I hope I will not need to tell what happened in the original Star Wars trilogy. I also feel I do not need to use any visuals for my review as practically everybody knows what the main characters look like. So, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...
Five years after the evens of the Return of the Jedi things seems to go smooth for the Rebel Alliance. What remains of the Empire is driven farther to the remote parts of the space, the territory of the new Republic is expanding and war is replaced by diplomacy. Nobody seems to care much about that is going on in the remaining Empire's corner of space.
It turns out the last surviving Empire fleet Admiral called Thrawn is a military genius who also happened to have a very good knowledge on human psychology. He wants to restore the former glory of the Empire and he sets off on his quest by manipulating the events in the known space - subtly and not so subtly. He has the new Republic exactly where he wants it: it has to react to his manipulations the way he predicted and planned.
What worked: the new characters are good and interesting: Thrawn, Talon Karrde, and Mara Jade. The latter seems to be everybody's favorite, but I strongly suspect where her development goes and I do not like it: too cliche.
The plot of the first book actually reminded me of the first movie of the original trilogy: it was entertaining with enough intrigues and space battles to more than make up for its shortcomings.
What did not work: the author created great new characters, but most of the people from the movies were bland. I can understand this somewhat as he had to work with already established characters within restrictions imposed on him. Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Lando Calrissian - they all suffered from this. Admiral Ackbar did not get enough screen time to be anything more than just a name. Han Solo is the one who suffered the most. He used to be a lovable rogue in the movies, now he is a caring husband and father - and this does not work for his character at all. He also lost all of his sense of humor.
I need to mention that the book ended in a nice exciting space battle, but with no plot resolution whatsoever in sight, so for people who hate cliffhangers: beware.
As a mindless entertainment and an easy read the first installment of the trilogy works just fine with 4 stars being its final rating. If you like Star Wars or space operas - go for it.