Dragon and Liberator Book Review

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

The time has come for Jack and Draycos to fulfill their destiny, or die trying. The K’da/Shontine refugee fleet has nearly completed its two years of faster-than-light travel, fleeing across the void between adjacent spiral arms of the galaxy. Despite all of their efforts, their enemies have assembled an attack force at the rendezvous point for the refugee fleet.

The time has also come for answers. Who are the K’da, and where did they come from? Why are their enemies willing to pursue them beyond the edge of the world? Who is Alison Kayna, and whom does she work for? What exactly is the connection between Jack and Draycos, and and why do they ‘nick’?

By now, we also have many answers. We learned in the last volume that Jack’s parents were Judge-Paladins, the circuit judges of the Orion Arm, empowered to hear cases and dispense justice anywhere they might find themselves. While we don’t learn precisely what the limits of their power or jurisdiction are, we do know that are granted ships of unusual power, speed, and armament, such as the one Virgil Morgan stole from Jack’s parents.

I found Zahn’s description of the badges of authority of a Judge-Paladin fascinating: their distinctive hats were a combination of a biretta and a tricorn hat. As a Catholic convert, and a reader of First Things magazine, that seems like a not entirely accidental combination. If someone were to boldly create a symbol of the late twentieth century project to marry orthodox Catholicism to the American Dream, this would be it.

Biretta  By MK777 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4733523

Biretta

By MK777 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4733523

Tricorne hat  By Unknown - LACMA Image Library. Photograph LACMA.Derivative work: PKM (talk), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14854853

Tricorne hat

By Unknown - LACMA Image Library. Photograph LACMA.Derivative work: PKM (talk), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14854853

While I’ve had some doubts about Zahn, I have absolutely nothing to make me think that Zahn is a secret disciple of Fr. Neuhaus. Nonetheless, this is a striking example of cultural convergence. I might dismiss it as a coincidence if it weren’t for the uncanny resemblance of Draycos’ ethics of war to the police model of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

An interesting wrinkle in this theory is that book 6 is where the gloves come off. Up til now, Draycos has avoided intentional killing, except for book 1, where he executed a man who had killed a random passerby in an attempt to coerce Jack into helping with Arthur Neverlin’s grand conspiracy. Now that time is short, and the fate of his people hangs upon a precipice, Draycos is quicker to kill, and he even resorts to the use of the Death, the dreaded weapon of the Valahgua, smuggled into the Orion Arm to finish the fleeing refugees.

I saw a comment in another review that seems pertinent here. I hadn’t particularly noticed, but book 1 was a bit of a departure from Zahn’s usual style, and even a bit over the top in how the story and even the terminology was simplified. Now that we are down to book 6, I feel like Zahn has gotten more comfortable with the juvenile novel thing, and relaxed back into something that feels more normal for him.

Which is a good thing, insofar as Zahn skillfully wraps up all of his plot threads and hints from the previous five volumes into a hell of a conclusion. This is an excellent series, with some interesting ideas and especially well done character development. I encourage you to pick these books 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
Dragon and Judge

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

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

Dragon and Herdsman Book Review

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

Fourteen year old boys still don’t make good plans. After escaping from the Brummgan slavers, the Chookook family, with a healthy dose of good fortune, Jack infiltrates another mercenary organization in order to steal their files. This time, Jack and Draycos know where to look because of an act of mercy that Draycos insisted upon back in Volume 1: Draycos took a few seconds to prop up a man he had disabled so that the mercenary wouldn’t burn to death upon the ground heated by the crash of his ship.

In doing so, Draycos instantiates something very much like the jus ad bello criteria of the Catholic Church that govern just conduct in war.

What Catholic military doctrine does resemble is the criteria that well-run civilian police forces articulate regarding the use of deadly force. As the nightly television news will tell you, rules of this sort often work imperfectly. However, they do make sense for any law-governed society in which the authorities, too, can be held responsible for their actions.

So far as I know, Zahn isn’t Catholic. I guess that he simply used medieval chivalric ideal as an example for Draycos, and in some typically thorough research, brought this along for the ride. What I can’t even begin to guess is whether he developed it into a more modern rendition on his own, or if he used another source.

Reading something like The Song of Roland with the eyes of an early twenty-first century American, it is hard to avoid the impression that Roland is a bit of a chump. Roland’s last stand is certainly dramatic, but he could have blown that horn earlier and saved everyone a lot of trouble. But his knightly honor wouldn’t let him call for help carelessly. To do so would be to admit weakness, which would shame him in the eyes of his peers. Roland is mostly concerned with defending his honor, defined as mutual respect among a society of equals [warriors]. If your peers don’t see or recognize this kind of honor, it very much doesn’t truly exist.

Draycos’ ideas of honor on the other hand, are a little more practical than Roland’s. Draycos is perfectly willing to retreat without shame in the face of a superior force, or seek to avoid combat when defeat is more likely than victory. He is, on the other hand, is acutely interested in defending abstract ideals, even when no one is looking, even when it actively works against his obvious interests. This is guilt culture, rather than shame culture, in the context of war. In the Christian West, chivalry was one of the stages by which shame cultures with a warlike bent turned into guilt cultures with an interest in defending the weak and defenseless, even when they mean you harm.

In the twelve or so centuries since Hruodland, captain of the Breton Marches, made a last stand that was told for a thousand years, Catholic thinking on war has tended toward a police model, where minimum force is used to achieve the objective at hand. This is very much the model Draycos uses, except that in his culture, he personally combines the prerogatives of judge and jury and executioner in one, which is a bit unsettling to Jack, and probably would be to most of Zahn’s readers, modern Westerners, who are accustomed to a separation of powers model.

Battle of Palatea  Edmund Ollier  Publication date 1882 [Public domain]

Battle of Palatea

Edmund Ollier

Publication date 1882 [Public domain]

However, Western thinking on war by those who actively practice it doesn’t necessary track well with the development of Catholic Just War doctrine. Victor Davis Hanson made the argument that going back to the Classical Greeks, the Western way of war was to seek decisive battle which destroyed the enemy [or at least his ability to fight]. What this looks like shouldn’t be at all unfamiliar to any educated Westerner, because it is how we [the Allies] waged World War II.

THE WAR MY GRANDFATHERS WAGED  BY ENGLISH: ISHIKAWA KŌYŌ - 写真のアップローダが出典を示していないのでどこからこの写真を持ってきたのか不明だが、該当写真は1953年8月15日発行の「東京大空襲秘録写真集」(雄鶏社刊)の12, 13ページに「道路一杯に横たわる焼死体、誰とも知れぬ一片の灰のかたまりにすぎないが…」のキャプション付きで掲載されているので著作権問題はクリアされている。, PUBLIC DOMAIN,  HTTPS://COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG/W/INDEX.PHP?CURID=3681456

THE WAR MY GRANDFATHERS WAGED

BY ENGLISH: ISHIKAWA KŌYŌ - 写真のアップローダが出典を示していないのでどこからこの写真を持ってきたのか不明だが、該当写真は1953年8月15日発行の「東京大空襲秘録写真集」(雄鶏社刊)の12, 13ページに「道路一杯に横たわる焼死体、誰とも知れぬ一片の灰のかたまりにすぎないが…」のキャプション付きで掲載されているので著作権問題はクリアされている。, PUBLIC DOMAIN,

HTTPS://COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG/W/INDEX.PHP?CURID=3681456

We crushed our enemies, until they had no recourse. We burned their cities, without remorse. I’m not talking about nuclear weapons either, which don’t actually rise to the level of the enormity I am talking about. This was what Jerry Pournelle called WARRE. Warre to the knife, fire bombs, nuclear weapons, death and destruction. I am not sure that Hanson made his argument in quite the way he meant to, but I think it is true that the West has a tendency to do this.

Draycos, despite being on the losing end of an interstellar war, is too high minded to embrace the scorched earth tactics of his enemies. Even though that war involved the death of something like 90-95% of his people. We were not so generous to our enemies.

That highmindedness is put to the test here, in Dragon and Herdsman, when Jack and Draycos, fleeing from angry mercs who caught them in the act, stumble upon a colony of Draycos’ people on a remote world. Except, they aren’t really his people, in the cultural sense. These phooka are physically the same as Draycos, but in isolation, they have regressed to a state of mute inactivity, unable to speak, and ignorant of the proud glories of K’da history.

Draycos is stunned and appalled to find his brethren reduced to such a state. Draycos’ sense of honor, like cast iron, can be strong, but also brittle. It is especially endangered when a core assumption, like the inherent nobility of his people, is undermined. Fortunately, Jack’s more pragmatic [self-serving even] sense of ethics provides cushion and flexibility in the same way that a blade can be made more durable by combining hard steel for the edge with mild steel for the spine, taking the best properties of both.

For Jack and Draycos, the process by which this works is not simply conversation and time. They are each becoming more like one another, so much so that Jack is starting to have some of Draycos’ warrior’s spirit [and tactical knowledge], while Draycos now has the resiliency born of living life in the shadows. The phooka are likewise slow of body and of mind because the hosts they found on remote Rho Scorvi are dimwitted and indolent.

There is something special about Jack and Draycos, and in some way their meeting was providential. And now we have another piece of the puzzle as to why this might be.

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

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

Dragon and Slave Book Review

Dragon and Slave: Dragonback book 3
by Timothy Zahn
287 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018)
ASIN B079JGH1PJ

As it turns out, fourteen-year-old boys do not often make good plans. Jack Morgan has better helpers than most teenagers, but Uncle Virge is a computer and Draycos is transdimensional symbiont who is new to the Orion Arm, so Jack is effectively in charge, no matter how bad of an idea that may be.

In three volumes so far, none of his plans have worked out well, but then again, plans never survive contact with the enemy, and Jack has a lot of enemies. In fact, in order to help Draycos, he keeps seeking them out. Fortunately, Jack has unusual skills developed during an unusual life, plus two companions who will do their best to protect him.

Which he needs, now that he has sold himself into slavery in order to infiltrate his newest target. Like all of Jack’s plans, this is not just crazy enough to work, it is just plain crazy. However, we do get to learn some interesting things, such as the fact that the human worlds are sufficiently put off by open slavery to staff their local embassy with anti-slavery activists, but also not bothered enough to go William Wilberforce on the planet Brum-a-dum and interdict their spaceport.

William Wilberforce  By John Rising - (Original text: Wilberforce House, Hull Museum, Hull City Council)originally uploaded on en.wikipedia by Agendum (talk · contribs) at 23 April 2008, 22:38. Filename was Wilberforce john rising.jpg., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7354415

William Wilberforce

By John Rising - (Original text: Wilberforce House, Hull Museum, Hull City Council)originally uploaded on en.wikipedia by Agendum (talk · contribs) at 23 April 2008, 22:38. Filename was Wilberforce john rising.jpg., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7354415

Now we have an idea of why the Orion Arm is such a seedy place. The powers that do exist lack either the will or capability of enforcing their laws, and petty warlords have stepped into the gaps. We also get to learn the origin story of the K’da. A heroic myth of servitude and rebellion, passed down through the generations. It fits well with Draycos’ self-perception.

Here, we also get the first hints of something unexpected coming from the fortuitous meeting of Jack and Draycos in that ruined ship. Each of them is changing the other, but not in the sense of Heraclitus, but something more remarkable, with its full import not yet visible.

Much like the Quadrail series, on the surface, the Dragonback series seems simple, and each volume follows in a track laid down by its predecessor. But once you see the pattern, you realize that each successive story isn’t following exactly the same path, each one is expanding on what came before, building on it to end up in a place you wouldn’t expect.

Spiral power

Spiral power

Dragon and Soldier Book Review

Dragon and Soldier: Dragonback book 2
by Timothy Zahn
244 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018)
ASIN B079JKBDCN

Dragon and Soldier follows the same pattern as Dragon and Thief, the first volume in the Dragonback series. Jack and Draycos get into sticky situations, and then scrape by on Jack’s thievery, Draycos’ bravery, and sheer pluck. In the first volume, Draycos helped clear Jack’s name of a crime he did not commit, and in return, Jack now feels honor bound to help Draycos find the organization responsible for shooting down the K’da’s ship and killing all of his shipmates.

Since the only lead they have is the make of the fighters that downed Draycos’ ship, and the dragon’s hunch that pirates would have been less professional while a planetary defense force would have had more ships, Jack decides to infiltrate one of the Orion Arm’s many mercenary groups in order to steal their intelligence on their rivals.

With this plan set in motion, we get a chance to see how seedy the Orion Arm really is. Virgil took pains to inculcate a me-first attitude in Jack after his parents died, and here we start to get an idea of why. In the first book, Jack’s prime antagonist was the Braxton Universis corporation. It isn’t too hard to see huge corporations as wicked, but in the Dragonback universe, even the little corporations are heartless too.

The mechanism that Jack uses to infiltrate the Whinyard’s Edge mercenary organization is their practice of indenturing teenagers as cannon fodder. In theory, Internos, the confederation of the human worlds, opposes this. In practice, the individual worlds do as they like as long as the money is good. The money is apparently very, very good.

Whinyard’s Edge isn’t interested in providing much training to their new recruits, but fortunately for Jack, Draycos is the inheritor of a [very] proud martial tradition, and he can make up for some of the shortcomings in Jack’s accelerated short course in soldiering. Jack also gets a few pointers from a female recruit, Alison Kayna, who is set up to be an ally, an enemy, a love interest, or maybe all three somewhere down the line.

This was a pretty good adventure. Jack and Draycos learn how to work together, and we get a good setup for the continuation of the series, even if neither Jack nor Draycos can catch a break. I look forward to seeing more of their world.

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

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

Underlord Book Review

Underlord: Cradle Book 6
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (March 1, 2019)
ASIN B07NJ3B6HN

If you have been following along with the Cradle series, you will have a pretty good idea of what to expect by now. Our young protagonist, Wei Shi Lindon Arelius, will have adventures, face insurmountable odds, and advance his Path. Wight has got a good thing going here, and he sticks to what works. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: these books are just fun. But I want to stop a moment and look at why it works. Indulge me.

And work it does. When Underlord released on March 1st, 2019, it rose at least as high as #5 on Amazon’s Kindle store, and maybe higher. Wight doesn’t run any sort of amazing social media campaign, his books mostly sell by word of mouth and through the praises of reviews like this one. His release schedule helps, you don’t have to wait years in between installments. But I think this is good evidence that Wight gives his readers what they want. What they [I] want is a good story, and Wight does that.

Fresh off of reading J. D. Cowan’s multi-part review of Sam J. Lundwell's Science Fiction: An Illustrated History, I have a new appreciation for just how good the Cradle series is, and new gratitude to Will Wight for writing the things I like to read. In particular, I learned something about just what it is I like about stories like this. Lindon needed insight into himself in order to advance, and in much the same way I needed insight in what makes a story good in order to be able to understand my own tastes.

One of the things I learned from Cowan’s review is that science fiction isn’t really a genre. In fact, debates about what is or isn’t science fiction tend to get bogged down, because the usual definitions don’t cut nature at the joints. By analogy, what is usually called fantasy isn’t a genre either. Cowan proposes instead that science fiction, fantasy, and horror are all subgenres of adventure fiction, which is meant to evoke the emotion of wonder in the reader.

Wonder is a trait from adventure fiction and its subgenres fantasy and horror. It is the adventure of exploring new lands, peoples, and possibilities.

This was the insight that I needed, because now I can understand what I like, and what I don’t. There is an irreducible element of personal taste in all of our entertainment, but I learned that adventure fiction is the kind that I like to read, precisely because the emotion of wonder is what I am after. There are lots of books labeled as sci fi or fantasy that I don’t like, but this is because genre, the emotion meant to be evoked, has been confused with milieu, or setting.

In the sense that I mean the term, setting a story in the future doesn’t make it science fiction. Swords and dragons don’t make a book fantasy either. If the emotion the author is trying to invoke in me is despair or rage, I don’t really want to read that book, no matter what trappings it has. I finally understand why Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was a romance. He was connecting his work with an older tradition, not inventing a new one.

Wight’s books work for me because he is taking me on an adventure! I see the remarkable world of Cradle: Iteration 110 though Lindon’s eyes, and I get to see him grow up as he learns about the marvelous world in which he finds himself. The speculative fiction element is subdued, but not wholly absent. The focus here is on Lindon and his journey, rather than exactly what kind of society you would get if we lived in a simulation and cheat codes were enabled. There is just enough thought given to the structure and sociology to make it plausible. Everything else is about fun.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Will Wight

Cradle Series:

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4 Review

Ghostwater: Cradle Book 5 Review


Traveler’s Gate series:

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

Traveler's Gate Chronicles Book Review

Dragon and Thief Book Review

Dragon and Thief: Dragonback book 1
by Timothy Zahn
231 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018)
ASIN B079JC54C8

The Dragonback series is a what they now call a YA [Young Adult] series, but I still like the older designation of a juvenile novel, since I grew up with it, and also because a lot of what is branded as YA seems like utter crap. Here is what Jerry Pournelle had to say in 2011 about juveniles:

I followed Robert Heinlein’s rules on ‘juveniles’ when I wrote it: no sex scenes, and as Robert used to say, a juvenile has young protagonists and you can put in more science and explanations of what’s going on in juvenile works; which is to say it’s a good story, and has always appealed to adults as well as to the 10 – 15 year olds it was sort of written for.

I like re-posting Jerry’s re-iteration of Heinlein’s definition because I find that my appreciation for a well-done juvenile novel only grows with time. I am of course influenced by having small children that I want to share stories with, but I also just like this kind of story, and I have for a long time. Something that is truly only fit for children cannot really be a juvenile novel in this sense, because the author needs to craft something as interesting to adults as to teenagers. A good juvenile is also mildly didactic, which fits well in the general hard sci fi mold. In this case, Zahn’s juvenile series is less about some useful aspect of science than about a young man learning what it means to be a good man after growing up as the orphan apprentice of a con man and a thief.

The hook which sets this series in motion is our young protagonist, Jack Morgan, stumbling across the wreckage of an unfamiliar starship. Within, he finds a lone survivor, desperate and near death. That survivor is dying precisely because he is alone. The K’Da are interdimensional symbionts. Draycos can push himself into three-dimensional space for brief periods, but in order to rest he must allow himself to relax by becoming two-dimensional on the surface of a compatible host. Unfortunately, his host, and all the other crew of his ship, were killed either in battle or in the subsequent crash.

Lacking recourse, Draycos gambles his life upon the possibility that Jack may provide the sanctuary he needs. Gathering his failing strength, he jumps! Zahn will likely have a lot of fun working out the implications of what this means over the next five novels in this series, but for now, Jack Morgan has gained an impressive tattoo/traveling companion with fierce claws and a strong sense of justice.

After this unlikely meeting, Jack and Draycos find that their lives are entwined in more ways than either initially suspects. Jack, despite [or because of?] his past life of crime, is hiding on this desolate planet because he has been unjustly accused of a crime. Draycos and his former crewmates were there seeking a new home, refugees of the losing side of an interstellar war. Somehow, this all hangs together, and part of the fun is finding out how and why.

Jack and Draycos immediately find themselves in each other’s debt, for Jack saves Draycos from dimensional dissolution, and Draycos returns the favor by saving Jack from the mercenary soldier prowling about the crashed ship looking for survivors, or witnesses. Fear and necessity bind them together initially, but the rest of the book, and presumably the following books in the series, are about Jack and Draycos learning about one another while trying to unravel the mystery in which they find themselves entangled.

The structure of Dragon and Thief is primarily a caper, as Jack uses his apprenticeship in crime to good advantage. This makes the novel rather fun, as we get to see Jack and Draycos bluff and scam their way through various adventures. However, Draycos himself makes for an interesting contrast, because his rather grand sense of honor is a continual foil for Jack’s primarily self-serving survival skills.

Jack is simultaneously fascinated and annoyed by Draycos, who like a knight of old, is fierce in battle, but he will not press an unfair advantage or abandon a fallen enemy in distress. Draycos, for his part, is occasionally appalled by Jack’s instincts, but mostly sees their fortuitous meeting as an opportunity to set Jack back on the straight and narrow in recompense for saving his life.

The interplay between them, mediated by the ship’s AI which houses the memory of the con man who raised Jack, is what raises this from an entertaining caper novel to a disquisition in very very applied ethics. The stakes in the story are dramatically high, but the basic questions are more fundamental: do you help someone because you expect recompense, or simply because it is the right thing to do? Do you defend yourself with maximum ruthlessness and force, because your enemies will not deign to extend you the same consideration, or do you seek the minimum of force which will allow you some measure of safety? Who can you really trust? And what hidden agendas lie behind offers of help and good intentions?

Since this is a juvenile novel, and not a work of historical fiction or political intrigue, these questions receive relatively straight forward answers. Which is in my opinion appropriate for the intended audience. At some point, harder questions and harder answers need to be proposed and given, but the result will be better built upon a foundation like this. It is far too easy to drift into nihilism otherwise.

I really liked this book, and I recommend it to fans of adventure fiction and juvenile novels in the Heinlein mold. You can pick the first three of six volumes up on Amazon right now for $2.99 USD, which is a great deal. I’ve got reviews coming of volumes two and three, so don’t fret.

My other book reviews

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

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

The Best of C. L. Moore Book Review

The Best of C. L. Moore
by C. L. Moore
452 pages
Published by Diversion Books (September 22, 2015)
ASIN B07H15QVLC

Catherine Lucille Moore  By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34553491

Catherine Lucille Moore

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34553491

I had heard of Catherine Lucille Moore, but this was my first exposure to her work. I saw this collection of her short stories come on sale on Amazon, so I decided to give it a try.

In my typical fashion for a short story collection, I’ll do a short review of each story, and then look at the collection as a whole.


Shambleau *****

Not only is this story my introduction to Moore’s work in general, it is my introduction to one of her most famous characters, Northwest Smith. N.W., as his partner-in-crime Yarol calls him, is very much the anti-hero. I call him an anti-hero insofar as he doesn’t particularly demonstrate the chivalry of other nearly contemporaneous characters like the Geste brothers. However, I think you could almost as accurately call him a hero, if the hero you have in mind is someone like Odysseus.

Northwest Smith is a pirate and a smuggler, a desperado of renown. Like Odysseus, he is cast adrift from his home. He definitely shoots first and then neglects to ask any questions. He is happy to lie to your face and then rob you blind. He is not, however, a force of random destruction, he just is wholly out for himself. In the pre-Christian moral universe of the Homeric Greeks, N. W. would have fit right in. However, he does not actually live in that moral universe, but in one whose foundation is Christianity, which is a thematic element we will return to later.

In addition, the story itself is a re-working of Greek legend, but with an eldritch horror element that feels quite natural here. Greek myth itself doesn’t have the existential dread of living in a universe that contains many things older than, more powerful than, and also indifferent at best to man, but it readily compatible with it. The Greek Gods were anthropomorphic, but often cruel and indifferent. However, the real monsters do not even rise to that level.

“Shambleau” uses the venerable conceit that old stories often contain a gem of truth. Stories in this vein treat their subjects as not at all metaphorical. With suspension of disbelief, such a story can be strange and frightening because you can imagine it to be mostly true. Many of my favorite authors have recycled myth and history to great effect, and Moore does an excellent job here. Even more remarkable, since this was her first commercial sale. “Shambleau” is one of the stories almost everyone talks about when speaking of C. L. Moore’s work, and I think it a remarkable piece. I can see why Moore had such a long career and so much influence on other authors.


Black Thirst ***

Whereas “Shambleau” had a touch of eldritch horror, “Black Thirst” is quite simply Lovecraftian. This is the second Northwest Smith tale, and in typical planetary romance fashion, it is set on a young and torrid Venus, whereas “Shambleau” was set on an old and dusty Mars.

This story gave off a pretty strong Tim Powers vibe for me. Powers’ early novel, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, in particular. The antagonist of “Black Thirst”, the Alendar, has a likeness to Powers’ Norton Jaybush. Most of Powers’ protagonists are nothing like Northwest Smith however.

Unfortunately, while this possible connection is intriguing to me, I started to lose steam on the collection here. “Black Thirst” is very much in the vein of Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. I liked the John Carter stories well enough, but not enough to read again, so I found more of the same unispiring. Not even the Lovecraftian element was good enough, since it was more of a mood than a repetition of Lovecraft’s peculiar way with words.


Mantorok – The Corpse God

Mantorok – The Corpse God

The Bright Illusion **

“The Bright Illusion” is the weakest story in this collection. I might actually have given up here, but I am glad that I did not. My best description of this is Lovecraft in spaaaace! It features a human coerced into serving as an agent in a titanic battle between two beings so great in power and majesty they are worshiped as gods, although they are nothing of the sort.

Except, this story ends on a curiously hopeful note, which in the hands of lesser author would have been merely schmaltzy. We get “Love conquers all” mixed up with “There are fates worse than death”, but I am most fascinated by the way in which this is used to illustrate the fundamental inadequacy of the victor of the titanic battle of the “gods”, who is forced to admit that the worst it can actually do is kill you.

This is curiously not like Lovecraft, and piqued my interest despite the overall weakness of the story compared to the rest.


This is the most perfect image I could find of Jirel.

This is the most perfect image I could find of Jirel.

Black Kiss *****

“Black Kiss” was the story that rescued the whole collection for me. It helped that I stumbled upon a recently written blog post, Fandom: An Illustrative History (Part I: Origins and Tales From the Crypt). This blog post illuminated Moore’s work in particular, and my love of science fiction in general.

The blog post has a lot of sci-fi inside baseball that need not detain us here, but this part stuck out to me:

The Gothic is the beating bloody heart in any good traditional romance story and is what gives it the universal core so needed in fiction. White against black. Dark against Light. Hero against Villain. Eternal Life against Endless Death. Temptation against Virtue. It goes beyond the surface into weighty themes of the Ultimate, God, and True Justice. The knowledge of a battle between forces beyond both parties at play that haunt the scenery and the overall world behind the story. It underpins every action and decision, and the thought that salvation or damnation is a stone throw away is the most nail-biting experience of them all. Now those are stakes, and they were an integral part of all fiction until the second half of the 20th century where the worst thing that can happen to you is that a monster might kill you in the dark where you can't see it.

The term romance, as used here and in my own musings above, echos the sense in which J. R. R. Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was a romance, by which he, and I, means a story of heroism and adventure and wonder. This was a development of the earlier chanson de geste, such as the Song of Roland. Not a bodice-ripper, although you might actually be confused if you search of images of Jirel of Joiry. I picked the one image I found that matched the story best.

The moral universe of Jirel is explicitly a Christian one. Defeated, and in extremis, Jirel seeks the possibility of a weapon beyond mortal ken in the bowels of her castle. She has previously explored the forbidden passage with her chaplain, but now she disregards his entirely sensible advice to turn back and she descends into a strikingly imagined Hell to exact vengeance. Jirel reaches a point where she can progress no further without discarding the Crucifix she wears about her neck. She proceeds.

I have no idea what Moore’s beliefs, or personal life, were really like. But at the distance of 85 years, what struck me was she simply assumed her readers would understand the peril in which Jirel was placing herself. If you don’t think there are fates worse than death, this story won’t make any sense at all. The stakes are not death, but damnation.

Jirel finds that which she seeks in that mysterious tunnel under her castle. But what we seek, and what we really want, often aren’t truly the same things. Moore’s denouement is so characteristically feminine that I don’t know how to properly do it justice, other than to say that the image I selected for this short story is simply perfect, and all the others are irrelevant cheesecake.

I am also almost certain that Tim Powers lifted parts of this story into his works, particularly The Drawing of the Dark. There is a scene in “Black Kiss” with a spiral tunnel that Jirel transits, and Powers wrote of a spiral staircase under a brewery in Vienna that his protagonist descended to seek power, claustrophobically close. Once I saw the similarity here, I couldn’t unsee it in other places too.


A Tryst in Time ***

A time travel/reincarnation/love story. I was impressed with how well Moore blended the masculine adventure elements with star-crossed lovers. Not exactly my thing, but well-imagined.


Science laboratory, The University of Iowa, 1930s   Rights Information: There are no known copyright restrictions on this image. The digital file is owned by the University of Iowa Libraries, which is making it freely available with the request that the Libraries be credited as its source.    More information about this image:  digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ictcs/id/7358

Science laboratory, The University of Iowa, 1930s

Rights Information: There are no known copyright restrictions on this image. The digital file is owned by the University of Iowa Libraries, which is making it freely available with the request that the Libraries be credited as its source.

More information about this image: digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ictcs/id/7358

Greater than Gods ****

This short story feels to me like something written much later, for example Ballard’s work, with its elements of science run amok and managerial expertise turning into despotism. On the other hand, Heinlein’s first published story came out the same year as this, 1939, and Heinlein’s work is often similar to “Greater than Gods”.

Due to an accident in converging time streams, a scientist finds himself thrust upon the horns of a dilemma. In one future, his choice of a wife means that a pacifist, matriarchal, and quite stagnant society will occur. There is no more war, but no more technology or drive either, and that society’s grip on prosperity is slowly slipping away. In the other future, the other woman he is considering proposing to will bear him a son, who will beget a long line of sons who will dominate the Earth, and far, far beyond. This society is militaristic and regimented, but also capable of genuinely great things.

At this distance in time, I am fascinated by the dilemma Moore gives us. Today, no one could possibly propose this as a genuine dilemma in literature. I don’t think it could be done, because even I feel like maybe the peaceful but incompetent society is clearly better. However, the story makes no sense at all if you cannot truly feel that heroic deeds and exploring the universe and inventing new things are genuinely good things, which counterbalance the very very topical jingoism of this late 1930s tale.

Also, Moore superficially presents us with the thought that future history depends on whether each woman bears a daughter or a son first, but on another level, what really matters is the character of the mother, and what kind of child that union will create. I won’t spoil the choice the man makes in the end, which is what makes this story really transcendent.


Mary and Eve    by Sister Grace Remington OCSO

Mary and Eve

by Sister Grace Remington OCSO

Fruit of Knowledge *****

A dramatic retelling of the Fall of Man and the Temptation of Eve. Of Biblical stories, the sin of Adam and Eve retains popular currency even now, while other stories have begun to fade from our memories.

”Fruit of Knowledge” is perhaps a typical expression of the West in the twentieth century, insofar as the sin that truly separates Man from God is not simply disobedience, but sexual desire. On the other hand, if this story had been written today, Adam would have had sex with Lilith, not simply spoken to her and enjoyed her company for a brief time before the creation of Eve.

Like “Jirel of Joiry”, “Fruit of Knowledge” is set within a Christian moral universe. Moore sets the Fall shortly after the rebellion of Lucifer, an act which does not appear in the Hebrew tradition, but is instead from the Revelation to John. Also, there are hints that the Fall of Man was in some sense a happy accident, an event that was allowed to happen, because a greater destiny was in store. This is a speculation that goes back to Augustine of Hippo, so far as I know.

Finally, the children of Lilith, referenced by Moore here, were used by Tim Powers in his novels The Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves.


No Woman Born *****

Moore explicitly links this to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, through the dialogue of her characters. This is a tale of the creation of a monster by means of good intentions, and also truly terrifying to me.


Daemon ****

I think I can trace this short story to two Tim Powers novels. First, the setting, Atlantic sailing in the age of the buccaneers tinged with Vudun, is much like On Stranger Tides, the book that was optioned for Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Next, The Drawing of the Dark, Powers’ contribution to the Arthurian legend, which hinges upon the titanic change in the world wrought by the first Christmas.

No, three, because the influence of the Grait God Pan, who was the center of Powers’ Earthquake Weather.

This was a fantastic little story, from near the end of Moore’s career. Poignant and well-crafted, with acute psychological insight. Not as striking as “Shambleau”, but far better written.


Vintage Season ***

A sad tale of time-traveling voyeurism, but a well-executed one.


Ben’s final verdict *****

I almost gave up on this collection, but I am glad I didn’t. Moore wrote some great stories, of a kind I don’t think you can find anymore. I can’t find any interviews or essays where Powers talks about Moore, but after reading this, I have a hard time imagining he didn’t read her works and find inspiration in them. Highly recommended.

My other book reviews

The Path of the Martyrs Book Review

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732  By Charles de Steuben - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363367

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732

By Charles de Steuben - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363367

The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, The Battle of Tours and the Birth of Europe
by Ed West
Kindle Edition, 496 pages
Published June 26, 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07F2M73XV

How could I not review a history book that starts off with the Battle of Tours? I only picked Charles de Steuben’s painting of the battle for my site banner.

West has written the kind of book I would give to a teen-aged boy that I think would end up being quite interested in history for its own sake, but needs an introduction to the subject that is neither stuffy nor boring. Perhaps the young man in question has heard bits and pieces of the chansons de geste through popular culture, perhaps knows of Beowulf or the Song of Roland, and is curious to know what really happened.

Quite a bit happened in the seventh and eighth centuries in France, and most of what did happen is not only epochal, but rather exciting, scandalous even. This is the spirit that West captures in his book. In order to capture the breath and scale of what was going on in the world, West does make some detours in both time and space. While this makes the narrative skip around a bit, I think the context it provides is crucial in understanding, for example, exactly why it was so surprising that the unlettered Franks stopped the advance of the Umayyad Caliphate in 732.

Saint Boniface felling Donar's Oak  By Bernhard Rode - Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5780989

Saint Boniface felling Donar's Oak

By Bernhard Rode - Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5780989

West also has the time point out less romantic facts like it was the Catholic Basques who killed Roland, Lord of the Breton marches in Roncesvalles, rather than the Muslims, and to highlight the rather unecumenical stance of St. Boniface when he chopped down Donar’s Oak. We get to see history, not legend nor hagiography here.

I read this on Kindle, and I found the footnotes were well-implemented, but I did find a number of typos. This sort of thing seems to be common in short little ebooks of this type, and the meaning is always clear from context, so it doesn’t bother me much. Ed West’s short little history book is pithy, irreverent, and above all, fun. I think you could spend 99 cents in many worse ways.

My other book reviews

Retribution: Galaxy's Edge Book 9 Review

Retribution: Galaxy's Edge #9
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Kindle Edition, 496 pages
Published October 29th 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07GNGLDWM

I threatened to write an elaborate thinkpiece on this book, and since no-one talked me off the cliff, here it is. I think I’m going to go full spoiler here, because I doubt I need to talk anyone into reading the 9th book in a series I’ve been recommending for a year. If you haven’t read the book, don’t read on unless you want me to ruin the ending for you.


The end has come.

In Message for the Dead, I thought the end was upon the galaxy, but Goth Sullus used his connection to the Crux to stem the tide, vanquishing the murderous and hateful Cybar and binding them to his will. Alas, it turns out that his victory was to be short-lived, and he would not succeed at building an Empire to last a thousand years. At the very moment of his triumph, his dreams turned to ashes in his mouth, and his power deserted him.

Unfortunately, despite his advanced age, Goth Sullus forgot to heed the advice of the venerable 100 Tips for Evil Overlords #22, “do not consume an energy field bigger than your head, no matter how much power is at stake”. [on a side note, I see that the author of the evil overlord list’s last name is Anspach. Coincidence?]

Of course, I am kidding. Goth Sullus pretty clearly knows most of these things. Sullus did not make any cartoonish mistakes. He was just undone by his moral failings, as nemesis follows hubris. It would be easy to condemn Sullus as a monster, which he is, but he is also genuinely a great man. Thus his end, when it comes, is all the more tragic.

I wish to focus here on Sullus, in part because I am fascinated by his character, but also because in retrospect, the entirety of the first nine books of the Galaxy’s Edge series turns upon Goth Sullus and his actions. Even the Battle of Kublar was but the preamble [with the collusion of X] to his campaign to bring justice to the galaxy.

If we now turn to the events of Retribution, one of the key threads is the final temptation of Goth Sullus. In Message for the Dead, the dread secret of the Cybar was heavily hinted, but here in Retribution, the truth is laid bare: the Cybar are but manifestations of demons and devils seeking to invade and despoil the galaxy.

I would have thought Casper’s service in the Savage Wars, and his time on the lighthuggers, would have better prepared him for this

I would have thought Casper’s service in the Savage Wars, and his time on the lighthuggers, would have better prepared him for this

Blinded as he is by pride and ambition, Sullus cannot see this. Even though preventing this was why Sullus went seeking power! As surprising as this may seem, given his history, the temptation of Goth Sullus proceeds in a plausible fashion. Like the target of the apprentice devil Screwtape, the ultimate masters of the Cybar proceed from flattery, to practical advice, to offers of service, to demands of fealty. Reading this, I thought it felt about right. The whisperings of temptation do sound like this. From my own small experience, this felt real.

No death-bed conversion for Sullus

No death-bed conversion for Sullus

I had hoped for redemption for Sullus. In the end, he had spent far too long indulging his fantasies of power and revenge to act in time. Goth Sullus was vain-glorious and prideful, easy pickings for the masters of deceit. Casper might have resisted, but that persona was long diminished by the time he had completed his transformation into Sullus. Once he [Sullus] realized his danger, he [Casper] was too far gone to resist effectively. Virtue is simply what we habitually do, and for Sullus, his habits betrayed him in the end. When Wraith walked up and put a bullet in his head, it was the best thing that could have happened to him at that point. We can perhaps nonetheless hope that his final resistance will count in his favor at the final judgment.

Last Judgment  By Stefan Lochner - Postcard, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=153939

Last Judgment

By Stefan Lochner - Postcard, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=153939

The end of Goth Sullus brings a fitting end to the first season of Galaxy’s Edge. Most everyone who deserved a bullet has gotten one. Order, of a sort, has been restored to the galaxy. Things will never be as they were, but life will go on.

There are just enough loose threads left for the authors to spin up another round of books, but I felt satisfied at the end of this. Each book in the series had its own feel, its own good moments, and then in the end it all came together cleanly. This was a hell of a good read, and I hope everyone else enjoyed the ride as much as I did.

My other book reviews

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


Builders and Breakers book review

Builders and Breakers
by Steve Light
Kindle edition,40 pages
Published by Candlewick Press (October 9, 2018)
ISBN 978-0763698720

I received this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

This one was a sleeper hit in my house. I read it for bedtime once or twice when I first got my review copy, but the six-year-old and four-year-old never asked for it again. That is the metric I use most of the time for children’s books, so I set this one aside for a bit.

Then, the nearly-two-year-old started asking for this. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, he is big into trucks and construction right now. Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site is another current favorite.

71r6+OtwvKL.jpg

I think he also likes the narrative device of the two children looking for their father at the construction site, which runs in parallel to the text, a story told almost entirely in pictures. He gleefully shouts “DAD!” when we get to the page where the children finally catch up to their father with his forgotten lunch.

For my own part, I enjoy Steve Light’s fanciful drawings. He has a note in the book where he admits to a fascination with classical, Gothic, and Art Deco architecture. This results in a style of illustrated buildings that is only loosely grounded in any project that has ever seen the light of day, but is quite striking.

This is the kind of book that has enough going on to keep me from going crazy when I read it twice in a row every night for weeks on end. Thanks Steve.

My other book reviews

Thrawn: Alliances Book Review

Old School Star Wars by Timothy Zahn

Old School Star Wars by Timothy Zahn


Thrawn: Alliances
by Timothy Zahn
Del Rey (2018)
350 pages
ISBN 978-0-525-48048-8

This book was a breath of fresh air for me. Timothy Zahn has written something that feels like an old-school Star Wars adventure in the new Star Wars canon. The Star Wars novels written since Disney nuked the Extended Universe have ranged from the merely competent to downright awful, with a few excursions into active hostility towards the fanbase. So far, other than Zahn’s reboot of Thrawn, none have been fun.

This book was a lot of fun.

It might even be better than Thrawn, although that book was trying to do something very different than this one, which makes the comparison difficult. The last book in Thrawn’s story was a political thriller. This one is simple adventure, although Zahn made an interesting choice to tell two stories, widely separated in time, but unified in setting and protagonists.

The settings Zahn chose map onto The Clone Wars and Rebels respectively. We thus have one foot in the sunset of the Republic, and another in the dawn of the Empire. This book makes the most sense seen within the context of those cartoons, which are among my favorites of the Disney era.

We also lack the window into Thrawn’s mind the previous book provided, other than some brief observations on body language. Instead, we get to see into Vader’s head. I didn’t mind the shift in emphasis, because Zahn was able to deftly explain the way Vader sees himself. Years ago, I remember reading a fan theory that Obi-wan’s betrayal, the shock of accidentally killing his wife, and the process of being made into Vader caused a psychotic break in Anakin’s mind. Vader remembers being Anakin, but it was like it all happened to someone else. And precisely because of how horrible those experiences were, and his own complicity in how it all turned out, Vader doesn’t have much interest in introspection regarding his former life.

I don’t know who wrote that fan theory, or even where I read it, but they nailed it.

Zahn also gets to have a bit of fun with fan-service. Dave Filoni’s Rebels took a clever Thrawn gambit from the original trilogy of books, the Marg Sabl, and returned it to the canon by having Ahsoka Tano, Anakin’s padawan in The Clone Wars, invent it. In Alliances, Zahn brings it full circle by having Anakin teach it to Thrawn.

Another super popular character that arose from the margins of Star Wars

Another super popular character that arose from the margins of Star Wars

Zahn resurrects the Noghri commandos here, who were the nemesis that brought justice upon Thrawn’s hubris in the original story arc. It isn’t at all clear what might happen this time, since Thrawn’s new origin story shifted his personality subtly. Padmé also makes an appearance here, and I feel like Alliances does her justice. Since Zahn also created one of the most popular female Star Wars characters, Mara Jade [whom I suspect of being based on his wife], I’m not surprised that he can write Padmé convincingly.

Of course, Zahn needs to pay his dues as well. One of the worlds in the book is Batuu, and the city upon it Black Spire Outpost, which is the name of one of the attractions under construction at the Galaxy’s Edge theme park at Disneyland. Zahn works hard to find a way to tell an interesting story while still putting in the requisite product placement and nods to other products in Disney’s Star Wars portfolio.

It probably helps that this isn’t the first time he’s tried.

Zahn has written this book before, Outbound Flight. I read it in 2016, and so far, it has been the only Zahn book I’ve given a tepid review. I felt it was just too hard for Zahn to try to reconcile his early 1990s inventions for the course of the Star Wars universe post-Return of the Jedi with the later prequels. This was Zahn’s opportunity to reboot that story, where Anakin Skywalker met Thrawn out beyond known space, and he made the best of it.

I would say that this is hearkening back to the Star Wars that could have been, the road that was not taken, but Timothy Zahn and Ron Howard and Dave Filoni and Gareth Edwards make me think there is an active resistance to the identitarian overreach of The Last Jedi.

This isn’t just the Star Wars that was, in the old Extended Universe, it is the Star Wars that is.

My other book reviews

Thrawn

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

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

Starcraft: Evolution

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

Goodnight, Anne Book Review

Goodnight, Anne: Inspired by Anne of Green Gables
by Kallie George (Author), Genevieve Godbout (Illustrator)
40 pages
Published by Holt, Reinhart and Winston (1978)
ISBN 978-1770499263

I received this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

First published in 1908, L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables has come into the public domain in the United States and Canada, which means we can have delightful little derivative works like this one, Goodnight, Anne.

Kallie George and Geneviève Godbout have distilled Anne Shirley into a series of rhymes and colored pencil drawings. My wife says this image of Anne and Marilla looking at the Snow Queen tree embodies them both perfectly:

Anne and Marilla respectively gaze upon and fret toward the Snow Queen

Anne and Marilla respectively gaze upon and fret toward the Snow Queen

Very sweet, and clearly captures the spirit of the original. My kids haven’t heard or read Anne of Green Gables, so they don’t ask for this one much, but my wife adores it.

My other book reviews

The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard Book Review

The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard
by J. G. Ballard; Introduction by Anthony Burgess
312 pages
Published by Holt, Reinhart and Winston (1978)
ISBN 0-03-045661-4

I am a great lover of scifi short story collections, and this volume of J. G. Ballard’s work, lent to me by a co-worker, is no exception. There are some top-notch stories in here, spanning just over twenty years of Ballard’s career. In the past when I have reviewed collections of short stories, I have usually featured a few really notable ones, and discussed the general theme of the work.

This time, I want to try the technique of giving each short story its own mini-review, along with a mini-score out of five stars. I’ve seen it done to good effect in other reviews, and it seems like fun. I also plan to discuss the general themes of the collection.


The Concentration City ***

One of the reasons I like reading old scifi is that because it ages so rapidly, you can get a better feel for the obsessions of the past. “The Concentration City” has a too obvious textual link with the then still new Nazi concentration camps, but a more subtle one with overpopulation. There is just one problem….

The eponymous city is huge. A county of the enclosed, multi-level city represents a thousand floors, one hundred thousand cubic miles, and a population of thirty million people. Each county is grouped with 249 others to form sectors, and 1500 sectors form a Local Union.

Concentration_City.jpg

Let’s look at that math. Each county is a thousand levels, so each floor must be 100 square miles. That is about the same as a medium size American city, like Sacramento. If you assume roughly even distribution of those 30 million people, you get 30,000 people per floor….

Sacramento currently has almost 500,000 people in it, and I don’t know anyone who finds it oppressively dense. An order of magnitude less people would make it positively rural by almost anyone’s standards. I think Ballard was going for something like the feel of Alex Proyas’ 1998 movie Dark City, a movie also about an inescapable prison city, but just had no quantitative sense at all.

The city as a whole makes better sense as a crushing mass of humanity. 30 million people per county times 250 counties per sector times 1500 sectors per local union gives you 11 trilliion 250 billion people. And we see several local unions in the text! That is a number that can boggle the mind! It clearly seems to have boggled Ballard.

The story is strong on atmosphere, but weak in details. The huge numbers probably worked to inspire the right feeling in Ballard’s readers, so I suppose I can’t fault him for that stylistic sense, I just like it when an author tries hard to get the little things right even when most people won’t notice. It is like a carpenter who makes the lines straight on the backside where no one can see, the mark of a true craftsman.

A visualization of a level, if you packed all 30 million into it

A visualization of a level, if you packed all 30 million into it

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Manhole 69 **

The flavor text in this tale of a psychological/surgical experiment gone wrong is heavily Freudian. Sixty years later, it looks kind of stupid, given how far Freud’s reputation has fallen, but I have to imagine the flavor text of a contemporary book would look just as ridiculous in 2078.
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Chronopolis *****

I love this one. At his best, Ballard had an impressive imagination that encompassed the good and the bad of both the thesis and the antithesis at once. Chronopolis is the ruin of a once great city that was overthrown in a revolution against the tyranny of precisely-scripted efficiency.

There is a bit more sloppiness about population density here, but what really struck me is that just before the protagonist is arrested for the forbidden practice of time-keeping, he restores the chimes of the bell tower of Chronopolis, and the muddled masses who mill about aimlessly start using the chimes to order their days again.

The city truly was tyrannical and inhumane in its time-keeping. It was also much more productive, supporting ten times as many people in far greater luxury. Being punctual is the epitome of quotidian, but it is easy to underestimate how valuable it truly is.

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The Voices of Time ***

This was the first story in this collection that brought me up short. Ballard’s wikipedia entry describes his work as provocative and transgressive, and this is all of that in spades. “The Voices of Time” combines the mid-century English novel’s characteristic despair with post-apocalyptic dystopia.

We see a return of the themes from “Manhole 69”, but done far better; dubious scientific experiments attempting to literally excise the need for sleep from the human brain, badly suppressed erotic desires, and a pervasive sense of decline.

I’ve written a few posts recently about superversive science fiction. Superversive scifi attempts to create a sense of wonder and hope in the reader. The neologism is coined in opposition to subversive scifi, which seems to be aptly represented by Ballard. This story is hella edgy, and even though-provoking, but this isn’t the kind of scifi that inspires nerds to create stuff. This is the kind that inspires them to cut to feel.

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Deep End ***

“Deep End” is a fantastic example of the kind of scifi that inspired the environmental movement. It also features an almost heroic protagonist, grimly determined to pay homage to a dying world, but also a bit cracked in the head.

The feel of this story is nearly Stoic in its unblinking acceptance of Fate, but not really interested in the cultivation of virtue that Stoicism entails.

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The Overloaded Man ****

This story nails the feelings of alienation and ennui that accompanied the huge material successes of the mid-twentieth century. It also perceptively describes the dangers of mystical experience. Unlocking your psyche isn’t necessarily a good idea.

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Billennium ***

Another overpopulation tale, but this one is subversive of the genre insofar as the protagonist ends up a capitalist in the end. Concern for overpopulation was a big thing in the middle of the twentieth century, but it largely got shoved down the memory hole at the beginning of the twenty-first, even though there are roughly twice as many people now as there were then. The rate of growth has slowed, but that likely isn’t the only reason. In part, I also think that those of us alive today simply don’t remember the world that existed before. Jerry Pournelle once pined for the America that had a population of 125 million people, which he thought was too many at the time. I can’t imagine my country with 200 million people not there.

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The Garden of Time *****

Another Stoical tale of the calm acceptance of a horrible fate, with the suggestion of some preventable tragedy in the unwritten past. The garden, an oasis of beauty, will inevitably be overrun by the masses of the unwashed. Count Axel and his beautiful wife are the only inhabitants of the villa within the garden.

Each day, they watch the surging horde approach the villa. Each day, the count spends of the substance of the garden to delay the inevitable, until at last, nothing remains.

I have a hard time imagining that I am on board with the idea Ballard was getting at here, but this is an achingly beautiful story.
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Thirteen for Centaurus ****

Fallout-4-Lore-History-Vaults-Vault-Tec-101.jpg

This is the Fallout short story, reminiscent of the sick experiments the Vault Corporation conducted on its customers. In real life, the best examples came later than the fictional 1950s of the Fallout series. The Stanford Prison Experiment, fraudulent from the start, was in 1971. “Thirteen for Centaurus” was written in 1962, earning Ballard some points for prescience, but losing some for missing the likely perpetrators. The military-industrial-complex didn’t run most of the shitty science of the mid-twentieth century. They just featherbedded the Cold War.

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The Subliminal Man ***

A haunting extrapolation of the finding in economics that the most efficient economies in the world replace their equipment most frequently. I was pretty surprised when I found this out some number of years ago, but now that I work in manufacturing I can see how it works.

Unfortunately, it is also pretty obvious that doing faster and faster it just because it is supposedly more “efficient” would be counter-productive. An interesting conceit for a story, but too clever by half.

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The Cage of Sand ****

Unlike most of these short stories, “The Cage of Sand” was markedly improved by its ending. The premise was kind of stupid to me as physicist: eastern Florida had been turned into a facsimile of the Martian desert because we kept dumping Martian sand there to balance out the stuff we shipped to Mars in order to preserve the Earth’s orbital distance from the Sun. This was compounded by a plot device of dead astronauts in orbit, entombed in their space capsules, because they missed their one and only chance to rendezvous with an orbital platform.

Since my parents got me SimEarth on the Mac LC, I knew that there was no plausible way the fractional change in orbit from moving a few million tons of stuff to Mars would matter, due to the remarkable homeostasis of the Earth. But I already knew that Ballard wasn’t a details guy for the science stuff.

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End Game ***

This one was completely unexpected. I didn’t need to be told that the Soviet Union was a tyranny the likes of which the world had never seen, but perhaps Ballard’s audience did in 1963. Clearly, Ballard had no sympathy for the Soviets in this tale of guilt, innocence, and power.

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The Drowned Giant ****

At first, I was inclined to dismiss this uncanny tale of a overly large body washed up on shore, on account of Chesterton’s notion that mere physical size ought not to impress us. But then upon reflection, I realized Ballard was trying to criticize failing to see another’s humanity because of physical differences.

One point of contention I would take with Ballard is that he says the common people were more easily convinced that the bones left behind in the bay were merely a giant whale, than his professorial interlocutor. I don’t believe that for a second. Folk memory works just fine, you need to be highly educated to disbelieve your lying eyes.

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The Terminal Beach **

As a child of the 1980s, I have struggled to understand the obsessions of my immediate predecessors with the Cold War. The Cold War still existed when I was a child, but it had obviously [to me] lost its sting. The apocalypticism of earlier generations regarding nuclear war often seemed disproportionate to me, and this story is all of that in spades.

Since it is also couched in now tainted Freudian terms, I find “The Terminal Beach” completely ridiculous. It doesn’t help that I have seen the same idea done far better by another author. You can get an interesting story out of the identification of sex and death, but Freud and Ballard alike didn’t manage to contribute anything interesting to the conversation.

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The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D ***

I’m curious to know if Ballard had some reason for hating the Chanel family, given his antagonist here. This is about the point in the collection where I started to wonder if I would finish. Many of these short stories are challenging, rather than enjoyable, but the ability of Ballard to tell an interesting story while riding his hobby-horses seems to have tapered off with time.

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The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race *

This is the point where I started to question Ballard’s sanity. I think it was not actual mental illness, but rather a calculated pose. Whether that makes this better or worse, I am not sure.

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The Atrocity Exhibition *

In a way, this may be the ultimate Ballard story in this collection. Apparently he called the technique a “condensed novel”. My opinion of the short, choppy paragraphs with no transitions is that is just an unenjoyable as James Joyce, but at least shorter.

We get Freud, eros, thanatos, an attempt to make a literary device of weird mathematics, and painfully avant-garde style.

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Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy *

Just about the only thing Freud ever talked about that seems to have stood the test of time is projection. As such, one wonders about Ballard’s obsession with Jackie O. But he’s dead now, so it is probably all sorted out.

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Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan *

Ronald Reagan inspired an impressive amount of vitriol from the writers of his day.

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Ben’s final verdict ***

There are some truly great stories in here. There are also some truly bizarre ones, that seem to lack the kind of enduring value that might excuse their sins against propriety. I am not sorry that I read this volume, but I doubt I would ever return to it. As Ballard aged, he seemed to get lost in his edginess and simply sought shock-value above all else. Some of these works are genuinely challenging, but few of them are fun. I’m not really surprised that Ballard doesn’t appear on the NPR list of 100 best science fiction books, voted on by fans. There is nothing here to be a fan of.

My other book reviews

Phone Call with a Fish Book Review

Phone Call with a Fish
by Silvia Vecchini, illustrated by Sualzo
48 pages
Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (September 5, 2018)
ISBN 978-0802855107

I received this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

Phone Call with a Fish is a delightful book about a little boy who doesn't talk, and a little girl who is curious about what it is like to be him. We never really learn why he doesn't speak, but it really doesn't matter why. It is enough that he is different than everyone else.

The young girl ponders what it would be like to never speak in school. His mom says he is very shy, but he talks at home, so the little girl tries to do what he does. She watches him stare out the window at school, and the way he interacts with his classmates.

Her curiosity is very sweet, the little girl manages to empathize with the silent boy even though others around her have little interest in understanding him. She finally connects with him via the eponymous phone call with a fish at the science museum. 

I enjoyed this book immensely, and I appreciate the lessons that can be taught to my children. Highly recommended.

My other book reviews

 

Dear Earthling: Cosmic Correspondent Book Review

Dear Earthling: Cosmic Corrrespondent
by Pen Avey
114 pages
Published by Common Deer Press (December 3, 2018)
ISBN 978-1-988761-26-8

I received this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

Pen Avey's Dear Earthling: Cosmic Correspondent missed the mark for me. I suppose it had to happen eventually. I've been getting a lot of great review books for kids, but you can't like everything.

Partly, this book is just aimed at older kids than mine. Ages 8-11 says the included bookmark. My wife said this is the kind of book a ten-year old would probably like reading, so that checks out. Unfortunately for me, my oldest is six. However, I also find the style of the book rather obnoxious. Even if my son were ten, I might not be real happy about him reading this book. I certainly did not like reading it to him. Probably because it is pitched a little too hard at what ten-year old boys find funny. Fart jokes mostly. 

As I find the book déclassé, I am unwilling to excuse the derivative nature of most of it. I like pastiche, but only in the service of greater ends. I will not be returning to this book at bedtime. If your taste in children's books is different than mine, your mileage my vary.

My other book reviews

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