Book Review: The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn

October 27, 2011 at 7:29 am | Posted in Books, Reviews, Sci-Fi | 2 Comments
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Combine one part chase film, one part murder mystery, one part science fiction noir, and the result is the engrossing Icarus Hunt  by Timothy Zahn. Chances are most of you reading this are familiar with Zahn’s work in the Star Wars fandom* (given that we’re a heavily Star Wars themed blog). Those novels are well loved by fans, but a cursory survey – by which I mean a quick question to my Twitter followers – reveals that many of you are less familiar with his non-Star Wars works. Until a few months ago, I was in that category as well. Given how much I’ve loved his works in that fandom, I figured it was high time I gave some of his original novels a shot.

*If you’re not familiar with his work, your homework is to go get yourself a copy of Heir to the Empire, preferably the 20th anniversary edition, and put it on your reading list. It’s on NPR’s Top 100 List of Science Fiction Novels, after all.  

Let me say, I should have done this sooner, because it lead me to the brilliant Icarus Hunt.

The Prose

I should probably start by saying that, normally, I’m not a big fan of first-person prose. Even in professional literature, I’ve seen a lot of material written in this style that doesn’t come off as competent writing. Many times it feels awkward and doesn’t flow well for my tastes. I understand why this is often the case, writing strictly from one character perspective can be awfully limiting and in the hands of someone who can’t wield the perspective well, it can really detract from a book. Thankfully, those concerns didn’t manifest while I was reading this novel.

There were long stretches where I completely forgot that it was written in first person. I know that sounds like rather faint praise, but bear with me for a moment. Whenever I read something in first-person, the prose always jumps out at me and grabs my attention, distracting from everything else that’s happening on the page. With Icarus Hunt, I honestly didn’t notice that I was reading something set in a narrative mode that I’ve never looked on favorably. That’s a testament to Zahn’s ability. There wasn’t a single point where I felt that the story took a hit because of the perspective the novel was limited to, nor was there a point where I was shaken out of the moment by prose pitfalls that often plague first-person narratives.

If you’ve heard about this novel before but chose not to read it because of the narrative mode, I implore you to reconsider.

The Plot

The Icarus Hunt is a fascinating book because it delivers a sense of grandeur but, at the same time, is a rather intimate story. Alien species, futuristic technology, starships and freighters, sprawling locations, and criminal factions. With this setup, it would be easy to delve into a tale about war between species ala Ender’s Game or some sort of galactic apocalypse ala any major multi-author Star Wars series since 1999. The framework was there to tell that sort of a novel. Zahn, to his credit, chose instead to dial back on the type of doomsday conflict that we see far too often in science fiction and tell a different kind of story. Icarus Hunt revolves around a simple little idea: goods shipping.

On the surface, that sounds like a rather dull setup. I know I rolled my eyes when a friend used those two words to summarize the central conflict of the novel, but it’s so much better than it sounds. From this seemingly simplistic premise, several conflicts emerge that drive the novel. There’s the Patth, a power-hungry alien race that has a virtual monopoly on the intergalactic shipping industry. They wield so much control over how supplies are shipped that they can send an entire race into poverty on a whim. There’s the human crime organization led by Mr. Antoniewicz. He’s a man with financial resources that can help you get around the Patth monopoly, but at what cost?

The man who will have to discover the answer to that question is Jordan McKell, freelance pilot, shipper, part-time smuggler, and the character the reader sees the story through. Alongside him is Ixil, his Kalixiri partner. Both have run into tough times trying to make it as trade goods pilots, leading them to make a deal with Antoniewicz to keep their ship and floundering careers operational. If they want to avoid drawing the crime lord’s ire (because those who do that rarely live to tell the tale), they need to find work and fast. Unfortunately with the Patth controlling who ships what to where, McKell and Ixil find themselves in a Galaxy of trouble.

When a stranger in a bar offers McKell the opportunity to fly a ship called Icarus and its cargo back to Earth for a rather large sum of money, it seems like break he’s been waiting for. Surely, this is too good to be true. The catch? The cargo is very important, very secret, and chances are good it’s going to attract the attention of the Patth. Things are compounded further when McKell realizes that this stranger is actually Arno Cameron, an archaeologist of some renown. Why would he feel obligated to conceal his identity? Something wasn’t adding up, and that could only mean that this hot cargo was probably more trouble than it was worth. But, with the threat of Antoniewicz lurking in the back of his mind, McKell accepts the job offer.

Things only get stranger when McKell reports to the Icarus to meet the pre-assembled crew, only to find that Cameron has gone missing, leaving only vague mission instructions. Slowly the pieces begin falling into place for McKell and Ixil. Just what could this hot cargo be that would get the attention of the Patth? What could an archaeologist have found that would worry them so much? The answer dawns on them: ancient technology that could instantly render the Patth shipping monopoly obsolete if it were to wind up in anyone else’s hands.

Before he knows it, McKell finds himself wanted on trumped up crime charges and becomes the Patth’s number one target, a thinly veiled ruse to claim the Icarus and her cargo. Antoniewicz’s smuggling ring offers no help, because whatever cargo is on board that ship, they want it too. Dueling factions trying to steal the ship out from under McKell is bad enough, but it can always get worse. A crewman dies aboard the Icarus during routine maintenance a few hours into their trip and it becomes painfully clear that one of them is a saboteur and murderer.

It’s going to be a long voyage to Earth.

The Characters

“For a change, Lady Luck seemed to be smiling on me. Then again, maybe the fickle wench was just lulling me into a false sense of security while she reached for a rock.” ~ Jordan McKell

The rag-tag crew aboard the Icarus is one of the best ensemble casts I’ve had the pleasure to read about. They’re led by the POV character, Jordan McKell, a man who belongs in the ranks of Mal Reynolds and Han Solo. In his opening scene alone, he outwits and then punches a rather sizable alien. Just to get into a bar. That’s just the first of his many daring escapes and run-ins with people who want to rip his head off his shoulders. Despite the entire story being told through his eyes, Zahn managed to slip in a character twist about him that completely blindsided me. It was a twist so jaw-dropping that I was unable to do anything but stare at the page for five minutes.

One character we see a lot of is Ixil, who you can think of as being McKell’s version of Chewie. A non-human partner-in-crime that, while typically is more level-headed than Han Solo’s Wookiee counterpart, is still someone you don’t want to anger. He plays extremely well off of McKell, acting as a sounding board and occasional grounding force. To put it mildly, he’s a stark contrast to the rest of the crew.

There’s Tera, just Tera, the electronics specialist that’s awfully cagey about her past and identity. Geoff Shawn is the young, drug-addled electrician that needs his fix to keep from dying. Chort, a member of the Craea species talented at ship repair, a species that would benefit by not upsetting the Patth. The crew is rounded out by Hayden Everett and Almont Nicabar, ship medic and engine technician respectively. All of them have dodgy pasts and shaky motivations. When a crewman is killed early on, McKell realizes that just about every one of them had means and motivation. Continued incidents of sabotage meant that one of these characters didn’t want the cargo to make it to Earth, and they were willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the Icarus‘ mission failed.

I was kept guessing as to who the saboteur was for the majority of the novel. I was convinced that just about everyone was the guilty party at some point, even McKell fell under my crosshairs. Half the fun of reading this book came in trying to figure out who murdered the mechanic and why. While Zahn let McKell throw out several theories, he allowed the reader the opportunity to come to their own conclusions. It was a wonderfully crafted mystery driven by such well-developed and executed characters.

The Bottom Line

It’s difficult to write a review without spoilers but still tells you enough to convince you to read it. I do hope I’ve done a passable job at that, because this is a book that I recommend first to anyone looking for an exciting, character-driven romp.

I put off reading The Icarus Hunt for years despite the recommendations from several friends because I couldn’t get beyond the fact that it was written in first-person. What a horrible, horrible mistake that was. A diverse cast of well-developed characters with often conflicting motivations, a large and powerful entity (the Patth) that had all hurt the crew in some way, seedy criminal elements, and a whole lot of adventuring grandeur made this an absolute delight to read. So many of Zahn’s traits that Star Wars fans have grown to love are on display in this novel: solid original characters and a lack of Galactic Apocalypse of the Week, or Big Bad plot in favor of a more understated but gripping story.

This is a book that’s earned a special place on my bookshelf, the row reserved for once-a-year re-reads. Congratulations, Icarus Hunt, you’re now on my regular rotation.

The Icarus Hunt earns five out of five metal bikinis from me.

Written by Lane for Roqoo Depot


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  1. […] Emily, and myself fully endorse it and if you need a bit of persuasion, you can read my spoiler-free review of the novel here. Or you can just take our word for it and pre-order your copy from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. […]

  2. […] that’s made its way onto my list of yearly re-reads. If you need a bit more convincing, check out the review I wrote a little while back for Roqoo Depot. The Icarus Hunt is a fascinating book because it delivers a sense of grandeur but, at the same […]

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