Tag Archives: Timothy Zahn

Review: “The Circuit: Executor Rising” by Rhett C. Bruno

Title: Executor Rising
Author: Rhett C. Bruno
Series: The Circuit #1
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Diversion Books, 2015

(EDIT: The book has been given another proof-reading and re-released by a different publisher, so the author asked me to update the information found here. I’ve not seen the new version, but I’m told that the only difference is that it’s been proofread once again to catch those pesky typographical errors that seem to always slip past even the best of us.)

Reading works from debut authors can be a game of Russian Roulette, especially if the book has been self-published (This book is not, in fact, self-published, but I thought it was for some reason.) You sometimes find a gem, and other times you wind up beating your head against the wall wishing you’d never won that giveaway. This time, I’m pleased to say, I found something quite enjoyable. Unlike most of the relatively-unknown books and authors I’ve featured in these reviews, I didn’t actually seek this one out. Mr. Bruno was apparently trolling Goodreads reviews, found the one I did of Ancillary Justice, and figured I’d be a good candidate to review his own book. He was incredibly courteous, and of course I cannot speak highly enough of anyone who gives me free books, but beyond that the book was actually very enjoyable. Not perfect, there are some minor quibbles to be hashed out, but very enjoyable nevertheless.

It’s been five hundred years since the Earth was rendered uninhabitable, but humanity remains unbowed. We’ve spread throughout the solar system, scrounging and scraping a meager living wherever we can aided by the Kepler Circuit, a series of space stations set up by the Ancients of Earth before the planet burned. The stations of the Circuit are linked by the Solar Arks, traveling at nearly the speed of light from world to world distributing supplies and resources without bias. Most of the solar system is controlled by the New Earth Tribunal, a fanatically religious sect forged around the idea that the Ancients ruined the Earth with their technological and scientific hunger for knowledge that was not theirs to attain. They believe that all humans are linked together into a New-Agey collective spirit that remains tied to the Earth, and that someday the Earth will heal itself and we will be able to return home if we prove ourselves worthy. This has not, of course, stopped them from continuing to mine the Gravitum from the core of the Earth, allowing for humanity’s continued existence away from our home planet. Cassius Vale is an ex-Tribune, exiled to his home on the moon of Titan for heresy until the Tribunal is forced to ask for his help dealing with a string of attacks on their transports. Little do they realize that Vale himself is responsible for the attacks, or that these hijackings are only just the beginnings of his plan to bring down the Tribunal he has come to hate. ADIM is an android built in secret by Vale to further his plans. The Tribunal has outlawed all robotics research, declaring such artificial life to be abominations that have no place in helping us reclaim the Earth, even waging a genocidal war to wipe out as many of them as possible. ADIM is wholly devoted to his creator, and for his part Vale sees ADIM as a surrogate son. Together, they may very well bring down civilization as the Tribunal has shaped it for centuries. Sage Volus is an Executor for the Tribunal, operating behind the scenes to find and destroy their enemies wherever they hide. Her latest mission takes her to Ceres Prime, the asteroid colony that constitutes the largest threat to Tribunal domination of the entirety of the solar system. Talon Rayne is a Ceresian miner, formerly a general and bodyguard for one of the clan leaders who dominate the colony before a failed assassination attempt left him slowly dying and obsessed with providing  a better life for his daughter before he succumbs. These four characters are on a collision course with one another, and when the dust finally settles fate only knows who will be left standing.

Like I said, I really enjoyed this. It was really a great story, especially for a debut work. The prose was simple but cinematic, and you could “see” everything that happened very vividly. I understand the author is currently studying screenwriting, so the visual focus may have something to do with that. The characters were well-formed and complex, not the two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that populate the horde of mediocre fiction the age of internet publishing has unleashed upon us. There were minor issues of grammar, punctuation, and word choice, but much less than I’ve seen in other Indie works. (“He was a shadow of his formal self” vs. “former self,” things like that.)

I did have two character-related complaints; one a matter of taste and one I think is more a case of semi-universally accepted practice. I’ll start with this latter one: Cassius Vale is too perfect. He’s an interesting character, don’t get me wrong–I was fascinated by his character, sympathized with him, even occasionally found myself rooting for him despite my misgivings with his work (I’ll address that in a minute), but he really had little standing in his way. No, that’s not it exactly. He had all kinds of things standing in his way, a whole slew of obstacles to overcome before he can unleash his plan to bring down the tribune…and every single domino falls just the way he plans it. Every single thing that happens is according to his design, or at least easily dealt with. He’s got an incredibly complex scheme running here, and not a single wrench gets thrown into it. Maybe this isn’t as much a problem as I think it is; it certainly didn’t significantly detract from my enjoyment of the story, but I would have preferred to see him have to adapt on the fly to changing conditions in order to achieve his goals. A more minor complaint, more a matter of taste, is that while I enjoyed all of the POV characters found here, I found most of them very hard to root for. Cassius Vale is a snarky antihero with a tragedy in his past, and I think I’ve adequately demonstrated my weakness for those characters, but he’s ruthlessly pursuing a vendetta that cost countless innocent lives. ADIM is awesome, but working towards the same ends as Vale. Sage Volus is a kickass secret agent, again with a tragedy smouldering in her past, but she’s completely drank the Tribunal’s Kool-Aid and believes their crap wholeheartedly.* I like these characters, but I don’t necessarily want theirs goals to be achieved. The only character I can root for without reservation is Talon Rayne, and even there I have to wonder what use his bosses have for the Gravitum shipment they’re forcing him to hijack. But who knows, other readers may see this same issue as one of the strengths of the book–heaven knows that it can’t be easy to write a character you like even if you don’t want him to win.

The world Bruno has created here is incredibly complex, and I believe he at least is very familiar with its ins and outs. I could have used a little more information at times though. I had serious questions about a number of things as I read. Most of those were eventually answered, but having that happen sooner would have been nice. I would have been significantly more confused than I was if it weren’t for the book’s blurb that set the scene. That said, Bruno did manage to almost completely avoid that dreaded practice of “infodumping.” For some, that’s a cardinal sin. I don’t believe so myself, if it’s done well and manages to be engaging, but enough people have embraced that doctrine that a writer must think twice before employing it. Thankfully, he also managed to avoid the rookie mistake that many a writer has fallen prey to in their efforts to avoid this dreaded practice: characters telling each other things they should already know in an effort to inform the reader. “As you know, Bob, if Doctor Neffario manages to get his hands on the MacGuffin device he’ll end life on the planet Damsellus!” I would have liked to have been told what exactly happened to leave the Earth a barren cinder–it’s somewhat implied that it was a result of mining the core for Gravitum, but if that were the case I think the Tribunal would stop the mining as part of their efforts to make the Earth habitable again. Unless that’s just rhetoric to keep the unwashed masses in line, of course.

Some of the science is wonky, or at least under-explained–you can break the rules of physics, but you should acknowledge doing it and offer some explanation. Some examples: the ease of communication between Vale and ADIM, even across vast distances. Elsewhere in the book it is implied that distance affects the ease and clarity of communication, but ADIM has a communicator with seemingly infinite range built into his head? Seems like that device should be pretty big, if it’s possible at all in this universe. Or maybe not, it just seemed a little inconsistent to me is all. Then there’s the Circuit itself. Everything is described as if it stays stationary relative to each other, but all of those planets are orbiting the sun at different speeds. I assumed the Circuit was a teleportation network like the Stargates in that universe, but it’s revealed towards the end that instead they are space stations that allow the Solar Arks to pick up and drop off people and cargo without ever slowing down from their near-light speed. The routes of those Solar Arks take must be convoluted as all get out and subject to some killer calculations. Again, not insurmountable, but some acknowledgement of the issue and a throwaway line about how it works would be nice.

CONTENT: R-rated language, pervasive but not gratuitous. Some brutal violence. Some fairly strong sexual innuendo, but I don’t recall it becoming very explicit.

*Do I detect the mold of Mara Jade in this character? Methinks I do! That’s okay, if you have to imitate somebody, Timothy Zahn is one of the greats. There are other loans from Star Wars, such as the name Talon (not-Karrde) or the Hands and Executors (though their roles are modified/flipped.)

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Mini-Review: “Star Wars–Heist” by Timothy Zahn

Title: Heist
Author: Timothy Zahn
Artist: Brian Rood
Series: Star Wars (Legends canon)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Titan Magazines, 2012

Here’s another exclusive short story from the pages of Star Wars Insider magazine! This time, Timothy Zahn serves up a short tale introducing the twin con artists Bink and Tavia from his novel Scoundrels and novella Winner Lose All. So far as I know, the only place to find this tale is in the pages of Star Wars Insider issue #138, so if you decide to try and track it down I wish you luck getting your hands on it.

Everyone knows you don’t pull a heist on board a starliner–there’s a limited pool of suspects, and nowhere to run with the loot. It’s foolish, and incredibly risky. Unless, of course, your mark doesn’t realize he’s been robbed….

All in all, not a bad tale. Bink and Tavia are interesting characters, unsurprisingly since they’re Zahn creations, and Bink manages to keep a sense of humor to her internal dialogue that’s always welcome. The plot is a little elementary, as the magazine format doesn’t really allow for the convoluted plots that Zahn is known for, but solid nevertheless. Unless you’re familiar with the characters from the aforementioned tales, though, I can’t really see this holding a whole lot of interest for a newcomer to the franchise.

Like the previous stories it’s tied to, this story is part of the now-defunct Legends canon, set sometime in the couple years leading up to the destruction of the Death Star. The specific date is never given, though the Wookieepedia biographies of the characters place these events prior to either of the other two tales. Scoundrels was set soon after the events of A New Hope, so in the interest of spacing things out I placed Winner Lose All a year before that. Continuing that strategy, in the absence of other information I’m gonna say this is probably set about two years before the Battle of Yavin (BBY, for my fellow geeks).

CONTENT: No profanity or violence. Minor sexual innuendo and flirting.

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Review: “Star Wars: Winner Lose All” by Timothy Zahn

Title: Winner Lose All
Author: Timothy Zahn
Series: Star Wars (Legends Canon)
Rating: ****
Copyright: Del Rey, 2012

Last week I reviewed the newest Star Wars novel by Timothy Zahn, Scoundrels. A couple days ago I finally got the chance to read the ebook novella he wrote as a prequel, Winner Lose All. It was enjoyable, on the whole, and if you’ve already read Scoundrels you should give it a shot. However, while it was released before Scoundrels and happens before Scoundrels, it was clearly written after Scoundrels and would be best read after finishing that excellent novel. Why? Because it features several of the characters Zahn created for that novel, and the novel serves as a better introduction to them than this shorter work does. Also, and I hate to speak ill of a Zahn story, this story moved a bit slowly for me in places. Just my opinion though. Scoundrels is set in the first couple months after the destruction of the Death Star. Winner Lose All is set an indeterminate amount of time before that–probably about a year, give or take, but it never says. Don’t worry about it, the timeframe isn’t really that important. EDIT: You should also check out the short story Heist if you can find it.

Lando Calrissian is in need of money once again. This time his scheme to get rich quick centers on winning a seat in a high-stakes sabacc tournament being hosted by a local gambler and casino owner. The first crack in these plans shows up when he spots old friends in attendance at the tournament–Bink & Tavia Kitik, along with their partner Zerba Cher’dak. Wherever they show up valuable objects go missing…objects like the ultimate prize at the tournament, a priceless sculpture of mysterious origins. Lando is somewhat mollified by their reassurances that the sculpture isn’t their target, but soon enough things go south once again. Murder, frame-ups, gambling, conniving and thievery, it’s all here!

Content: PG language and violence.

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Review: “Star Wars: Scoundrels” by Timothy Zahn

Title: Scoundrels
Author: Timothy Zahn
Series: Star Wars (Legends Canon)
Rating: *****
Copyright: Del Rey, 2013

I’ll just get this out of the way right off: I am a huge Star Wars geek. As of about six months ago I had read every single Star Wars novel to be published and was working my way through the backlog of short stories and comics as I was able to get access to them. Unfortunately, I’ve been too broke to buy all the books to have come out since then and my library apparently finds Star Wars novels to be a low priority on their buy list. I know, #firstworldproblems, I’ll deal. Anyway, all that to establish my credentials as an amateur-expert on the Star Wars Expanded Universe and to explain why I’m only now posting this review when Scoundrels came out months ago.

If you know anything about the Star Wars Expanded Universe, you know that it owes a lot to Timothy Zahn. Star Wars was a dead property until Heir To The Empire was released in the early 90s, but now it has become a multi-headed hydra that can be very difficult to keep track of. I personally very much dread the damage to the fabric of the Star Wars EU that will result from the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII: Whatever They Decide To Call It, but that’s a post for another day. Zahn is hands-down my absolute favorite Star Wars author, rivalled (but not surpassed) only by Karen Traviss while she was still writing for the property.* The characters Zahn created consistently lead the pack in terms of fan popularity, and Mara Jade is the only non-film character to break the top twenty.** Zahn brings to the table a genius for convoluted plots, fascinating characters, and the sense of fun that made Star Wars so appealing in the first place. For instance, the whole book is a tribute to the movie Ocean’s Eleven, and there is a sequence in this book that pays homage to the classic scene in Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark where Indy is running from the giant boulder rolling through the temple. You remember the scene? Keep that in mind as you near the climax of the story, and I dare you not to laugh out loud….

This story is set in the first couple of months after the destruction of the Death Star, while Han and Chewie are out trying to find the credits to pay off their debt to Jabba the Hutt. Given that fact, you don’t need to have read the whole field of Star Wars literature to quickly grasp the situation. Han is in debt to Jabba, which we know from the films. He got the money to pay him at the end of A New Hope, but lost it when he was taken by pirates.*** Han and Lando were friends for years, but about a year before the Death Star incident Han got Lando and a bunch of other smugglers involved in a job that went south. They were double crossed, left empty-handed, and Lando blamed Han.**** Now Han has a job that should get them all out of debt and set them up for life….if they can pull it off. The resulting tale is a brilliant display of interlocking characters and motivations as everything builds to its explosive climax. This is Star Wars the way it’s supposed to be, and you should definitely read this book regardless of your level of Star Wars geekdom. Newcomers can get right into the action, while veteran readers of the EU will recognize younger versions of a number of familiar characters–Winter, for one, and Kell Tainer from the X-Wing novels. While this is fun for us veterans, knowledge of their later exploits is far from essential to this story. If you enjoy this one, you should check out a prior adventure with Bink & Tavia, Zerba and Lando in Winner Lose All. Also, Bink & Tavia got a solo short story (Heist) that’s worth checking out if you enjoyed this one.

CONTENT: Mild language, mild violence, some flirting.

*In the interest of clarity, Karen Traviss is still an excellent writer and I continue to follow a lot of her work. Also, she was totally shafted in that whole fiasco. Again, that’s another post….
**Rumor has it that George Lucas resents this, but I have no idea whether that’s true.
***That reward the Rebellion scraped together at the end of A New Hope? It got stolen by pirates in the old Marvel Comics’ Star Wars series. And then he proceeded to gain and lose the credits again four or five times. The EU loves to play with throwaway lines from the films, and I’ll discuss that fact again later in the review.
****The problem with writing EU stories set in this crowded bit of the Star Wars timeline is that you bump into other explanations for throwaway lines in the films. Example: Lando is mad at Han for something that happened a long time ago when Han and the Falcon arrive on Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back. So, in the novel Rebel Dawn Han gets them all double-crossed and Lando says he never wants to see him again. But now Timothy Zahn wants to include Lando in his story, so they pull him in and explain it away. But you know that in the end Lando will be leaving once more angry with Han. You also know that there is no way Han gets the money to pay off Jabba, given the events of the later films. The book still manages to be suspensefull, and the last-paragraph twist/revelation is a superb touch, but some elements of the outcome are dictated by later events.

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