by Timothy Zahn
DAW Books (1983)
While I must have read the Thrawn trilogy dozens of times, I never once dared to pick up any of the other books by Timothy Zahn I saw at the library. Would that I had! Now that I have started to dive into Zahn's back catalogue, I am getting an idea of what his preferred style is. Military [ish] scifi with a heavy dose of intrigue. You never know who anyone really is, or who they are really working for, until the end.
The Blackcollar was published in 1983, but I can detect similarities with The Icarus Hunt, from 1999. The Icarus Hunt was more of a whodunit in space, whereas The Blackcollar is mostly an adventure story with a military theme. I can also see how Zahn worked these kind of ideas into his Thrawn books and Starcraft: Evolution. Each of these books features a military campaign of some import with the fictional universe, but the real action lies in figuring out who wants what and why, and seeing how the characters respond to the wilderness of mirrors they find themselves in.
In this book, Earth has been long since conquered by the Ryquil, an aggressive and warlike species that prefer to rule through local proxies. The Ryquil use loyalty conditioning to ensure that their human collaborators cannot betray them, although there are some hints that Jesuitical cleverness about what constitutes "betrayal", exactly, may allow for some leeway in those who are sufficient motivated.
Allen Caine, our young protagonist, receives a mission from the Resistance on Earth to go find a hidden record on the world of Plinry. That record, encrypted into a rather mundane manifest, contains the location of hidden weapons that will alter the balance of power within occupied human space.
While searching for the record, or any signs of an underground on Plinry, which has been cut off from Earth for nearly thirty years, Caine stumbles on a few elite commandos, the Blackcollars, who have been hiding their light under a bushel since the Ryquil used a devastating orbital bombardment to reduce the defense of Plinry, killing three-quarters of the population in the process.
During the lopsided war against the Ryquil, the humans developed drugs and training that would allow for a human fighter to have a more equal chance against the bigger, faster, and stronger Ryquil. The result of that program were the Blackcollars. Zahn's commandos are ninjas by another name, backed up with enhanced reflexes and laser-ablative armor.
Sometimes the tactics of the Blackcollars stretch my credulity a bit. This is an early book, but it seemed silly to me when two of the highly-trained and drug-enhanced Blackcollars sacrifice themselves to shoot down six patrol ships with shoulder-fired missiles. Couldn't they have just used more launchers, and destroyed the aircraft without the loss of soldiers whose experience and enhancements were irreplaceable? At the very least, we could have used some color text about how the missile launchers were actually more difficult to come by than the soldiers themselves, which doesn't fit the rest of the story.
Zahn seems on much firmer ground when it comes to devising complicated schemes of betrayal and counter-betrayal. I seriously didn't know who was on what side until the end, and there is at least the possibility that some of that may change in future volumes. While the Blackcollars' tactics offend my logistical sensibilities, their over-the-top natures match up with the adventure genre pretty well. No swordsman bests Solomon Kane or Conan either. I really enjoyed The Blackcollars, and I look forward to the two sequels.