[Book Review] Find the exiled commando ninjas, save the universe.

Blackcollar by Timothy Zahn (Blackcollar #1)

After a lackluster first encounter with a backcopy of Timothy Zahn’s writing, I hesitated before picking up Blackcollar. The back blurb (which combines all those keywords I just can’t resist) hooked up with my curiosity and convinced me to give it a go. And man, I take back all the disgruntled things I said about Timothy Zahn’s writing.

Spies! Elite, genetically-enhanced guerrilla commandos! An alien occupation and one special agent sent out on a suicide mission to contact a resistance cell on another planet –

It was love at first premise.

The human worlds have been under occupation for nearly thirty years now. Allen Caine has spent his entire life preparing for an infiltration mission: impersonate a government official, get off Earth, travel to a former colony planet, and rally the resistance movement there…assuming there even is one there, anymore. Because in his head, Caine has information that, for the first time in decades, could mean a fighting chance against the alien occupation.

A wrench is thrown in Allen’s plans within the first six pages, and the story is off. Even when Allen makes contact with Earth’s once-elite guerilla commandos, in a world where anyone could be a collaborator and anyone could be a spy, betrayal is just one trap away. Continue reading

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[Book Review] What does planet and a spider have in common?

Book Review: Spinneret by Timothy Zahn

This 1985 sci-fi novel fell into my hands as a result of me realizing it’s high time I read something by Timothy Zahn, and the Spinneret’s serendipitous re-release as an eBook. (And just in case the book isn’t representative, I have Blackcollar on hand, and Dragon and Thief on my To Read shelf.)

But here is Spinneret. In the far, far future of 2016, humanity has made it to the stars (well, who knew in the 80’s that we were going to scrap our space programs?), and is all ready to colonize the stuffing out of the universe. But it turns out the universe is already chock-full of technologically advanced alien who have already called dibs on all the habitable planets.

So humans get Astra, a useless piece of real estate, for an exorbitant price.

But soon after a reluctant colonization effort, the new owners of Astra discover that they are sitting on something unique – and uniquely priceless. Add a dash of military rule, a pinch of restless third world activist, a data worker with good intentions,  and a UN desperate to hold on to its newfound power, and you get something that approximates the delightful political machinations and intrigue of Spinneret. Continue reading

[ Roost Report ] Star Wars: Thrawn turns 20

Heir to the Empire 20th Anniversary Edition by Timothy Zahn

Ask any Star Wars fan what their thoughts are about Lucas’s enhancements to the Star Wars Blu-Rays and you’ll get everything from “Who cares?” to “Darth George is destroying my childhood!”

At least there’s one reissued Star Wars classic coming out this month that no one has redone.

The 20th anniversary edition of Heir to the Empire, book one of the Thrawn Trilogy and #88 on NPR’s Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books list, features no extra scenes, no digitally-enhanced text, and no additional adjectives. The only thing that’s changed is the cover… and maybe the font.

So, it’s been twenty years. Now it’s in hardback and includes a new short story; big deal. And I want this because…?

First off, what’s it about?

The war between Imperial Forces and the Rebel Alliance didn’t disappear overnight. Five years after the death of the Emperor and Darth Vader, Princess Leia and Han Solo (married and expecting twins) and Luke Skywalker (lone Jedi Knight) are still working hard to help reestablish the New Republic government and drive out any remaining Imperial Forces.

And they missed one. Lightyears away from the capital planet, Grand Admiral Thrawn, a brilliant military tactician, is piecing together the remains of the Imperial Navy in order to strike back at the New Republic. He’s got a couple aces up his sleeve that will make it nearly impossible (i.e. will take three books) for the New Republic to win.

There’s also a former employee of the Emperor out to kill Luke. That’s always fun.

Why is this book so awesome?

The Thrawn Trilogy is credited for establishing the Star Wars Expanded Universe, allowing other authors to pick up where the Hugo Award-winning author left off, as well as reinvigorating the space opera franchise. It’s not just the solid story, but the incredibly well-developed characters that make Heir to the Empire along with the other two of the trilogy (Dark Forces Rising and The Last Command) three of the best Star Wars novels ever published.

There are two characters in particular that make Heir to the Empire worth reading. The first is the trilogy’s namesake, Grand Admiral Thrawn. Considered to be the best villain in the Expanded Universe, the blue-skinned, red-eyed military leader was inspired by historical and literary figures such as Robert E. Lee, Alexander the Great, and Sherlock Holmes. He’s cold, calculating, intimidating, and a lover of art–all traits he uses against his enemies. (As Thrawn explains, “Learn about art, Captain. When you understand a species’ art, you understand that species.”) He was featured later in the Hand of Thrawn duology (Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future, also by Zahn) as well as the recently-published Choices of One (another Zahn novel) and miscellaneous mentions here and there.

The second character is Mara Jade. A powerful Force-user, Mara was once an Emperor’s Hand–a dark side spy/assassin who could go places and do things the Emperor couldn’t. Despite the Emperor’s death, Mara’s days as a Hand aren’t exactly over. (Just mention “Luke Skywalker” and watch her reaction.) Mara also keeps in the spirit of strong female Star Wars heroines. She isn’t a damsel in distress; Mara’s intelligent, powerful, skilled and in every way Luke’s equal. Thanks to the Thrawn Trilogy, Mara went on to become not only one of the most central characters in the Expanded Universe but Mrs. Luke Skywalker.

What does this version have the other doesn’t?

Littered throughout the book are footnotes by Zahn, explaining his thinking process, why he made the choices he did, and what was carefully planned versus “That sounds good.” The annotations also cover how he approached specific scenes and characters, and how his choices have impacted the overall mythos of Star Wars.

Excerpt annotations hit the web earlier this year, and later a scanned page to show fans how the footnotes would be worked in. Here’s an example of one of the hundreds of excerpts, this one explaining the origin of Thrawn and his title:

“I wanted HEIR’s villain to be a military leader, as opposed to a governor, Moff, or Sith. But a normal admiral seemed too commonplace. Hence, the Grand Admirals. I first ran across the title, by the way, in connection with the German navy in William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” –TZ

Star Wars or not, having the opportunity to jump inside the author’s head is fantastic. As a writer, I love learning how authors approach their novels and characters. Knowing Zahn’s thinking process while reading along with Heir to the Empire instead of an interview at the end or a memoir-ish forward is worth repurchasing the novel.

So this is like repurchasing a movie on Blu-Ray you already own on DVD just because of the extra behind-the-scenes stuff?

Yeah, kinda.

Unless you really want to read Zahn’s thinking process or the exclusive short story, there’s no need to repurchase the hardcover. $30 can be a lot to ask for these days, so stick with your $7 paperback. Otherwise, the 20th anniversary edition of Heir to the Empire is a fun addition to a literary collection.

And if you’ve never read Heir to the Empire? Shame on you.

Is there more to come?

So far there’s been no official word whether Dark Forces Rising and Last Command will get the same 20th anniversary treatment (internet rumor is it depends on how well Heir to the Empire‘s sales go). I hope they do just so nerds like me can have a complete collection.