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