Dragon and Judge Book Review

Dragon and Judge: Dragonback book 5
by Timothy Zahn
320 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018) in a set with volumes 4 and 6
ASIN B079N6ZHPG

Finally, five volumes in, we find out what really happened to Jack’s parents, and who they really were. I’ve been waiting a long time for this revelation, and it is just as good as I expected.

Virgil Morgan and Obi-wan share a point of view

Virgil Morgan and Obi-wan share a point of view

It wasn’t hard to suspect that Virgil Morgan wasn’t telling the complete truth about Jack’s parents, but on the other hand he did pretty well by Jack, even as he used him in his cons and trained him in an ethos of radical self-sufficiency. On the gripping hand, we also start to see that Jack and Draycos’ meeting on Iota Klestis was not mere happenstance, but rather a providential act that would ensure that justice can be done for everyone.

Justice is a key theme of the Dragonback series. Draycos needs justice for his harried and beleaguered people, fleeing from genocidal war. Jack wants justice for himself, to start anew after being conscripted into a life of crime by his benefactor. Jack needs justice because the unscrupulous are only too willing to try to take advantage of his checkered past to enlist him in dubious schemes. Justice is clearly in short supply in the Orion Arm.

Another key theme is birthright. Draycos and Jack are each special because of who they are. The key dramatic element in Dragon and Judge is, who is Jack? Where did he come from? Who are his parents, really? We don’t have to wonder much about Draycos, who is after all a dragon and a warrior, although some surprises are yet in store. Jack is an orphan, an archetype of import, and together they have a destiny to fulfill.

In Dragon and Judge, we also have a storyline involving Alison Kayna, Jack’s compatriot from book 2, and Taneem, a phooka turned K’da by bonding with Alison. With the mystery of Jack’s parents cleared up, we have a new mystery to ponder in Alison. We don’t truly know who she is or who she is working for. While we consider this, we also get to see Zahn explore her character. Everything Alison does is of necessity duplicitous, since she is observing Jack at the behest of an unknown party, but her charade is eased by what appears to be genuine agreement with Jack and Draycos’ mission to save the K’da refugee fleet.

Earnest and naive Taneem serves as a foil for Alison, as Zahn gently probes the moral dilemma of doing what is right versus maintaining your cover. Since this is a juvenile, we aren’t going to see Alison faced with an atrocity. That would have been an interesting setup with Draycos’ unyielding sense of right and wrong, but this isn’t that kind of a book. While the stakes are dramatically high, this is the PG version.

All of the pieces are now in place for the dramatic conclusion. Let us see how Zahn wraps it all up.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Timothy Zahn

New Thrawn series:
Thrawn
Thrawn: Alliances

Quadrail series:
Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review

Soulminder

Original Thrawn Trilogy:
Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Blackcollar series:
The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review
The Backlash Mission: Blackcollar series book 2 review

Dragonback series:
Dragon and Thief
Dragon and Soldier
Dragon and Slave
Dragon and Herdsman

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

Nobody's Home by Tim Powers: Book Review

Nobody’s Home: An Anubis Gates Story
by Tim Powers
80 pages
Published by Subterranean Press (2014)
ISBN 978-1-59606-670-0

Nobody’s Home is a beautifully illustrated little chapbook that is set in the world of Tim Powers’ 1983 novel The Anubis Gates. This is a Regency England ghost tale, taking place in the wild and woolly pre-Victorian London that could barely govern itself, wilder even than the London of Jack the Ripper. At a mere eighty pages, this is a tightly crafted story, one that moves along at a steady pace without too many distractions.

Since I am a big Tim Powers’ fan, I am curious how this book would come across to someone who isn’t familiar with The Anubis Gates, or even Powers’ general secret history style of writing. In my own experience, this can go one of two ways. You are either fascinated or deeply confused by his work. I suspect that Nobody’s Home would be much the same. I have conflicting evidence for this.

I think I would describe this book as something like fanservice, because Powers has returned to the setting of one of his greatest books more than thirty years later. Not only has he returned to a setting he has previously established, he has also incorporated the mechanics of ghosts and hauntings he narrated so convincingly in Expiration Date, the second book in the Fault Lines trilogy.

In addition, Subterranean Press puts out lots of fancy editions of Tim Powers’ books, many of which, like this one, have a list price of $35 USD for an eighty page book. This is a beautiful volume, but that seems a little steep! The market would appear to be devoted fans like myself.

On the other hand, I find that many of the reviews of this book dwell upon how short it is, or that it doesn’t dwell upon the mysteries of Powers’ fictional world at sufficient length. Since most of these reviews seem to be written by fans of Powers’ work, that makes me think that this is, in fact, a decent introduction that isn’t too convoluted. I would hope that with more than thirty years of experience, Powers would be able to craft something intriguing and accessible to more casual readers, while still offering the Tim Powers’ experience to his many fans.

With that in mind, I can say that I was rather satisfied by how Powers’ blended the time-traveling world of The Anubis Gates with his later ghost stories into a harmonious whole. I found it rather fun, and I wasn’t sad that this wasn’t a novel, because the novel already existed. I suppose I’m just strange.

I would be willing to lend this short story to someone who had never read Powers, in the hope that it might be intriguing enough that they would look up his other works. I also enjoyed this book as an artifact, in how it was clearly crafted for a fan like myself. This was a fun book, and I hope that it can be enjoyed in the spirit that spurred its creation.

My other book reviews

Other books by Tim Powers

Last Call
Expiration Date
Earthquake Weather

Forsake the Sky

Hide Me Among the Graves

Pop Kult Warlord Book Review

Heavy is the head that wears the crown….

Heavy is the head that wears the crown….

Pop Kult Warlord: Soda Pop Soldier Book 2
by Nick Cole
Kindle edition, 318 pages
Published November 4th, 2018 by Castalia House
ASIN B07K6SRSLW

A man with decisions to make. Choices that weigh heavily on him. Heavy is the brow that wears the crown, someone once said.

I may be weird, but I found the opening chapter of Pop Kult Warlord riveting. I think I might actually watch the SuperBowl of videogames, if it existed as described. John Saxon, by now known only by his online alias PerfectQuestion, is competing in the world championship of online videogames in Havana. The game in question, WarWorld, is the ideal combination of FPS and MMO. You can LARP as a Colonial Marine in game, only communicating in scraps of dialogue from Aliens, or you can go pro like PQ did, and focus entirely on being better at putting digital bullets into digital heads than the other guy or girl in exchange for corporate sponsorship, fame, and fortune.

PerfectQuestion is a top-tier competitor, and he is in demand as a digital mercenary. In a world where e-sports pulls in billions in ad revenue, the world’s most popular and recognizable player can write his own ticket. Unfortunately for him, he is starting to feel like he is too old to be playing videogames all night, and longing for a simpler, more fulfilling life.

I’ve played a lot of videogames in my day, so I know what he means. I like videogames a lot, and I write about that frequently on my blog, but I would never trade videogames for my career and my family. The hours I’ve invested in gaming have tapered quite a bit over the years, in a natural progression of family involvement. John Saxon, alias PerfectQuestion, is on the outside looking in, and starting to wonder if the grass isn’t really greener in suburbia.

Unfortunately for him, fate has other plans. When his agent shows up with a truly sweet offer, PQ lacks any of the mundane grounding of a wife, kids, or a mortgage to effectively question whether a deal that is too-good-to-be-true really is. So he finds himself on a plane to Calistan, the Islamic Protectorate of Orange County. Once there, PQ quickly finds himself in over his head, and hilarity ensues.

Like some of my other favorite authors living [Tim Powers] and dead [Jerry Pournelle], Cole uses his favorite places in Southern California to add verisimilitude to Pop Kult Warlord. Even after the Meltdown, the rogue-AI apocalypse from the prequel CTRL ALT Revolt!, the denizens of Orange County remain much as they are now, a mishmash of different cultures jammed into some of the nicest real estate in America.

When he isn’t doing the bidding of Rashid, the Sultan’s son, PQ gets to see both the beauty and the squalor of Calistan. He can enjoy the gulls and the waves off of Rashid’s private island, drive fancy sports cars, tour slums and barrios, witness summary executions, you know, the usual. He even gets to fall for a doe-eyed Mexican beauty, who may or may not be involved with the Aztec Liberation Front [or is that Liberation Front of Azteca?]

tumblr_inline_o85q4mgqPu1r09uvv_250.gif

The Sultan has long suppressed Catholicism in his domain, but I was rather pleased to see that when PQ does finally meet up with an underground priest, he is in fact a faithful Catholic. Even in extremis, he counsels the Mexican terrorists to repent and follow the Gospel [which doesn’t rule out armed resurrection per se].

All of the intrigue and duplicity PerfectQuestion has found himself embroiled in comes to a head, and then to a fairly satisfying conclusion. I’m trying hard to avoid spoilers, since this book really is hot off the presses, but for the most part, those who live by the sword, die by the sword. In a grand sense, justice is done, but the price is often severe. Some bear that price more than others.

Finally, I should comment on the book’s structure. This is the third book I have read in as many weeks that employs a parallel structure to tell a more complicated story than a simple narrative would allow. I don’t know whether that is a mere coincidence, or just the hot stuff for authors right now, but in this case I felt like it worked out fairly well. I wasn’t surprised when I saw how it all fit together in the end, and I liked how it tied into the last volume in the series, while pointing ahead to possible future works.

PerfectQuestion isn’t getting a white picket fence anytime soon, but I look forward to his next adventure.

My other book reviews

Other books by Nick Cole

Soda Pop Soldier book review

Other books by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review
Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review
Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review
Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review
Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review
Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review
Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review
Imperator: Galaxy's Edge Book Review
Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7 Book Review
Message for the Dead: Galaxy's Edge #8 Book Review
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review

Why I can never be Tyrus Rechs

I recently completed my book review of Requiem for Medusa by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole. It took me a little longer than I would have liked. I first read the book on vacation in June, and I tried to start writing the review shortly after I got back, but I found myself stuck.

This was an unwelcome surprise, and one even moreso when I discerned that the reason I was having trouble was that I was disappointed. I like Cole and Anspach’s work, but I also like to be honest, so I decided to sit on the review for a while, and then re-read the book after I’d had some time to digest it.

I’m glad that I did, because I found out that the book itself is awesome. I also found an interesting take on the character and personality of Tyrus Rechs, and this is a good place to explore some of the interesting bits I left out of that book review.

This will be a bit more personal than I usually make my book reviews, but that I why I separated this into another blog post. Only regular readers need to suffer from my introspection, not random Amazon review readers. I am also going to give away all of the secrets of the series, less volume 9, Retribution, since I only just started it today. Consider yourself warned about spoilers.


I really liked Imperator, the Galaxy’s Edge standalone novel about Goth Sullus. The review I wrote for it is my favorite of the Galaxy’s Edge series so far. Sullus turned out to be Tyrus Rechs’ oldest friend, another practically immortal survivor of the twisted experiments of the lighthugger Obsidia. The impression I got from Imperator was that Casper Sullivan always lived in Tyrus’ shadow. While a capable warrior in his own right, no one looks badass standing next to the Tyrus Rechs.

I also got the impression that Tyrus and Casper both loved Reina, the woman who saved them from captivity on the Obsidia. And that maybe Casper felt he got out-competed by Tyrus here too. Thus, I wasn’t really all that surprised when Casper killed his oldest friend, because this is the way friendship turns into jealousy. And here, the reason is that I think Casper always wanted to be Tyrus, and he could never be him. They were just fundamentally different people.

Tyrus and Casper each instantiate an archetype of manliness. I’m going off the schema from the book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, which I’ve found pretty informative, especially in explaining stories.

King Arthur – Charles Ernest Butler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

King Arthur – Charles Ernest Butler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tyrus is the warrior, you can think of him as something like King Arthur. He’s epic, and strong, and dashing, and probably gets all the girls too.

Tyrus is a fundamentally simple man. You do the just thing because it is the just thing, and that is that. While there is something refreshing about this, Tyrus is also something of a blunt instrument. He is like the man with a hammer, except he has an autocannon. Every problem looks like something to shoot. Preferably lots of times. Tyrus is introspective enough to understand this about himself, but he is fundamentally accepting of himself as well. He can rest in his own skin.

Casper is more like Merlin, a more introspective and devious character, but also key to Arthur’s success. He can see further, and knows when discretion is the better part of valor. Arthur probably never appreciates Merlin, or stops to thank him for what he does.

As Goth Sullus, the politician and tactician Casper Sullivan becomes more truly what he is. He gains unspeakable powers from beyond the Galaxy’s Edge, the ability to peer into men’s minds, shape reality, bend all to his will. But….something is missing for him. The power isn’t enough, or in the service of the rightful King.

The Moirai – By William Blake - The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,

The Moirai – By William Blake - The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,

There are two more archetypes in this schema, which interestingly, Reina seems to fit both. The Lover, and the King. She is the love interest, and her name even invokes the sound of reign, which seems right as Reina represents what both Tyrus and Casper fight to preserve, even when they find her conducting vile experiments in another lighthugger, the Moirai, the Fates of Greek legend. I don’t yet know what happened to Reina, other than some hints in Imperator, so I’m interested to see what comes out of Retribution. [My guess, she is the Mother in the heart of the Cybar mothership.]

One of the things that surprised me most about Requiem for Medusa was that it portrayed Tyrus and Casper’s fundamental similarity and difference in the same way, at the same time. Imperator showed a Casper, as Goth Sullus, willing to blow up the whole galaxy to see justice be done. In Requiem, we see a Tyrus willing to do exactly the same thing.

Except, the way they both do that is characteristically different. Casper wants to see cosmic justice. Every mourner’s tear wiped away. Tyrus just wants to kill every bastard involved in setting up his woman, and everyone who happens to get in the way of that. Casper ruined the galaxy in his fool’s quest. Tyrus just ruined himself.

When I realized that, I realized why they were friends. In a way, they both wanted the same things, and just pursued those things in their own characteristic ways. Yet, at the end of the day, I realized that I just couldn’t identify with Tyrus Rechs, even though I had wanted to ever since I first met him in Galactic Outlaws.

Tyrus Rechs is a hell of a warrior. Steadfast, loyal, unmovable. Simple even. I respect him, but I found that I was disappointed that I can’t be like him for one simple reason:

I am Goth Sullus.

Requiem for Medusa book review

Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Kindle Edition, 291 pages
Published June 15th 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07DS8B38B

What price would you be willing to pay for vengeance? How much of your substance would you be willing to spend, so that the wicked would not escape their due? To see justice done, even though the heavens may fall?

For Tyrus Rechs, that turns out to be just about everything. And in another sense, it turns out to be not much at all. To resolve that enigma, we need to understand the character of Tyrus Rechs. Rechs is fundamentally a very simple man, but to explain why is not so simple.

Let us start by looking at similar characters in fiction. One of the closest examples I can think of is Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane:

Solomon Kane – illustrated by Gary Gianni

Solomon Kane – illustrated by Gary Gianni

Solomon Kane is fanatical in personality, unadorned in both speech and deportment, and convinced of the absolute sovereignty of God. His characteristic boast is something I could see Rechs saying:

"It has fallen upon me, now and again in my sojourns through the world, to ease various evil men of their lives."

In another man, we might call this a humblebrag, but for both Kane and Rechs, they are simply being honest. Each of them is an avatar of truth and justice, and are constitutionally incapable of either dishonesty or subtlety.

Just call my Tyrus.

He said it like he was a normal person and not one of the most wanted men in the galaxy. Forget all the rumors, ghost stories, and legends that littered his reputation. He had a warm, almost wry voice that held no pretensions within it. If anything, he seemed casually ordinary and of few words. If you were to have asked her later, after everything had happened, what the truth sounded like if it had a voice, she would’ve told you it sounded like Tyrus Rechs. Like he was some kind of galactic true north that compasses couldn’t stop themselves from finding.

Fundamentally, neither man wants for anything. They have nothing, and want nothing, because they are sufficient unto themselves. Thus, it is easy for them to lay it all out each and every time, without hesitation. Whether as a soldier, or a bounty hunter, Tyrus is willing to lay down his life for others.

But this time, something is different. That something is a woman.

Rechs felt nothing.

Which was, as he well knew, when he was at his most dangerous. He rarely felt anything at all before he killed people. Or during it. Or after. Maybe because he’d done it so long. Because it was one of the only things he knew how to do well.

And to him, that was the way it needed to be when you killed someone. Emotionless. Otherwise…mistakes were made.

Impersonal personification of justice he may be, but Tyrus Rechs is also a man, and a soldier; stone cold killer he may be, he is is also capable of love. Not just the fraternal love which motivates men to run towards danger instead of away from it, but also the wild abandon of erotic love. Which explains one of the biggest questions I had in the Galaxy’s Edge series: what happened to Tyrus Rechs? Now it all makes sense.

As for the book itself, this volume struck me as the most cinematic of all of Anspach and Cole’s work so far. The climactic set-piece battle on a ruined world between Rechs and the man who betrayed his woman, I could see it. This would make a hell of a movie. Or a mini-series, as some devoted fans remind me frequently.

The Wheel, not Cassio Royale, but similar in concept

The Wheel, not Cassio Royale, but similar in concept

The Backlash Mission Book Review

The Backlash Mission: The Blackcollar series book 2
by Timothy Zahn
Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (October 16, 2012)
352 pages
ASIN B0094ANS2E

The second book in the Blackcollar series picks up several years after the conclusion to the previous volume. The Blackcollars of Plinry have wrestled concessions from the conquerors of Earth that allow them to continue to train guerrilla fighters and operate a small space fleet.

With the possibility of re-establishing contact between the human worlds, now there is an actual glimmer of hope that the disparate resistance movements might organize into something greater, rather than simply trying to survive as long as possible.

Our young POV character, Allen Caine, has graduated from his guerrilla training on Plinry, but he lacks the supernatural reflexes and strength of the true Blackcollars, because no one on Plinry has access to Backlash, the drug that transforms their bodies into living weapons. He convinces his superiors to let him lead a mission to Earth in the hopes of finding the drug or its formula.

Of course, once on Earth, we get to see the Blackcollars in action again. The tactical doctrine of the Blackcollars, or at the least the group from Plinry seems to be equal parts Sun Tzu and GRU. Blackcollars never face an enemy where he is strong, and focus on controlling the flow of battle by understanding the motives and patterns of behavior of their opponents.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In addition to psychological insight, the Blackcollars use a combination of compartmentalization, misinformation, provocation, and wheels-within-wheels style planning to pull victories from seemingly impossible odds.

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

― Sun tzu, The Art of War

Of all of this, is is really only the last item that I find somewhat implausible. Other fictional commanders, such as Colonel Falkenberg, make use of deception as well, but Falkenberg would scoff at the complicated plans Lathe relies upon. It seems like there are too many ways for things to go wrong, but Lathe’s plans always seem to work out perfectly. I would have liked to see some improvisation on the fly, but I admit it is kind of fun to see how it all comes together in the end.

That aside, I rather enjoyed this sequel. We got further development of the world and its history, and I feel like Zahn tightened up his intrigue a bit, although sometimes I was a bit baffled by the arguments between the two human collaborators assigned to hunt down the Blackcollars. They were of course quite successfully bamboozled by Lathe’s wilderness of mirrors, but even in those terms sometimes the discussion didn’t seem to make sense.

I consider that a pretty minor flaw in an otherwise very enjoyable work.

My other book reviews

The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review

Other books by Timothy Zahn

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review

Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Thrawn

Starcraft: Evolution

Everything Will Wight on Sale!

I’m trying to catch up on my sleep, so things are quiet around here right now, but Will Wight announced a sale on his blog:

Free

Unsouled (Ben’s review)
House of Blades (Ben’s review)

On sale for 99¢

The Crimson Vault (Ben’s review)
City of Light (Ben’s review)

Soulsmith (Ben’s review)
Blackflame (Ben’s review)
Skysworn (Ben’s review)
Ghostwater (Ben’s review)

I love Will Wight’s books, so now is a great chance to get started on these series cheap!

Judgment at Proteus Book Review

Finally, Frank is found with a dead body somewhere other than a train!

Finally, Frank is found with a dead body somewhere other than a train!

Judgment at Proteus: Quadrail Book 5
by Timothy Zahn
416 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy; Reprint edition (July 28, 2015)
ASIN B00Z8POP4E

When Frank finally gets to the end of his quest, he finds out that he has been fighting the wrong war all along. But at least he's not on a train anymore!

Much of the action in Judgment at Proteus takes place on the eponymous Proteus station, centerpiece of the Filiaelian Empire and proud showcase of their mastery of genetic engineering. Unfortunately, Frank killed some Filiaelian walkers back in book 3, so now he has some 'splaning to do. Which of course he doesn't want to, since his battle against the Modhri has been an unauthorized shadow war waged for the benefit of the Spiders and their secretive masters.

That simple hook is enough to set in motion the denouement of a five book series, wrapping up a number of loose threads, and being a hell of a lot of fun in the process. I blew through these books over the course of a couple of weeks, thanks to a timely family vacation, but being able to pick up four of five volumes at once really helped a lot. There is something to be said for waiting until a series is complete to get started.

While these are quick and easy reads, this is not simply the equivalent of popcorn fare summer blockbusters, fun to watch and quickly forgotten. You could read the Quadrail series that way, and come away having had a good time. Zahn writes in an accessible style, and has been a popular writer for a very long time, so he's good at it. But I wouldn't have enjoyed the Quadrail series quite so much if there wasn't something more lurking under the surface.

Zahn just never makes a big deal out of the ideas he explores here. Frank is a bit of a loose cannon, always trusting in his brains, guts, and luck to get him through to the end. That is a perfectly acceptable strategy when you are just a cog in the intelligence apparatus, high risk and high reward if you are indeed both clever and lucky. It clearly worked for Frank, right up until it didn't, and he got fired for making a big stink about something obviously stupid, that ended up being part of the Modhran shadow war before Frank knew what that was.

This is less good as a strategy when you are on your own, with the fate of galaxy riding on your luck. Unfortunately, Frank doesn't really know any other way to operate. Fortunately for him, others who are less clever but more systematic, are available to back him up. There are hints of this fundamental tension throughout the five books in the series, but it isn't a major plot, nor does it take up a lot of space in the text. It is just there to think about, if you find it interesting. 

There are other interesting themes that clearly form the background of this series but are only mentioned in passing: unintended consequences, the price of making yourself open and vulnerable enough to love, how to ensure enough of an advantage to defensive warfare to make interstellar war unprofitable, what happens when you introduce a large number of fundamentally dissimilar alien species to one another. Each one of these things is big enough to write a whole book about, but Zahn did a good enough job on each one to just make it a background detail.

This makes his written worlds feel complete, rather than fantastical sets upon which his characters act out their lines, requiring suspension of disbelief to make the plywood and paint feel real. I could just relax into the story, and go along for the ride. The fact that Zahn can write this kind of thing year after year, over a career now stretching almost 40 years, is a remarkable accomplishment. And it is a hell of a lot of fun too.

My other book reviews

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review

Other books by Timothy Zahn
Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Thrawn

The Blackcollar

Starcraft: Evolution

The Domino Pattern Book Review

What if security inspections cannot defeat a determined and resourceful foe?

What if security inspections cannot defeat a determined and resourceful foe?

The Domino Pattern: Quadrail Book 4
by Timothy Zahn
385 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy; Reprint edition (July 28, 2015)
ASIN B00Z8POORW

Since every entry in the Quadrail series follows the same basic pattern, we need a new plot device in each book to keep things fresh. Zahn has arranged these so that the series is building to a crescendo, each victory more desparate, every moment more fraught.

In The Domino Pattern, the escalation is someone has figured out how to smuggle weapons onto the Quadrail. Which is supposed to be impossible. The Spiders who run the interstellar train service employ a screening system that would make the Israelis jealous. It looks not only for weapons that can cut or shoot, but chemical and biological agents effective against the various species that are their clientele, and also anything that can be combined with another mechanism or substance to become something dangerous.

However, since Frank used to work for Western Alliance Intelligence, we know that Earth governments were quietly pursuing projects to find weapons that could slip past the Spiders' sensors. We also know that some of Frank's alien allies in the shadow war against the Modhri have already managed to figure out ways to create bludgeoning weapons that can be carried aboard. Frank himself has an in with the Spiders, and has access to a non-lethal weapon, the kwi, that normally would also be forbidden. We see things much more effective this time.

My favorite part of this book is the feeling that all the players are playing the game to the hilt, all the time, even when you can't see what they are doing. And the willingness to look for an edge even if the price of losing is peace and tranquility. The quiet arms race to develop weapons you can sneak on to a Quadrail train is exactly the kind of thing you would expect real governments to do, even when they benefit from the stability such a policy creates. The greater good is clearly served by the status quo, but no one can pass up the opportunity for a winner-takes-all technological breakthrough. Or can ignore the threat of their neighbors doing so first. This is an unstable equilibrium, just asking for something to come along and break the system. That thing has come. And that isn't even Frank's biggest problem on this train. 

My other book reviews

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review

Other books by Timothy Zahn
Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Thrawn

The Blackcollar

Starcraft: Evolution

Odd Girl Out Book Review

Frank really needs to stop being found around dead people

Frank really needs to stop being found around dead people

Odd Girl Out: Quadrail Book 3
by Timothy Zahn
366 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy; Reprint edition (July 28, 2015)
ASIN B00Z8POPPS

I picked this book up in the library earlier this year, read the first chapter, and realized that a lot of things were being discussed instead of revealed. Then I looked at the inside cover and realized I had selected book three of a series. Weirdly, lots of reviews of Odd Girl Out have the same story as mine. I don't know what you did Tim, but this one stands out on a shelf for some reason.

As is now the pattern, Frank starts out the book being associated with a murder. Unfortunately for him, this time the cops arrest him and throw him in jail to await arraignment. Fortunately, Frank has friends in high places who can bail him out.

What his friends can't do is explain why the woman who broke into his apartment, and then asked for help before he sent her packing, now lies dead next to a man with a suspiciously similar head wound. This is a classic noir setup, and Frank probably should have seen it coming, given his love of classic cinema. Even Homer nods.

While this escalation is par for the course, what is not is the way we get hints that friend may be foe, and foe friend. The Modhri, Frank's nemesis in the great game for control of the Quadrail and the galaxy, asks him for help. While understandably suspicious, Frank, the keen student of behavior, is intrigued enough to look into it. And the Modhri isn't the only one acting strange. Bayta, his partner, is still cool towards him after Frank kissed a cute girl in the last book, no matter that mind viruses were involved. His employers are keeping a closer than usual eye on him. And of course, he is out on bail for a double homicide.

Which is all just another day in the office for the galaxy's wiliest railroad detective. Fortunately, Frank is far too stubborn to let trivialities like the coldness and distrust of his only friends stand in his way. If things like that mattered to him, he wouldn't have blown the whistle on the United Nations' hopeless scheme to colonize the worthless planet of Yandro. And he won't let it stop him from finding the little girl the dead woman asked him to protect.

My other book reviews

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review

Other books by Timothy Zahn
Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Thrawn

The Blackcollar

Starcraft: Evolution

The Third Lynx Book Review

Mark Zug's cover for Timothy Zahn's  The Third Lynx

Mark Zug's cover for Timothy Zahn's The Third Lynx

The Third Lynx: Quadrail Book 2
by Timothy Zahn
352 pages
Published by Tor Books (October 30th, 2007)
ISBN 9780765317322

This cover is my favorite of the whole series. The first volume I bought was a reprint in ebook form; it has a stylized cover with a man carrying an MP5K, or something much like it. It could easily be the cover for a Tom Clancy-style espionage action book. It isn't bad, but I don't love it as much as I do Mark Zug's cover art for The Third Lynx.

Frank Compton looks wily and self-assured here. I feel like Zug nailed his personality. Bayta, his assistant and liaison with the Spiders who run the interstellar Quadrail service, looks pensive, but nonetheless determined. Rarely do I see a book's characters captured so well in a single image. The Quadrail station itself even gets a nod, at once otherworldly and familiar.

Mark Zug has a website you should check out, he does a lot of art in this style.

Back to Zahn's work, The Third Lynx follows closely on the heels of Night Train to Rigel. Even down to how Frank immediately finds himself in the company of recently murdered man who wanted to send him on a quest. The way in which Zahn departs from the pattern is that he subtly ratchets up the stakes, and the tension. 

The first time Frank found a dead man, he rifled through his pockets, found a ticket with his own face on it, and scooted off without getting identified. This time, a former colleague with an axe to grind spots Frank and raises the kind of fuss that isn't helpful to a railroad detective attempting to be low-key. 

Frank of course uses his Poirot-like investigative skills to unravel the mystery of the dead man and his connection to the eponymous statue, which is not really a Maltese Falcon reference since it turns out to not be a MacGuffin. What I like most about Frank Compton is that his real superpower in the Quadrail dominated galaxy is that he is a barracks lawyer, always using the many bureaucratic regulations of a post-modern galaxy as his true weapons. Every one of the cultures Zahn created to populate his fictional universe has both its own typical personality, and a need to implement mechanisms of social and legal regulation. Frank is a master of arbitrage between the legal systems of different cultures, and he'll use any leverage he can get.

Anonymity was a useful tool for Frank, but that is the first thing he loses in The Third Lynx. This makes the games he plays more interesting, because he needs to attempt misdirection in plain sight. And his opponent is doing the same thing, at the same time, which you sometimes can only see in retrospect. It isn't just Frank that figures it all out at the end.

My other book reviews

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review

Other books by Timothy Zahn
Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Thrawn

The Blackcollar

Starcraft: Evolution

Night Train to Rigel Book Review

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail Book 1
by Timothy Zahn
Kindle Edition, 394 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy; Reprint edition (July 28, 2015)
ASIN B00Z8POQDO

Night Train to Rigel is a murder mystery set on an interstellar train, mixed with something very much like Cold War wilderness of mirrors spy intrigue. I have to assume the model Zahn used for the former is Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. This turns out better than I might have expected. Zahn gives us some color about the Quadrailed trains that traverse the galaxy, but this is the kind of science fiction that is about the ultimate effects of technology on society, rather than science fiction about technology itself. 

Cars of the Orient Express  By WLDiffusion - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35086531

Cars of the Orient Express

By WLDiffusion - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35086531

Frank Compton, his protagonist, is certainly an investigative genius along the lines of Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes, observant and clever, able to see his opponents both metaphorical and literal from the inside out. Also eccentric and a bit of a loner. I might also add that he is something of a Bayesian, or a superforecaster, continually updating his predictions as new information comes in.

The other influence apparent in Night Train to Rigel is Film Noir, and Hitchcock in particular. Compton loves making allusions to classic movies, regardless of whether his alien interlocutors are likely to have any idea what he is talking about. Which is OK, since these jokes are clearly intended for his amusement [and ours].

And since those are the models Zahn is using, it unsurprisingly turns out that Frank Compton has gotten himself into something far deeper than he really wanted to when he agrees to investigate the mysterious threat to the Quadrail system that links the galaxy together. Of course, no one is really who they seem, and everyone has an agenda and ulterior motives, which largely remain hidden from view until the denouement. This is all part of the fun. And it was really fun.

Of course Frank Compton saves the day. However, there is always more going on underneath the surface than first appears. There are four more volumes in the Quadrail series, and since this one hooked me, I then had to run out and find the rest before I went on vacation, because I really wanted to see what happened. This is a fun series, and well worth your time.

My other book reviews

 

Other books by Timothy Zahn
Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Thrawn

The Blackcollar

Starcraft: Evolution

Another Thrawn: Alliances Excerpt

Thrawn: Alliances alternate cover  I hope they blend the eyes on that actor a little better for the final version

Thrawn: Alliances alternate cover

I hope they blend the eyes on that actor a little better for the final version

Another excerpt from Timothy Zahn's new novel Thrawn: Alliances has been released.

Taking a final look at the nav display, Anakin pointed the Actis toward the horizon and poured power to the drive—
Abruptly, R2-D2 trilled a warning. “What is it?” Anakin said, frowning as he checked his rear display.
And felt the back of his neck tingle. There was a ship back there, the size of a medium freighter but of unknown configuration.
Settling into orbit right beside his hyperdrive ring.
“Unknown ship, this is General Anakin Skywalker of the Galactic Republic,” he called. “Identify yourself and state your purpose.”
Nothing. Maybe they didn’t communicate on any of the Repub­lic’s standard frequencies.
Or, more likely this far out, didn’t speak Galactic Basic.

I enjoyed Zahn's reboot of the Grand Admiral last year, so I have fond hopes for this one as well.

Linkfest 2018-06-18

Perhaps Monday is the new Friday around here.


Conan the Barbarian: A Review, an Analysis, and a Little Bit of a Misunderstood and Improperly Played - While Talking About the Pulps

I found this reading the Conan roundup from Monday. I also rate the 1982 Milius Conan higher than Rick Stump. I love that movie, and I am astounded by how well it holds up. Nonetheless, this is a fantastic reflection on Robert E. Howard and his influence on the storytelling of the twentieth century.

THERANOS DIDN'T NUKE THE DIAGNOSTICS BUSINESS

There are reputable companies working in the same space as Theranos, but since there is either no hype or no scandal, we don't hear much about them.

There’s a Place for Us: Revoice and Gay Christian Futures

There’s a Place for Us Part II: More on Revoice & Gay Christian Homemaking

I really enjoyed Eve Tushnet's two-parter on being a gay Catholic, and I think she's completely right that an obsession on avoiding even the possibility of sexual feelings has cramped the friendships of too many people. As Eve rightly notes, this is not limited to those who identify as gay or lesbian, but affects all of us to some degree. This reminds of things the Art of Manliness has written about friendship, from a completely different direction. Anytime I find two people with completely different perspectives and agendas talking about the same thing, I take notice. 

The Murder That Changed Germany

I read John Schindler extensively for a while, then I started to be concerned that he had lost his mind. I'm glad to see he can still write a cogent column. The murders of so many young women in Germany by migrants of various sorts was the kind of thing predicted after Angela Merkel so unwisely threw open the borders. This prediction was then dismissed as racist trash, and inconveniently, happened anyway.

Violent crime rises in Germany and is attributed to refugees

This Reuters report states the facts succinctly.

Why Working on the Railroad Comes With a $25,000 Signing Bonus

Railroad work is irregular, hard, and dangerous. Consequently, it also pays well. Of course, this kind of thing can be highly cyclical, and under railroad union rules, the guys who get laid off will be the ones with the least seniority. Nonetheless, this is really good work.

The Lesser Cruelty on Immigration

Ross Douthat pens the kind of column on the fuckup at the southern US border that I wish I had written. I am resolutely against mindless cruelty, but there has to be some level of cruelty in a rich nation's border enforcement, or that nation will end.

McMoon: How the Earliest Images of the Moon Were so Much Better than we Realised

The more classified stuff comes out that we did during the Cold War, the more sympathetic I am to the idea that innovation in the US has slowed down.

018-021_CAPA_Arqueologia_267.jpg

Time has been kind to Francisco de Orellana.

Ghostwater Book Review

Ghostwater: Cradle Book 5
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (May 31, 2018)
ASIN B07DFWZP9C

I bought this book the day it came out, but I ended up circling back around and re-reading the other four books in the series, then reading this one again, before I felt ready to review it. The first time I got to the end of Ghostwater, I felt like a lot of things that had been set up back in Unsouled had been at least partially fulfilled, so I decided to go back and check.

Upon completing the cycle again, I have now verified that initial vague impression to be correct. I won't spoil the fun, but I appreciate a few lines in the early books better now. As a coming-of-age type story, it was quite satisfying to look back and see how far Lindon had truly come.

Orthos nodded as though he'd expected nothing different. “Once, you were weak. That boy is long dead, but his Remnant still haunts you.” He turned to drink from the Life Well. “Your weakness, Lindon, is thinking you are weaker than you are.”

I will also steal a line I saw in one of the first day Amazon reviews: this book is like an RPG dungeon crawl. I have to think this was entirely intentional. Any kid who grew up playing Final Fantasy or Dungeon Warrior will immediately grok what is going on here. With the help of luck, a powerful patron or two, and a hell of a lot of grinding, Lindon has leveled up far beyond his wildest dreams. But there is still a long way to go. 

In Ghostwater, we finally get to see some details of the vision Suriel showed Lindon in Unsouled when she saved his life and set him on his quest. In a technique that I greatly admire, Wight can answer questions raised in earlier volumes, and simultaneously manage to create even deeper questions by means of the same revelation. We still don't know what Eithan truly wants, or what he is truly capable of, but my estimation of his power and knowledge only grows with each volume. Lindon, unschooled and green as he is, repeatedly defeats sacred artists several levels higher than him. I shudder to think what Eithan could do if he truly pulled out all the stops. 

I am also glad to see that Eithan knows how to properly launch a secret technique:

lipstick.gif

The Traveler's Gate Chronicles Book Review

The Traveler's Gate Chronicles
by Will Wight
Hidden Gnome Publishing (June 8, 2015)
394 pages
ASIN: B00Z92K3PG

I love short story collections. I love them because you can really get to the meat of a story without the overhead of a novel. I like novels, I read a lot of them, but I find many of my favorite authors by means of short stories. Take Tim Powers for example. Jimmy Akin published Powers' short story "Through and Through" in 2006, and I was immediately hooked. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of the late Jerry Pournelle's There Will Be War! series too, I own all ten volumes of it. I've explored the works of many of the authors who contributed to those collections, and I am better read for it.

Where the short story format shines is in letting us traverse the depth and breath of Simon's world, without needing to build characters, construct narratives, or even introduce the grand concept. While I think this book could serve as an excellent introduction to Simon's world, the Unnamed World, it served even better as a digestif.

For example, we get to see the Territories outside of the point of view of Simon's grand tale of vengeance and awakening. I didn't really appreciate that people lived and worked in the Territories! Even for people who were not themselves Travelers, the Territories could be mundane [you can get used to anything]. 

On the other hand, we also get the backstory of several important characters, including Valin himself. Seeing Valin as a mere man, before Valinhall existed, explained so much. Valinhall was aptly named.

In this case, I didn't read The Traveler's Gate Chronicles until after I had finished the rest of the Traveler's Gate trilogy, but this themed collection set in each of the nine Territories was written so beautifully, and answered so many questions I didn't know I had, that I almost wish I had read it first. Wight deftly wove in little bits that I hardly remembered from the novels into an exploration of the world he created for Simon, son of Kalman.

Something I hadn't appreciated about Simon's world until I read Chronicles is the way color tells you hidden details about characters. I was reminded of an article I read years ago, sent by my friend Tom, about the visual storytelling of Pacific Rim. Visual storytelling in movies is simply how things are done. del Toro, in particular, is obsessed with color. But to do this in a book.

Mako1.PNG
Mak02.PNG

In Wight's world, each Territory, and its corresponding virtue, is color-coded. Violet is the color of honesty and openness. Orange is the color of loyalty, red the color of dominance and rule, blue of mercy. What truly surprised me, and this colors my review of City of Light, is that those virtues are often not precisely what you, or even the Travelers of a Territory, might think. The color that matches the prime virtue of a Territory is often different than the dominant hue you see there, or in its Travelers' habitual dress and presentation. 

However, this is not simply a matter of balancing yin and yang, counteracting dominance with self-sacrifice, but the more active discernment of the golden mean. A self-consciously self-sacrificing leader is often the most oppressive one of all.

My other book reviews



Will Wight's Traveler's Gate Trilogy Free on Amazon Kindle

Now that I have finished reviewing the Traveler's Gate trilogy, and I have reviewed four of the five Cradle books, I am happy to share the news that Will Wight is making both the Traveler's Gate trilogy and Cradle: Foundations, the first three books in that series, available free on Amazon, June 1st, 2018!

Head on over and download them now! Here are my reviews of these fantastic books:

House of Blades: Traveler's Gate Book 1 Review

The Crimson Vault: Traveler's Gate Book 2 Review

City of Light: Traveler's Gate Book 3 Review

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4 Review

You can also snag some free wallpaper images from Wight's website.

Soulminder Book Review

The dome of the Florence Baptistry, showing the hierarchy of angels  By Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) - taken by Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2267968

The dome of the Florence Baptistry, showing the hierarchy of angels

By Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) - taken by Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2267968

Soulminder
by Timothy Zahn
Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (September 23, 2014)
334 pages
ASIN B07B675RVC

For Dr. Adrian Sommer, a split second of driving while distracted leads to tragedy—and obsession. His family destroyed, he devotes his entire being to developing Soulminder, a technology that might have saved his son as he wavered on the edge of death. Sommers’s vision is to capture a dying person’s life essence and hold it safely in stasis while physicians heal the body from injury or disease. Years of experimentation finally end in success—but those who recognize Soulminder’s possibilities almost immediately corrupt its original concept to pursue dangerous new frontiers: body-swapping, obstruction of justice, extortion, and perhaps even immortality.

Soulminder is a little different that the other books of Timothy Zahn that I have read. I picked it up in late December, and I started reading it immediately, but it didn't hook me. I turned to other things, then I came back to Soulminder in March. The more I read, the better it got. This book is not a page turner, but rather a slow burner.

Part of the reason for that is the structure. This work was expanded from a serialization in Analog magazine, with three of the chapters adapted from that previous publication. Accordingly, this isn't a traditional novel, with a continuous flow, but rather is more like a collection of novellas with common characters and a common theme, sometimes with separations of many years in between the events each chapter.

Another reason why this book is different is that it is a different kind of science fiction. For a long time, my working definition of hard sci-fi has been: the method of good "hard" science fiction leaves the reader usefully instructed in certain principles of physics or biology after reading a story that otherwise closely resembles a Western. Many of the best works in the field use this formula, but it isn't the only one that works. 

Isaac Asimov had a three-part typology that explains some other ways:

In 1953, Isaac Asimov published an article titled "Social Science Fiction" in Modern Science Fiction. In that article, he stated that every science fiction plot ultimately falls into one of three categories: Gadget, Adventure, or Social.
Gadget: The focus of the story is the invention itself: How it comes to be invented, how it works, and/or what it is used for. The invention is the end result of the plot.
Adventure: The invention is used as a dramatic prop. It may be the solution to a problem, or it may be causing the problem itself, but the main focus is on the caper and how the invention's presence helps or hinders it.
Social: The focus of the story is on how the presence of the invention affects people's daily lives, whether for good or for ill. The chief distinction between this and the other two types is that the presence of the invention influences the plot rather than causing it or being the goal.

Soulminder is social science fiction in Asimov's model. There isn't any attempt to describe the scientific principles of Soulminder for the very simple reason that there aren't any. This is a technology that doesn't exist in our world, and we don't have anything that even vaguely approaches it. Thus, we can't learn about soul transfer like we learn about linguistics in The Way of the Pilgrim, or about orbital mechanics and extra-planetary habitats in The Martian. What we can learn about is what our world might be like if a technology like this existed.

The depth at which Zahn explores this question impressed me more and more as I read through Soulminder. My first hint that Zahn was up to something really interesting came in chapter two. Dr. Adrian Sommer, co-inventor of Soulminder, is on a televised panel with several religious media figures to debate the merits of his technology. Since I have a background in moral theology and moral philosophy, I found the stances each expert took to be plausibly within the range of acceptable opinion in their respective faiths, but mostly I found the whole exchange a little boring, since it was mostly a rehash of existing controversies in our world. However, it turns out the debate was really just a red herring for the really interesting question that comes up while Dr. Sommer is sitting in the green room during a commercial break: one of his clients has been caught in the soul trap after suffering an entirely expected third heart attack, but he also has an organ donor card and the hospital is about to start harvesting his organs, since he is legally dead.

On the one had, Dr. Sommer's client probably deserves a chance to be put back into his body once his infarcted heart has been dealt with. On the other hand, at least four people will benefit from the technically dead client's organs. On the gripping hand, it isn't at all clear that the client's heir/protege has pure motives when he insists that the legal precedents around organ donation be followed. This is very, very applied ethics.

And Dr. Sommer has a decision to make. He very much wants to do the right thing, even when he frequently doesn't know what that is. So he makes his decision, and he goes on, through the rest of the book, doing his best to make sure the moral monsters of the world can't take advantage of the power over life and death that he has created.

Earlier in chapter two, Dr. Sommer tries to enlist the help of the Reverend Tommy Lee Harper, a fiery televangelist who is staunchly opposed to Soulminder and all its works. Dr. Sommer suspects that Harper is a man of integrity, and Sommer is right, Harper has so much integrity that he won't help Sommer defend a technology Harper thinks is fundamentally wicked, and contrary to God's plan, no matter what the earthly stakes are. 

Sommer closed his eyes briefly. “It’s not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons,” he quoted quietly, “but out of bad archangels.” “You and C.S. Lewis make my point for me,” Harper nodded. “Soulminder is an archangel, Doctor, so far as earthly creations go. I’m very much afraid that it’ll be beyond your ability to keep it from becoming a demon.”
...
For a long minute Harper gazed past Sommer, at the lights of the city stretching to the horizon. Then, slowly, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Dr. Sommer,” he said, “but I can’t help you.” The knot in Sommer’s stomach retightened. “Why not?” he asked, fighting to keep his tone polite. “You see the evil in what Marsh is doing—” “But you ask me to support one evil to keep another from happening,” Harper interrupted him. “I can’t do that.”

The ethical dilemma at the hospital bed, and Zahn's portrayal of Rev. Harper, a man who would simply have been an obscurantist villain in many a book, convinced me that Zahn had written something truly compelling, a moral thriller. 

Once I got into it, this book just kept getting better and better. The schemes, grift, and oppression that come into being just because Soulminder exists are breathtaking. Much of it is even plausibly high-minded. The professional witness program, spearheaded in my own great state of Arizona, offers up the bodies of volunteers to the souls of murder victims so that they can testify at their own trials. Justice will be done. However, it is never that simple, especially since only souls that had been rich enough in life to pay Soulminder's fees can be captured and returned, and professional witnesses tend to be the same kind of people who volunteer for drug safety trials. And that is the kind of program the United States governments run. There are plenty of less savory places in the world, and they have Soulminder facilities too. Harper's prediction has a lot going for it.

While I appreciate the moral realism with which Zahn approaches the likely consequences of soul transfer technology, I was also pleasantly surprised by some subtle philosophical points that seemed rather Thomist. For example, the body matters as much as the soul. If you find yourself in someone else's body, you can inherit their habits, emotions, and memories as well. Depending on who that person was, you may find yourself with some unwelcome side effects, like the crime lord who stole the body of a pious young Catholic who happened to share a resemblance, and then discovered that he unexpectedly felt guilty!

If you can persevere through an opening that is admittedly a bit slow [the first chapter was originally written in 1988 or 1989], you will find a work of surprising depth. Not exactly space opera, but worth your time.

My other book reviews

Soulminder
By Timothy Zahn

Thrawn: Alliances Except

An uneasy alliance...  TM & © Lucasfilm Ltd. 2018

An uneasy alliance...

TM & © Lucasfilm Ltd. 2018

An except of Timothy Zahn's new Thrawn: Alliance novel is available at Starwars.com:

“I have sensed a disturbance in the Force.”
Emperor Palpatine paused, stretching out his thoughts to the two men standing before his throne, awaiting their reactions.
No. Not men. Of course not men. Men were insignificant, pitiable creatures, fit only to be ruled, or intimidated, or sent to die in battle. These were far more than mere men.
A Chiss Grand Admiral, a strategic and tactical genius. A Sith Lord, ruthless and powerful in the Force.

You can pre-order the novel from Amazon, or elsewhere, and in the meanwhile you can check out my reviews of the early 1990s Thrawn Trilogy, or the more recent reboot.

I know I'm excited. Zahn has been writing great books for 35 years, I expect this will continue.

Ringworld Book Review

Larry Niven's Ringworld [not to scale]

Larry Niven's Ringworld [not to scale]

by Larry Niven
Del Rey Books, 1970
342 pages
ISBN 0-345-33392-6

It is kind of strange that it took me so long to get around to reading this book. I've read everything Niven and Pournelle wrote together, and liked it all. I had certainly heard of Ringworld, so that should have been a clue I would like it. I was even a huge fan of the Halo games in the early 2000s, which borrowed heavily from Niven's books for inspiration.

Thus, while I should have read Ringworld sooner, I hadn't. I read The Magic Goes Away in 2012, and my memories of it weren't as good as the review I wrote then, so I tended to shy away from Niven's solo work. This was a mistake.

Ringworld is an amazing book, the hardest of hard sci fi, written by a genuine master of the craft. If you haven't read it, you need to. Go click that affiliate link and buy it now. Or go to the local used bookstore, which will assuredly have a copy on hand. Do it. You won't be sorry.

My introduction to Niven's Known Space was the short story "Fly-by-Night" in There Will Be War Volume X. I found the setting interesting and well done, so I picked up Ringworld on a whim for my birthday. 

First, we must Louis Wu. Thanks to boosterspice, Louis is 200 years old, and still fit, trim, and vigorous. Louis is also celebrating his birthday in every time zone around the world sequentially thanks to cheap teleportation. He is also bored to tears. Cheap transportation has blended every city and culture around the world into grey homogeneity, and an unusually long life doesn't leave one many surprises, even less so in a world that is just one big city with quaint historical neighborhood names like Moscow, Marrakesh, and San Diego.

Niven took some interesting scifi ideas, and extrapolated what life would really be like if they were true. And this is just the first chapter. We also meet some truly alien species. You think you know what they are like, until you start to see the world through their eyes. And then you see the kind of worlds they create for themselves. Even after hundreds of years of contact, trade, and warfare, misunderstandings abound.

Louis, xenophilic for a human, sets sail for the eponymous Ringworld with a Kzin, a giant cat with a warrior culture that fought humans unsuccessfully for almost four hundred years, a Pierson's Puppeteer, a two-headed coward that speaks human languages like a phone sex operator, and Teela Brown, the luckiest woman who ever lived. The four of them routinely puzzle one another, because they are all so different as to be almost incomprehensible.

Hilarity of course ensues.

And then, we get to the Ringworld itself. Ninety-three million miles in radius. The mass of Jupiter. Six hundred million miles long and million miles wide. It has the surface area of three million Earths. You could put trillions of people on it, and they would never see each other. None of the pictures I've attached to this post do it justice. Niven does it in words; everyone who sees it in the book has a hard time wrapping their minds around its scale. It is just too different from our experience [or even the aliens' experience] to readily grasp.

Not  Larry Niven's Ringworld, but pretty darn close now that I've read the original

Not Larry Niven's Ringworld, but pretty darn close now that I've read the original

When Bungie made their Halo games, the ring was scaled down to something that would look good on screen. I think they made the right choice for what they were doing. If Niven's ring were accurately represented, players wouldn't be able to tell what it was. It is too alien, too weird to easily process. A novel really is a better medium for this idea, for exploring what it means.

There is a lot of exploring to be done. Ringworld is Niven's best known novel, and now that I've read it, I see why. Niven uses his unique style to extrapolate what it would really be like to build such an artifact as the Ringworld. This is hard scifi at its best. I'm sure I will pick up the others in due course, but even if you have no interest in such things, read this one. It is worth it.

My other book reviews