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Three months after the events of the previous book, Imperial Governor Ferrouz of Poln contacts the Rebellion and offers them a permanent base in his system if they'll help him deal with the alien warlord Nuso Esva, since his calls for help to the Empire fell into deaf ears.
Han Solo is tasked with bringing the rebel envoy to Poln, as a test of his ability to handle the responsibilities that would allow him to become an officer of the Rebel Alliance.
Luke Skywalker is discreetly tasked with escorting Solo and the envoy to Poln, as a potential backup in case of unwelcome surprises.
Mara Jade is given the mission of dealing with Governor Ferrouz's perceived act of treason and hires the former stormtroopers of the Hand of Judgment to help her in her task.
Meanwhile, in an apparently unrelated storyline, Captain Pellaeon serves aboard the Chimaera when the Star Destroyer is given the mission of escorting the mysterious Lord Odo on various missions.
As usual in a Zahn novel, the story first follows the characters in seemingly unconnected storylines, before bringing them all together in a situation that becomes more and more complicated as the story goes.
This book provides examples of:
- Battle of Wits: Thrawn vs. Nuso Esva.
- Body Motifs: Continuing from the previous book, Thrawn offers the Hand of Judgment to join his budding Empire of the Hand.
- Call Forward: Oh boy. Thrawn's real mission in the Unknown Regions, Pellaeon's habit of taking command of the Chimaera after his superior officer gets killed, the snowspeeders from The Empire Strikes Back, a mention of Admiral Zaarin,…
- The Chessmaster: Thrawn, of course.
- A Day in the Limelight: Even though Leia and Luke are present, Han is pretty much the main character in the Rebel plotline.
- Full-Name Basis: No one ever calls Nuso Esva by anything less than the full name.
- Gambit Pileup: You'd almost think everyone is conspiring against everyone in this book…
- Guile Hero: Senior Captain Thrawn. In spades.
- Gunship Rescue: How often do you get to cheer for the appearance of Darth Vader's whole personal fleet?
- The Hero: Luke. He agonizes over killing one person, someone who was just about to kill him and could not be dissuaded.
- Hidden Depths: Everyone's genuinely surprised when Han turns out to be a real good leader.
- Kill It with Fire: Used once by Mara against a crowd of enemies.
- Meaningful Name: Sorro.
- Zahn revealed in an interview that if you replaced each consonant in the name Nuso Esva with the one immediately preceding it (same for the vowels; for instance swap the N for an M and the A with a Y), you get Moriarty. Appropriate, since Thrawn is essentially an Expy of Holmes, if Holmes were a militaristic alien admiral.
- Motifs: The name of the book comes from an in-universe saying, "The choices of one shape the futures of all." It comes up repeatedly, said by different characters who often never meet.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: The toukrees aren't as harmless and primitive as they first appear to be…
- One Steve Limit: Comes up. Mara Jade ends up working with Luke, though at a distance. She was told his last name and wonders if he is the Skywalker that Vader is so obsessed with, especially when she sees him using a lightsaber, but ultimately shrugs it off. Skywalker's a common name in the Outer Rim.
- According to George Lucas, there's even a completely unaffiliated Skywalker vintage of wine.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Mara, once again. She actually gives Ferrouz a chance to prove his innocence and cancels his planned execution when she realizes he only turned traitor under threats against his family.
- Red Herring: For a long time, the structure of the narration strongly suggests that Lord Odo and Sorro are actually Thrawn and Car'das. Cue The Reveal.
- The Reveal: Several of these, as usual with Zahn:
- Ferrouz's main reason for allying with the rebels is that Nuso Esva ordered him to, or else his family will be killed.
- Axlon on the Rebel side and Drusan on the Imperial side work for Nuso Esva.
- Lord Odo is Nuso Esva.
- Rummage Sale Reject: At some point Luke buys some used clothing as a disguise - gray pants, blue tunic, yellow sash. Mara Jade spots him from a good distance and in the internal narration calls him "badly dressed and clearly insane".
- Stuff Blowing Up: Used several times, but most notably:
- Mara starting a fire in a cavern to keep her enemies occupied.
- Han ordering a space station to fire all of their (few) remaining torpedoes at a small fleet of ships… which was preparing to unleash a Macross Missile Massacre. The ships' missiles detonate and pretty much vaporize the whole fleet.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Both Axlon and Drusan work for Nuso Esva to ensure their side's victory, no matter what the costs.