Who’s the master of modern day sci-fi suspense? Well that would probably be Timothy Zahn. Don’t believe me? Didn’t read the Quadrail series? Choo-choo trains in outer space just a bit too far fetched for you? Don’t like the idea of a digitized soul? Then try this series on for size.
As the title implies, the Conquerors’ Saga trilogy consists of three books – Conquerors’ Pride, Conquerors’ Heritage and Conquerors’ Legacy and they can only fairly be looked at as a whole. The basic premise is as familiar as space opera itself – humanity has expanded into the cosmos and winds up leading a multiplanet group of aliens that it has dominated primarily through fecundity and martial prowess. The story opens with a human task force (or group of warships) encountering another task force belonging to a previously unknown starfaring species. Being responsible sorts, the human task force fires up the radio and broadcasts a first contact package intended to establish peaceful communications.
The aliens promptly blow up the human fleet.
This marks the beginning of a war, one where humanity is actually on the losing side for the first time in a long time. The aliens capture a single soldier from the human fleet who must endure imprisonment by the seemingly savage Zhirrzh while his family struggles to recapture him. The first book closes with humanity reeling from the might of the Zhirrzh fleets even as the sole survivor of their first encounter is brought home to his family.
The second book switches things up like no one’s business because suddenly we find ourselves seeing the world through the eyes of the Zhirrzh who was in charge of looking after the alien’s one and only human captive. With his prisoner escaped our new protagonist finds his career plunging into a downward slide. This is what sets the Conquerors’ Saga apart from most other space operas – it makes a wholehearted attempt to show both sides in a fair and positive light. There’s no moralizing or attempts to brush off differences between species as unbridgeable chasms created by circumstance, there’s just solid characterization and a fair shake given to each side.
That’s not to say these books don’t have problems. Characterization can be weak on some fronts and the end of the story feels very coincidence driven. Some people will say the technology end of things seems a bit weak, based on “old theories” about faster than light travel and such, but since none of those theories have been proven beyond the blackboard I tend to be more forgiving of that kind of thing. The biggest problem as I see it is a failure to develop anything outside of the two warring races – only the Zhirrzh and humans get a good examination even though both races are over hegemonies of other spacefaring races they have conquered.
Still, as a space opera that manages to tell a story with a grand scope, an even balance and a suspenseful tale, the Conquerors’ Saga is pretty good, and well worth your time.