Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Author Review: The Wrath of Zahn

Timothy Zahn will always be marked as the man who resurrected the Star Wars series from it's unholy grave. He wrote three books in the early 1990s, and the Star Wars book series was born.

Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Vol. 1)Starting with Heir to the Empire, it was one of the few modern novels at the time I had encountered protagonists who thought. Not just a passing thought, covered in Italics, but whole paragraphs of tactical thought and maneuvering. And sometimes for entire pages. Shootouts in space and in infantry tactics had become chess games with lasers and missiles. And the antagonist of the piece was brilliant; the conversations between him and his side kick looked like Sherlock Holmes and Watson with a tactical manual.

 Though, to be honest, Zahn is the only person in the Star Wars world I'll read ever again.  There are only so many books about X-Wing pilots, and trashing the universe before it gets tiresome.  With Zahn, All of his books are well thought out, and no one is stupid. There are some cases you can probably say that everyone thinks too much, but a smart book is never a bad thing, as far as I'm concerned. Every time George Lucas entered into the world of Star Wars, Zahn followed, and improved it.

Zahn created a planet called Coruscant -- which appeared in the first "prequel" movie. Lucas made droids with little shields, Zahn came up with a way to out-maneuver them. Lucas went back in time, Zahn went back in time, and, while Zahn couldn't make Anakin Skywalker interesting, everyone else around him was.
Star Wars: Choices of One
And, in true George Lucas fashion, he took everything that Zahn created, and promptly ruined it ... read the most recent Star Wars novels, and you'll see why. Zahn and an author named Michael J. Stackpole had come up with a concept to expand the Star Wars novels into a kind of Next Generation series ...

It went ahead without Zahn.

Let's just say that there's a reason Zahn's latest Star Wars novel is set in the past, before the first and second movies.  I would rather read his take on the rise of the most brilliant tactical leader the bad guys ever had, than read one more petty, pedantic, grim novel set around Lucas's regular Star Wars novels.  It also includes the funniest group of rogue stormtroopers you've ever seen, and possibly the only ones who have the ability to shoot straight.

What I've learned from Timothy Zahn

There's really only one thing I've learned from Zahn -- never assume your audience is stupid. If you're willing to explain everything, the audience will follow you, as long as your story is engaging.

As some beta readers of A Pius Man can tell you, I rely on the audience's intelligence a lot ... some might say too much. But, I figure any editor will tell me when I lose them. 

Other works by Zahn

Blackcollar: The Judas SolutionAt the start of Zahn's career, he started a series called Blackcollar. Twenty years after Earth loses to an invading alien race, the chemically enhanced guerrilla soldiers made to fight that war have come out of retirement ... while not his best series, you can see the seeds of everything that Zahn would become.

And by "Not his Best" I mean that the characters are not very engaging.  They are, for the most part, plot vehicles. Ironically, the most interesting character in the entire series was a human commander working for the aliens. But, the plot is intricate, the maneuvering and the strategy is brilliant. Basically, the quality of the plot and the characters is on par with, say, Mission: Impossible.

There are only two books, but they're both fun little reads.

The Cobra Trilogy (Baen Books Megabooks)The Cobra Trilogy, one of his later series, was a multi-generational epic involving and examination of guerrilla warfare, high-tech implants, and what do you do when soldiers come home from battle.

The premise: humanity is struggling with a war against an alien race called the Troft. The best idea to counter the Troft: Cobras; soldiers who are cybernetically enhanced with micro-hydrolics in their joints, metal laminae over their bones, and weapons systems implanted in their bodies.

But when the war is over and the Cobras come home, what happens next? What does one do with a person whose response to a near collision with a car is to shoot out the tires with weapons in their little fingers?

Cobra Alliance: Cobra War: Book IYou send them to another end of the galaxy, and let them become frontiersmen.

At the end of the day, this becomes a solid family saga of three generations as they go from warrior, to statesmen, back to warriors.

I actually wonder what Zahn's going to do now that he's starting a new trilogy... which is not a multi-generational epic, but takes place over a single month.

Sometimes, old soldiers don't have the option of quietly fading away. Sometimes, it's time to start hunting again...

Anyway, next book....

Angelmass was an interesting one-shot....

A nebula is the source of "angels," small molecules that radiate positive energy. They make politicians truthful, they make criminals honest. Angels remove people's fear ....

But to everything there is a polar opposite. By removing "angel" molecules from the nebula, what dark forces are they breeding within?

And, by books end, it's up to two tramp freighter Captains, a thief, and a rogue politician who have to save the entire planet, and possibly the galaxy, from a creature that can eat the sun....

As I said, it was a fun one-shot.

Night Train to RigelIn another end of the Zahn Galaxy is the Quadrail series. The intergalactic train system is run by a mysterious race called the Spiders. No one knows anything about them and there's a good reason for that -- they're actually a front for an older species, one with a hidden agenda, and a secret so deadly that the entire universe really is at stake. A secret army has been gathering in the shadows for decades, leading into a cold war that's about to warm up.

The Third Lynx (Quadrail SF Thrillers)
It's the Third Lynx, but the
second book... got it?

Into this particular mess is thrust one Frank Compton. Like Burn Notice's Michael Weston, he's a spy who's been burned by political superiors who have decided that he's too inconvenient to have in government employ. When a billionaire's messenger drops dead on Frank's doorstop, in perfect Mickey Spillane fashion, he has to hop a train in short order.

And in doing so, he's going to be sucked into the biggest cat and mouse game this side of the pod people ... or maybe fighting the Flood in Halo.

This book has all the trademarks of a Zahn novel -- character who think, plan, the overthink and over plan.

And then all plans are shot to hell upon first contact with the enemy, and it's time to run.

So, they're fun....

A bonus for those of you who understand where the title of the blog was stolen from:

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