Book review: The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn

Welcome back to the good old days of science fiction when stories were fun, authors didn’t need to comment on social issues or historical events, and readers didn’t have to be bogged down by hidden messages. Where the protagonists were unambiguously good, the antagonists bad, and the story entertaining and straight-forward. Unless the author threw in a curve in the narrative that everyone should have seen coming and yet nobody did. Welcome to the fun side of the Star Wars universe in anything but its name.

In a universe full of inhabited planets, various alien races and vibrant trade, Jordan McKell practices the time-honored tradition of a smuggler for a large criminal empire. He happens to be on a planet where one of the richest humans, Arno Cameron, finances an archeological dig. After McKell catches Cameron’s eye, the latter approaches him in disguise, and offers him a job to pilot a cargo ship to Earth. The next morning, when McKell arrives at the ship named The Icarus, he meets the rest of the crew, which had been haphazardly assembled by Cameron. Cameron himself is not to be found, and is actually sought by the authorities for a deadly explosion that destroyed his archeological dig, so the crew leaves without him.

Along the way, the ship’s mechanic dies in an apparent accident, so at the next refueling stop McKell enlists his partner, the alien Ixil, to fill the job. At the same planet, however, McKell is captured by a duo of aliens who are trying to steal the ship and cargo, but he escapes. As the ship jumps from port to port, the hijacking attempts intensify, and strange “accidents” on board multiply. McKell finds out that he is being chased by the Patth, a race of intergalactic merchants who monopolized interplanetary trade after they discovered a new, much faster star drive. McKell concludes that the Icarus has a newly discovered drive that threatens the Patth monopoly, which is why they are hunting him and his crew. McKell also suspects that one of the crew members is a Patth agent, responsible for all the accidents plaguing the ship.

As the plot unravels, the ship’s software engineer, Terra, is revealed to be Cameron’s daughter, and Cameron himself is hiding in a false wall, between the two ship hulls. However, he disappears and is nowhere to be found when the crew dismantles the inner hull and reattaches it outside, to disguise the ship as they try to sneak through other star systems to Earth. During the rebuild process, McKell accidentally triggers a teleporter and realizes that the ship is actually a star gate. At the other end, he finds Cameron, and they start hatching a plan to smuggle the technology to Earth. However, the noose tightens as Patth embargoes Ixil’s race, sentencing it to a swift economic death and slow starvation, and pressures Earth’s government to hand over the Icarus, lest they face the same fate. The crew is forced to divert the ship to a hidden retreat, not realizing that they are heading to the ultimate showdown with several parties that all want the Icarus.

Stop me if you heard this one before: a smuggler with the heart of gold is piloting a spaceship that looks and handles more like a pile of junk. He is visiting all kinds of exotic locales, hanging out in bars, getting into fights and running from a shadowy race that has all other races in the galaxy scared. Timothy Zahn is perhaps known for his Star Wars tie-ins, in particular the Thrawn Trilogy, and here he is channeling the same vibe, but with a few key differences.

First of all, the light-heartedness of the narrative took me by surprise. The action is flowing much better than in his Star Wars books, the storyline is largely confined to the Icarus and its crew, and character backstories are kept at a minimum. I never felt concerned for the protagonists, but I was still interested in their fate. I this regard, the book struck me as an early novel by Robert A. Heinlein. Obviously, there are many differences, but my feeling while reading The Icarus Hunt, the sense of adventure and wonder while retaining the mature themes that prevented the novel from sliding into young adult territory, were very similar. Zahn is a veteran writer and master of his craft. His prose flows so seamlessly that I felt like the book was written without an outline or editing, as a single coherent narrative stream.

I couldn’t be farther from the truth. The final reveal turns much of the narrative on its head. However, the reveal is so head-slappingly obvious that I was left shocked at not having picked on the clues before. Everything has been laid out for me, but Zahn’s misdirection, low-key clues and red herrings kept me ignorant till the end. It is evident that the author spent a lot of time polishing the book and writing a story that is far more complex and multi-layered than it appears, in a galaxy that is far more diverse than what the reader gets to see. The fact that Zahn managed to prepare the reveal so well, while keeping the prose flowing so nicely, serves as a testament to his writing skills.

Unfortunately, the focus on the plot and final twists also means that little to no attention was paid to the character development. Everyone, including the protagonist, is paper-thin, with no appreciable background or change during the narrative. Nobody has any lesson to learn, so nobody learns anything. I am fine with this decision, as it means easier reading, but it also makes the book far less memorable. At the time of writing this review, I have the novel fresh in my mind, but I doubt I’d remember any of the characters a few months from now. Maybe except Ixil, due to his quite intriguing biology.

Despite no character development, or perhaps because of it, The Icarus Hunt is eminently readable. The prose is flowing very well, the pacing is spot on, and the mix of intrigue, action and humor is carefully measured. The final twist is just a cherry on top of this fun space romp, which I can fully recommend to anyone looking to relax after some heavier reading.

Note: I listened to the audio version of this novel. The narrator Marc Thompson does such an amazing job reading this book that for once I can recommend the audio version over the printed book.

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