Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Timothy Zahn - The Conquerors Trilogy

This trilogy represents Zahn at the peak of his popularity and power, with his trademark mix of space opera, diplomatic thrills and military action, plus an ambition to prove his wildly popular Star Wars books weren’t just a flash in the pan. It’s largely successful, and I couldn’t put it down even on a third reading, which marks this series as one of my all-time favorites. Plus you’ve gotta love a series where at least one person per book pulls out a diplomatic carte blanche and it’s a bigger deal than being shot at.
Story: The basic premise involves a war between humans and the alien Zhirrzh, both of whom refer to the other guys as “The Conquerors”. Both sides are set up as a mirror image of the other, with a large and well-connected family on each side and various political higher-ups playing a central role in the conflict, and a pervasive fear that the other guys are unbeatable. The plot starts with first contact and quickly breaks into parallel lines following a human POW, a daring and illegal attempt to rescue him, an occupied border world hiding a piece of the top-secret human superweapon, a second feuding pair of alien races with ulterior motives, a high-ranking politician with a grudge against our heroes, and a journalist being pursued by Military Intelligence – and that’s just book 1. There are lots of sudden revelations and subtly foreshadowed plot twists, leading into a climax with upwards of a dozen major characters on three planets, all on the same interstellar conference call, trying to negotiate a cease-fire before the fleet reaches Earth. This is the rare space-military story where everybody involved would rather not be fighting, and much of the labyrinthine plot ties directly into world-building features that leave you feeling like these events are totally natural and explainable. It’s a great ride, basically, and I noticed my heart rate speeding up towards the end, which is a big accomplishment.
Design: Zahn’s simple prose and complex plot doesn’t leave much time for character development or visual descriptions, but propels you along so quickly you won’t notice. The central conceit of the trilogy presents the first book, Conquerors’ Pride, from the human perspective as they struggle to understand the alien culture, and the second, Conquerors’ Heritage, from the alien perspective, with the third book, Conquerors’ Legacy, switching rapidly between them as the two sides meet. Unfortunately, it’s clear that Zahn tried to cram a superb four-book series into three books, resulting in some very rushed portions and virtually no chance to ask what the characters are thinking and feeling. A modern publisher, having learned that books sell well no matter how many pages they contain, would have given Zahn the space he needed to avoid skipping all the falling action, for instance. I also found the use of language and neologisms to make the aliens sound less human (like saying “cyclic” instead of “year”) to be aggravating, although you might find it a charming way to reinforce cultural differences.
Best Feature: The alien Zhirrzh are one of the best humanoid aliens I’ve ever read. They’re a genuinely new idea, and their civilization and attitudes are well thought out considering their physical and technological differences from humans. Even the names are instantly readable but unpronounceable tongue twisters. By the end of the series, I found myself rooting for the Overclan Prime, plucky scientist Thrr-gilag, and amateur spy Prr’t-zevisti more than the humans.
Worst Feature: Too much foreshadowing. The camera almost never cuts away as a secret is revealed or a plan is detailed; instead, the reader usually knows more about what’s going on than any individual character. At its best, this works like a Greek tragedy. At its worst, you are left impatiently tapping your foot while the cast smells something fishy, then decides to investigate, then finally discovers something you’ve known about for 500 pages.
Overall Verdict: I picked these up off Borders’ used book section for a total of $3.50. At that price, it’s hard to say no. Although if you prefer a little angst and soul-searching in your sci-fi, you should definitely look elsewhere; Zahn’s characters are too busy evading pursuit atop a sentient vine.

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