One of my favorite science fiction authors is Timothy Zahn. I’ve raved about his many accomplishments in the past but today I’m going to take look at his shortcomings through the lens of his latest original series, the Chronicle of the Sibyl’s War. At a glance, this should be another dose of great Zahn storytelling, beginning with an interesting premise and setting up interesting conflict. However, as big a fan as I am, I have to confess that I haven’t been as interested in it as I could be. Since what makes good writing is very important to me, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out why that might be and I’ve arrived at some conclusions.
First, let me set the stage. Nicole Hammond is a low rent gang kid from Philadelphia who is abducted by aliens and dragged away to the alien ship Fyrantha to serve as a Sibyl, a human with the ability to telepathically hear the ship giving repair orders when she takes a specific drug. Unfortunately, on top of the whole abducted by aliens thing, taking that drug slowly poisons her and ensures she’ll die in a year or so. To top it off, one of her old gang members was abducted with her and is intent on raising a ruckus through the decks of the ship, getting her and her work crew into trouble. Nothing’s easy for Nicole but when she discovers there are prisoners on board being forced to fight in death matches for reasons unknown even Nicole’s jaded heart is forced to take an interest. Soon she’s doing her best to make peace, both in the death match arenas and the ship at large.
Now, this premise is fine and dandy. It has a protagonist, plenty of hurdles for said protagonist, lots of people for her to cross paths with along the way and so on. The ideas are solid. The problems come in execution. Zahn is not the best character writer in scifi. Now, as a genre more invested in ideas that’s not a major hurdle to overcome and Zahn has always brought strong plots, world building, mysteries and puzzles to the table. On the surface, the Sibyl’s War should be able to stand on its ideas.
Down on her luck girl gets a chance to save city sized starship from the hands of slavers? Great! Ancient battleship of incredible power teetering between the hands of villains and the common folk? Great! Kidnapped gladiators fighting for their freedom? Academy award winning premise! The problem is what happened when all those ideas got jumbled up together.
You see, Zahn’s character writing really shines when we spend a lot of time with a small group of people against the backdrop of a large, colorful cast who come and go but – and this is important – who are with the cast for most of any story they appear in. In short, Zahn can write very good characters, but he needs to spend a lot of time with them to do it. He does not have the gift or technique to sketch compelling characters quickly. But with all the ideas fighting for time in the Sibyl’s War series, characters appear and vanish quickly, sometimes appearing for only a couple of chapters a book, and even those that do receive development get it at a pace too slow to really feel like they’re paying off. This even goes for Nicole, one character who should absolutely not feel like she’s static, especially in the first book of the series (she gets more growth in the second).
Again, this isn’t a flaw in the premise of the series or in Zahn’s abilities as a writer. It simply feels like he has mismatched his talents with the demands of his story. Perhaps Zahn wanted to challenge himself as a writer. Perhaps he’s never attempted this kind of character writing and didn’t realize he would be so lackluster at it. Perhaps he just wanted to tell this story regardless of how well he did at it. Whatever led to it, the Sibyl’s War just doesn’t stack up very well against most of the rest of his work. Everyone has a bad project or two, and it’s better to over reach your grasp than never take risks. Still, a part of me will always wonder if the story would have been more satisfying if the ideas were pruned down, or tackled by a different writer.