Review: “The Tarizon Trilogy (The Liberator/Civil War/Conquest Earth)” by William Manchee

I received my copy of Tarizon Volume I: The Liberator (**) through the Goodreads FirstReads program. I found the other two in the clearance section of Half Price Books and picked them up cheap. This in no way influences my review, aside from the fact that I probably never would have read these books otherwise.

This is going to be a review of the trilogy as a whole; if you want to read my reviews of each individual book you can find those on Goodreads. They will have a lot in common with this review, but be a bit more focused. Reviews for Civil War and Conquest Earth may contain spoilers for the preceding books. Links follow:
Volume I: The Liberator (**)
Volume II: Civil War (**)
Volume III: Conquest Earth (***)

Short version: this isn’t a terrible trilogy. It has numerous flaws, but it at least usually manages to be entertaining. On the other hand, there may have been a day when you had few better offerings in the field of YA literature, especially science fiction, but that is no longer the case. Now we have Ender’s Game, D.J. MacHale’s Pendragon series, or even The Hunger Games. If you aren’t limiting yourself to YA sci-fi, the field opens up even further. Ten-year-old me would have enjoyed this, new to the wonders of science fiction and all that could be. Then I read the masters, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, Timothy Zahn and the like, and my eyes were opened. This is not to say that I can no longer read mediocre books–on the contrary, I often have a strange weakness for them–but my tolerance for things that strain even for mediocrity is short. I’m not going to tell you not to pick this up, but just know what you are getting into. This is B or even C-grade stuff.

While billed as its own standalone work, The Tarizon Trilogy is actually a spinoff from Manchee’s Stan Turner mysteries. Stan Turner is a lawyer who, through some turn of events that is somewhat unclear since I haven’t tracked down his series, gets roped into working on a secret CIA endeavor–the Tarizon Repopulation Project. Tarizon is a planet in a far-off star system suffering the aftereffects of a series of crippling volcanic eruptions. This natural disaster has done enormous damage to their environment, and the resulting health problems for the population have been severe–including mutation and infertility. Although there are a few other humanoid species on Tarizon that have adapted to different environments, the main population is identical to Terran* humans. Facing a population crisis, the Tarizonian government contacted the U.S. government for aid. Fearing mass panic (and wanting sole access to Tarizonian tech), the CIA stipulated that everything be conducted in secrecy. Tarizonians come to the US and get married, have kids here where Mother Nature isn’t out to kill them, and then disappear back to Tarizon when the kids are old enough. The Terran spouse left behind? That’s just too bad. Not exactly what the Tarizonians had in mind, but the CIA won’t have it any other way….

Which is where our protagonist, Peter Turner, comes in. His father, Stan Turner, has just finished a court case tangentially related to the Tarizon project and is headed out to revisit the site where he and Peter had previously seen the Tarizonian ship. (This whole sequence, so far as I can tell, parallels a sequence in one of the Stan Turner mysteries.) Peter swipes the family car and heads out there himself, hoping to find his father and make sure he’s safe. Through a sequence of events not elaborated here, Stan has had a narrow escape with death and the villains of that story got their comeuppance, I can only assume, but all that is over and Stan is gone again by the time Peter arrives. Driving home and pondering just how much trouble he’s in, Peter comes across the Tarizonian ship leaving and is taken aboard to prevent him telling anyone what he has seen. He is informed that he is headed for Tarizon and will never see Earth again, orders of the CIA. On arriving on Tarizon, he is further informed that many believe him to be the young leader referred to in prophecy as The Liberator, who will save them all from an evil dictator and restore equality to Tarizon. This dictator has yet to actually take power, but everyone seems to know that he is going to try and it is just a matter of time. When he does, he has made no secret of his views–Humans on top, everyone else oppressed and enslaved. If they serve no purpose, wipe them out. Peter isn’t sure they’ve got the right guy, but he won’t have much time to worry about it as events force them to move quickly to prepare for the worst. Of course, things go the way everyone expects them to (no surprise, so I’ll argue that that doesn’t count as a spoiler) and young Peter is soon forced to test himself–and the prophecy–on the field of battle. The stakes couldn’t be higher, as not only the fate of Tarizon is threatened but Earth too hangs in the balance….

I ended up giving The Liberator two stars. I had been planning to give it one after that lackluster beginning, but as I went I found myself actually being drawn in and entertained. If not for the complete hash that was made of the beginning, it might have got three. No telling, as my perceptions of the whole were tainted by that beginning. As I mentioned above, I had the other two books in the trilogy already waiting on me. I was glad, because I wanted to know what happens but I don’t think I would have bought them after reading the first one. Borrowed them from the library? Yes, so long as it didn’t involve too much work to find them, but not spent money on them. Civil War was a little better, in that it at least didn’t have the incredibly flawed opening that the first one was saddled with, but that was about it. It was actually pretty dull. Conquest Earth managed both to avoid the problems of its precursors and actually be fairly interesting. It jumps around all over the place time-wise in the interest of sticking with one character for an entire chapter, and was a bit anti-climactic, but it was otherwise decent.

As entertaining as I found the books, there were a number of significant flaws I found it hard to get past sometimes. The connection to Manchee’s previous works was overblown and (during the first book) handled pretty clumsily, in my opinion. Information is thrown at you in the beginning as if you should already know who Stan and his family are. The sequence where Peter is abducted is clearly meant to run at the same time as the climax of one of the Stan Turner mysteries, but little information on that is given. Again, the author assumes you have already read it. Well, I haven’t, and I honestly have no plans to. The sequence while Peter is remembering/dreaming while in hibernation on his way to Tarizon was a little better, aside from the fact that dreams just don’t work that way. Dreams don’t show us memories unaltered, especially not just ones that conveniently fill in backstory. When memories and dreams collide there is always distortion and exaggeration. Like I said, better than just awkwardly throwing the information at us though.

In my considered opinion, the above issues could have been made moot and the story strengthened by loosening the ties to Stan Turner. Not cutting them altogether–the worldbuilding was decent, and would support most of the story just fine–but we’ve established that there are a bunch of human kids being taken to Tarizon against their will. Did the protagonist have to be Stan Turner’s son? By making that tie, we’re not only locked into summarizing/retconning** the relevant information from the other series (which, as I stated above, was done poorly) but the protagonist is now the son of a man who knows what’s going on and could probably do something about it if he chose. Not to mention making readers who haven’t read the previous series confused. A far simpler way to go would be to have a random son of a Tarizonian father or mother taken from Earth without being told what’s going on. How this is explained and why he is seventeen instead of seven as is usual when being taken can go anywhere–his father was a fugitive, they were waiting for younger siblings to mature, whatever works. Somehow kill off his family (there’s already attempts on his life, providing a convenient crossfire) and voila, almost the same situation with none of the awkward explanations. Or even the exact same scenario–a normal, non-Tarizonian boy gets abducted after seeing the spaceship–without the Stan Turner connection. Even that would have been better than forcing connections where they don’t need to appear. This would of course also force some changes in Conquest Earth, but wouldn’t necessarily preclude Stan and his family appearing as characters. They would simply need to be introduced properly.

The Tarizon Trilogy is a mix of original and cliched material, and it is very difficult to extricate the two. That isn’t always a bad thing–a lot of things become cliche for a reason–but there are times you yearn for a little more effort on the author’s part. Much of the worldbuilding is fairly original. A few of the different races are maybe a bit cliche–humans on top, oppressing the mutants and seafolk?–but others are fairly original (the Nanomites, even the rhutz are something mostly new). The idea of a world on the brink of collapse after disaster, requiring our aid? That’s new. The government hiding it from us? That’s not. That’s basically the entire premise of The X-Files. But so far as that goes, there are worse things to imitate….

The dialogue throughout the books is pretty stilted and unnatural-sounding. I’ve little room to talk, I’m pretty much rubbish at writing dialogue myself, but you expect a certain level of quality from a book that has been through the editing process and published.

Midway through book three, there is a space battle near Saturn. The ships involved are capable of travelling faster than the speed of light, and yet it is stated that they are still days away from arriving at Earth. Travelling at the speed of light, it would take about eighty minutes, ninety tops to travel from Saturn to the sun. Assuming Earth is on the far side and you have to maneuver, you could maybe get this up to three hours. Minor problem? Maybe for a YA reader, but anyone with any familiarity with the concepts involved will be able to spot the issue and call bullcrap. Either Manchee has an inflated view of the size of the solar system, or he doesn’t properly understand what FTL (Faster Than Light) means.

The characters….I would love to tell you that Manchee really shined in this area. It would make my enjoyment easier to understand. But he didn’t. Nearly all the players are two-dimensional stock characters such as would show up in a particularly action-driven Hollywood explosion-fest. We have our hero, a young man who is incredibly smart and charismatic but just never found the motivation to try very hard at anything until he is whisked away to another world and told he is to be their savior. Oh, and he discovers once he’s there that he’s telepathic. Sound familiar? Then we have our villain, the Vice Chancellor. He’s the second in command for the Tarizon government, and it is an open secret that he is planning to assassinate the Chancellor and take over. His first order of business? Enslave or exterminate anyone not purely human, and then take Earth by force. He’s not all that nuanced, and so not all that interesting as a villain. He wants to be Palpatine, but falls short even of Voldemort (Someday I will write more extensively on the flaws in that villain’s characterization….maybe in a few years when I reread those books.) His son is a little more interesting, but not a lot. There’s the love interest, with little opinion on anything political until Peter shows up. There’s the usual cast of sidekicks, but at least you can tell them apart, which is more than can be said for their counterparts in some series. The various wise leaders who will advise Peter on his journey to become the Liberator. The villain’s minions, with stereotypical fear of their boss. Like I said, I really wanted this to be something Manchee did well–it would have gone a long way towards redeeming the trilogy for me–but it fell flat.

The entire second volume, Civil War, was focused on the war between Videl and the defenders of the Supreme Mandate. All well and good, but the battles were very bland and boring. You got mostly just a big-picture view, without ever satisfying the need for interesting narrative from the battlefiend. There’s some covert ops stuff, but on the whole its pretty bland. Conquest Earth did better in this regard.

Minor quibble: there are a bunch of editing mistakes in my copy of The Liberator, and I have the trade paperback, so this is at least the second edition. Most of them are either homonyms or typos that got spellchecked into something unintended. You can always figure out what is supposed to go there by context clues, but it is indicative of the production values at work here. There is also a fair amount of bungled punctuation. There were far fewer in Civil War, but they still existed. Conquest Earth had a bunch of spots where the text size inexplicably changed for a half a page or so for no good reason.

Content: This is intended as a YA trilogy, but there is an awkward amount of sex in the first book that–for me–prevents it from fitting in that category very well. The violence and language would fit well into this category.
Sexual Content: There’s an awful lot of sexual content for a YA series. Yes, I realize the whole thing with needing to repopulate the planet does require some treatment of the subject, but to focus on it this much? This, to me, feels like one of those awkward mid-80s/90s films like Gremlins or Small Soldiers that can’t quite find its audience–a premise meant to appeal to younger viewers, but content that means only older ones can see it. Here, a series meant for kids or young teens, but too much sex to be appropriate for them to read.
Violence: This is war, so there is going to be a fair amount of violence. On the whole, it mostly wasn’t too graphic or disturbing.
Language: Mild. Nothing you won’t hear on primetime aside from one occasion of “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” as my father would have put it.

*Terran = Earthling. Terra is Greek for Earth, as Sol is for sun. This is a common sci-fi term, but it was unfamiliar to me when I first encountered it years ago (in a Star Trek novel, I believe), so I’m pointing it out here.
**Like I said, haven’t read Stan Turner. I have no idea how well the two match up or if this retconned some stuff from that series.

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