Pawn: A Chronicle of the Sibyl's War
by Timothy Zahn
Cover Artist: Stephen Youll
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover / eBook ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765329660
Date: 02 May 2017 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
First, a word of warning. Nothing on the cover or inside of Pawn says this is book one in a series. But it is. While a few things are wrapped up, the main problem is left unresolved for future volumes.
Zahn is best known for exciting action adventure in books like his Heir to the Empire: Star Wars trilogy that introduced Grand Admiral Thrawn (who apparently survived the reboot of the Star Wars novels or his Cobra novels or his Dragonback Adventures. Pawn would seem to fit into the space opera type, as the cover has spaceships and explosions. So it's a bit of a surprise that the book begins on Earth with petty criminal Nicole Hammond, a 19-year-old in an abusive relationship with Bungie, a violent criminal. When Bungie is injured, he demands that Nicole take him to the hospital so he can kidnap a doctor to take care of him.
While the kidnapping does take place, there's a surprise; Bungie, Nicole, and Dr. McNair are abducted by aliens. It turns out that the voices Nicole hears in her head and learned to ignore are a sign of her abilities to act as a sibyl, able to hear the voice of Fyrantha, a giant ship containing many different races. The ship needs sibyls to direct the repair crews fixing it. So Nicole soon fits into her role; but Bungie does not. He keeps insisting that the aliens take him back to Earth. When he is assigned to Nicole's repair crew, he spends most of his time trying find a way off the ship.
When Bungie forces Nicole to help him, they find a door that seems to open to the outside--a peaceful country landscape with trees and bushes and low hills. But this peace is shattered by a laser battle between two sets of aliens. The boss of the repair crew, Plato, claims this is a testing arena and forbids them to return. However, when Bungie vanishes, Nicole returns to the arena look for him and discovers that the Shipmasters are deliberately causing the aliens to fight by restrict their food supply. Gradually Nicole becomes more involved in their struggle even though Plato is determined not to let the aliens know that humans are not as nonviolent as he has been making them appear.
Pawn seems very slow moving for a space adventure novel, with little action. Most of it is a gradual reveal of the situation and then Nicole's efforts to help the aliens--first with food, then with training. Nicole is an unusual character choice, at 19 already an alcoholic and as much a victim of the criminals she lives with as she is one of them. However, once aboard the Fyrantha, she adapts to her new situation much faster than do the other humans, and actually prefers it to her old life on Earth. Bungie is every small-town gangster cliché and never grows beyond that role. A more interesting character is the musclebound alien Kahkitah who everyone assumes must be dumb because he is big and strong. But he is surprisingly sympathetic to Nicole. Another member of the repair team, Jeff, begins to have romantic feelings for Nicole and is willing to help her assist the aliens.
The book ends with the immediate situation resolved, but Nicole and her friends discover that this may have left them in an even worse situation. Presumably, this is the setup for the next book, and presumably the remainder of the series. Fans of space opera and nonstop action will most likely be disappointed in Pawn's slow pacing. Readers who enjoy puzzle stories or tales of aliens doing things that humans can't comprehend will find the book a better match.