Entertaining But Bland: Pawn by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn is probably best known as the author of the iconic Star Wars Thrawn tie-in trilogy, Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, which introduced Star Wars fans to Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade, and gave them (us) a badass pregnant Leia Organa—and were, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the first space opera novels I ever read. He has also written more than two dozen original novels, at least one Terminator tie-in, and co-authored with David Weber a prequel to Weber’s popular Honor Harrington series.

Pawn is his latest original novel, and the first entry in a new series, the “Sibyl’s War.”

Nicole Hammond is a young woman from Philadelphia who’s been living the life of a petty criminal since she ran away from home. She drinks too much to drown out the occasional weird voices that she hears. She’s been bullied by an asshole thug by the name of Bungie into helping him kidnap a doctor to treat Bungie’s bullet wound when all three of them—Nicole, Bungie, and the doctor, Sam McNair by name—are abducted by an alien spacecraft.

There are already humans aboard the Fyrantha, abducted in order to carry out maintenance work. Nicole fits easily into the small community: she’s a Siren, one of a handful of people who can hear the voice of the ship and relay its instructions for what repairs must be carried out. She has a purpose and respect for the first time in her life, and is not inclined to rock the boat. Bungie, though, despises everything about the Fyrantha, and his bullying resentment ends up causing Nicole to discover that in another compartment of the ship, some mysterious “Masters” are pitting abducted groups of different alien species against each other, using hunger as a spur. She also learns that the drug which she is being given to allow her to hear the ship will result in her death in short order, likely within a year.

Meanwhile, the leader of Nicole’s group of humans insists that humanity’s history of violence cannot be mentioned, and that the humans cannot fight amongst themselves. Nicole is not, it seems, particularly genre-savvy: the genre-savvy reader will immediately suspect that the unseen people who’re controlling the ship are looking for species that they can turn into combat slaves. This possibility doesn’t ever seem to cross Nicole’s mind.

I’ve read quite a lot of Zahn’s work, and I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s at his best when he can play in other people’s sandboxes. His original work often feels shallow by comparison, the details of the worldbuilding barely sketched, and the characters not so much shaped by their environments as floating through them.

This is unfortunately true of Pawn, too. The Fyrantha is not shown as a very interesting or, indeed, even detailed environment until its climax reveals more to the world than we have heretofore seen. (This is a little late.) Of all the characters, Nicole, the sole viewpoint character, is the one who most closely approaches three-dimensionality—but Nicole’s background is barely touched on: we have very little sense of what has made her what she is, and she comes across in many ways as not exactly curious about how the world works, or even particularly observant. The other characters feel rather more like cardboard cutouts than well-realised people. Bungie and Jeff, the characters who are most developed apart from Nicole, seem like opposing clichés rather than individuals.

The result is that reading Pawn is a rather bland and textureless experience. While there are hints of a thriller-plot and a deeper mystery within the text, and while Zahn puts together a perfectly acceptable string of adventure-story set-pieces, there’s very little depth in Pawn’s pages. It’s not until the novel’s very close that it even begins to hold out the possibility for depth and complexity in its sequels. And that’s too late for me.

Pawn is easy to read and undemandingly entertaining, in a mild fashion that relies heavily on cliché to do its work. It’s not a terrible novel. It’s just not a particularly good one.

Pawn is available now from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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