Pawn (Sibyl’s War #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review
Blurb: Nicole Lee’s life is going nowhere. No family, no money, and stuck in a relationship with a thug named Bungie. But, after one of Bungie’s “deals” goes south, he and Nicole are whisked away by a mysterious moth-like humanoid to a strange ship called the Fyrantha.
Once aboard, life on the ship seems too good to be true. All she has to do is work on one of the ship’s many maintenance crews. However, she learned long ago that nothing comes without a catch. When she’s told to keep quiet and stop asking questions, she knows she is on to something.
Nicole soon discovers that many different factions are vying for control of the Fyrantha, and she and her friends are merely pawns in a game beyond their control. But, she is tired of being used, and now Nicole is going to fight.
Published by: Tor
Genre: Sci-fi, Space Opera
Purchased my Copy on Kindle.
Timothy Zahn is perhaps the first author of science fiction I picked up when I was a kid, hungry for Star Wars and eager to explore the galaxy far, far away that had so captured my imagination. His original Thrawn trilogy is a fantastic continuation of the movies and, after the colossal screw-up that are the Disney sequels, continues to be my preferred version of how the events of that fictional universe unfolded, canon or not. In addition, the Thrawn trilogy jump-started the entirety of the Expanded Universe; there’s plenty to praise about this
With that in mind, I always knew I’d eventually take the leap and read outside of Zahn’s Star Wars work, and into his independent ideas. Surely, he writes as well when unconstrained by the necessities of canon—if not better! So far, so good. But when I ended up with an early access copy to Zahn’s latest release, Queen, I somehow overlooked the fact that it was the final installment in a trilogy.
Pawn is a solid, entry-level piece of sci-fi, with some enjoyable elements of hard sci-fi tech, a hint of the tactical brilliance at display in Zahn’s work with Thrawn, and more than a tilt towards character-driven storytelling. I read it a month ago and have been sitting on my thumbs, wondering how to go about writing this review; in this time, I’ve decided that I like Pawn enough to read on with the series, but not quite enough to recommend it to the people most likely to pick this novel up—the hardcore sci-fi enthusiasts.
The reason behind this is simple enough; a lot of what I read had a familiar edge to it. Pawn is comfort food rather than a three-course meal, entertaining and easy to read but not even remotely challenging. If you’ve never touched the genre, or have had only the slightest experience with certain themes in sci-fi such as “folks trapped in an enormous alien starship of mysterious origins,” you might very well enjoy this one. Or, perhaps you might want to watch Stargate: Universe, which is my personal entry-point with the whole notion of extremely cool death traps flying across space, getting unwitting passengers into all kinds of trouble.
Nicole is the protagonist, and she’s the big draw in this; a teenage alcoholic, she’s a complete screw-up who looks after her plant. That’s it, really – at least to begin with. Ah, but the opening reads as a very entertaining thriller, offering a lot of momentum which staggers somewhat a little into the book. Back to Nicole; unlike the rest of the characters we’ll meet, she has a very special role to play, that of Sibyl, a conduit for the ship, someone through whom the ship can communicate its woes. (By ‘woes’ here I mean ‘repairs,’ but that word lacks the dramatic tension of my choice, doesn’t it?)
Human teams work on ship maintenance, but they’re far from the only sentient species onboard. Thanks to Bungie, a criminal from Nicole’s past life who is also dragged on this interstellar journey, Nicole finds herself enveloped deeper and deeper into the conflicts playing through the ship.
A lot of the tension and drama comes from Bungie, who is a pretty big garbage person, violent and nasty and the kind of antagonist it’s not difficult to dislike. Nicole’s relationship with him (non-romantic, driven by an all-encompassing fear of the man) makes for a good enough page-turner, though Bungie’s fate is one of the plot threads left unresolved.
The main conflict involves a sort of gladiatorial arena between different species, and Nicole’s involvement places not only her in danger but the entirety of the human population on-board…and beyond. Some engaging alien species and cultures are struggling against one another, and Zahn has done a fine job to make the plight of both species explain their willingness to kill representatives of the other. Several exciting fight scenes take place, and some of them involve weapons other than sticks!
Pawn comes to a close without providing too many answers to the questions asked within its pages. A bit of sequel-bating, but I’m not one to complain; I’ll read on because I’m invested enough in our plucky protagonist, and I do enjoy Zahn’s writing, perhaps to a fault.
My score for this one is a 3 out of 5 – a rather low score for something I had a good time reading, but I hope to have explained why such a score makes sense. I can’t help but wish there was more of substance here. Hopefully, the next two books in the series will introduce whatever element is missing.
P.S. The Goodreads blurb of this book is the absolute worst thing I have ever read, and whoever is responsible, should be quartered and forced to read bad sci-fi at least for sixty-four days. I mean, just look at it:
Nicole 19 drinks and takes drugs to suppress voices whispering in her head. Bleeding out from a knife wound, thug Bungie waves a gun at her and ER doc Sam. Winged aliens speak to her, and kidnap all three. Content, she is still a pawn aboard Fyrantha, hearing directions from the live spaceship to Sibyls for human repair crews. Human leader Plato warns her explorations endanger Earth. Defiantly, she continues, exposing worlds to the ship’s warring factions.