I like massive (and improbable) space battles, and Timothy Zahn’s Conqueror series seemed like just the ticket. Nothing but spaceships in the cover art, always a good sign, and I had memories of lots of space explosions from when I read the series about a dozen years ago. I just revisited the trilogy, and came away with something miles away from what I remembered.
Namely, a saga of two families. Also, lots of secrets.
The series starts promisingly enough, for anyone looking for some lowbrow space-based action material: a space battle launches the story. But we have to wait until the midway point in the third book to get another one. Both are exciting, but the action is a little thin. What do we get in between?
That good old Family saga… and the too-familiar trope of the group of heroes who are at the
juncture of every pivotal moment in galaxy-spanning events gets
transformed into a family thing. In the first book, Conqueror’s Pride, it’s
family Cavanaugh, a father, two sons, and a daughter. One son gets captured by aliens in that initial space battle, and the rest of his family goes to great lengths to get him back. Along these lines, it makes sense that the Cavanaughs are at the centre of things, since they are forced there by circumstances.
In the second book, Conqueror’s Heritage, we get the alien perspective on the galactic war, and this time the family saga is about a researcher who studies alien lifeforms (i.e. us), but also his brother, his
fiancee and his parents. Again, there are others involved, but many of
the main plot moments and emotional revelations come from this one
family. The leader of the aliens gets a big role, the one that on the
family side went to the senior Cavanaugh. Each side gets a hot-headed
wannabe primo leader, a non-relative, and on the alien side, this is the person responsible for the military
juggernaut which just won’t stop. For the aliens, the so-called Overclan Prime rules over many clans – one
clan-leader is hot and heavy for the old glory days where his clan
dominated everyone else.
To take one step back, let me summarize the series: Book 1 = humans fighting aliens, Book 2 = role reversal, with aliens fighting humans, then Book 3 = like-minded and peaceable humans and aliens fighting, together, against the momentum of war. These are my clearest memories of the series. It’s a beautiful set-up, kind of like Zahn’s Dragon series, using the entire structures of books to play against, build upon, and even subvert other books in the same series.
But the aforementioned secrets get in the way of this. The alien secrets, the ones that cause each side to think the other shot first, don’t come out, at least to anyone powerful enough to do anything about it, until very late in book 3 – without getting too specific about the context, it’s about five-sixths of the way through. It’s a tremendous story at that point, filled with tension, nail-biting sequences, and a very real sense that things might not go well for our heroes. But everything up to that point suffers from the old “pick up the phone” dilemma familiar to lots of movies, where one call would solve tons of conflict. This is kind of believable in a war situation, but since both sides have secrets, each revealed in their respective books, the focus on them is overwhelming.
I’ll reveal the big human secret, since Zahn reveals it about halfway through the first book (the alien secret is worth saving for the second book if you’re going to pick up the series), and since it goes a long way to explaining how this material is handled somewhat problematically. Humanity has been victorious in encounters with at least two previous alien races, and has kept the “peace” for a long time because of the mega-weapon known as Circe. Circe can wipe out all life aboard a spacecraft, and there’s no form of protection against it. In the first book, there’s a lengthy section (maybe even a quarter of the book), where Cavanaugh is on an alien world, wasting his time on a bizarre side tangent. Except that the completely unrelated and totally illogical side quest brings him into the company of a journalist who knows a deadly fact: Circe is a fake, a cover story for an astronomical phenomenon that accidentally wiped out an alien ship. The Conqueror aliens encounter humanity, find out about Circe, and basically go mental, making the war a mistake twice over. It’s a roundabout way of revealing the secret, and then that secret is kept quiet for obvious military reasons. Fine, except the alien secret is like the opposite case, where it’s revealed to the reader in an intriguing manner, but then kept quiet in the book at great length and hullabaloo.
I’ve been sounding pretty harsh on the series. I won’t walk back what I’ve said about the secret-focused nature of the plot, but I don’t mind the family saga instead of the space battles. Family-centred to the extreme, yes, but if you just flip your perspective, i.e. ignore the spaceships on all the covers, the family stuff is fine. It’s even a sneaky way to build instant sympathy for the aliens in Book 2, since their situation mirrors the familiar human one in Book 1 so closely. All the same, the trilogy is a letdown, especially in comparison to the glorious version my mind had constructed for me out of hazy memories and an enduring fondness for Zahn’s books.