself) is intended as a colony ship, which simply intended to pass through the Unknown Regions on its way out of the galaxy, with the intention of setting up a colony in another galaxy before returning. C'Boath's motivation for doing this is he foresees a dark cataclysm coming for the Jedi, and wants to make sure there is a Jedi colony outside the Republic, guaranteeing the Jedi Order will survive. In that sense, he's on the right track. We know the Purge is coming, and his plan may very well have been the Jedi's salvation. The only problem is, C'Boath is quite full of himself and thinks he knows what's best for everyone. and he quickly becomes a tyrant.
This book does address one thing I never liked about the prequels: the implication that the Jedi were baby snatchers. When Qui-Gon talks to Shmi Skywalker about Anakin's midichlorian levels in Phantom Menace, he tells Shmi "Had he been born in the Republic, we would have identified him early." That always sounded to me like midichlorian checks were one of the standard health checks a baby got, and if your kid's results were positive, then it's "Sorry, we're taking your kid for everyone's own good." I mean, how terrible is that? We go from the Force being portrayed in the original Star Wars as something special inside all of us that can be unlocked with the right training, to something in your blood that means you're now part of the Master Race and have to be ripped from the arms of your parents to be trained properly, lest you fall to the Dark Side. Brrrrrr. That's another one of the reasons I felt that the Jedi Order had become corrupt and needed to be rebuilt from scratch.
But this book paints a completely different picture. Here, Zahn states that testing for midichlorians is optional. Only families who are willing to take the test do it, and the families consider having a member of their family join the Jedi Order a great honor. It's definitely a much more palatable interpretation, and while I still don't feel it completely meshes with Qui-Gon's statement, it's another example of why Zahn's books are so enjoyable.
Another concept raised here is that Darth Sidious foresees the arrival of the Yuuzhan Vong, and that's part of his motivation for setting up the Empire. It's often been said in New Jedi Order that had the Empire still been around, they would have been more equipped to deal with Yuuzhan Vong invasion, and while I have no doubt that's true I hardly think Palpatine's motivations were that altruistic. More likely this was the angle Sidious used to sway his servant Doriana, or simply the angle Doriana felt he needed to sway Thrawn. I can see Sidious taking advantage of the knowledge of the impending Yuuzhan Vong threat, but I sincerely doubt it was his goal to protect the Republic by turning it into an Empire; I feel it was more that he felt as Sith, he deserved to rule.
But these aren't complaints; if anything, these are examples of what make Timothy Zahn's books fun to read, and things that make me have fun pondering the details of the Star Wars universe. (Like, for example, how did a clone of C'Boath get made if he wasn't a part of the Clone Wars? Okay, maybe that one's a bit of a nitpick; perhaps it'll be explained in one of the later books.) His characters are always engaging and the stories are always filled with enough intrigue to keep me interested, and his endings are always big.
Along those lines, Thrawn's origin story is fantastic. He always was a great character, and I really enjoyed getting to revisit him. I'm hoping Zahn's later books set during the classic trilogy, Allegiance and the upcoming Choices of One, delve more into how he came to be in the service of the Empire.
Lastly, while I love the original cover, I have to point out how amazing the Japanese cover to this novel is. There it was split up into two novels, and in addition to the Outbound Flight itself and Thrawn, we also get Master C'Boath, his Padawan Lorana Jinzler, Palpatine, Car'das, and wonderful interpretations of how Anakin and Obi-Wan would have looked a few years before Attack of the Clones! Thanks to Outer Rim and their international cover gallery for the image below!