Blackcollar

Blackcollar / Timothy Zahn. Originally published 1983.

In which I am severely disappointed.

Blackcollar is a the first novel in a series by Timothy Zahn, an author best known for his massively successful Star Wars EU novels. Blackcollar is, as far as I can tell, Timothy Zahn’s first published novel. If you’re the type who’s inclined to start reading from an author’s first book, I abjure you: don’t do that here, you’ll end up with a totally twisted sense of Zahn’s writing. I came to it having read a decent percentage of his more recent books, grabbing it on Kindle when it was on sale, and was not a fan of what I found.

Brief plot summary

The Earth has lost its war against the alien Ryqril,* but an underground resistance movement still thrives. Allen Caine is tasked with finding the elite blackcollars, guerrilla heroes of the war now in retirement and under close observation by the Ryqril and their human collaborators.

*Don’t ask me how to pronounce it. It’s a space opera from the 80s, which means that all alien names are contractually obligated to be a random mish-mash of letters.

So how is it?

Ugh. I was not a fan. The blackcollars are thinly-veiled stand-ins for ninja, and it’s so obvious that it was really really distracting.

My other issue with this book is that nothing really happens, from a character or plot development standpoint. Blackcollar is really just a series of action setpieces with small linking vignettes. Think The expendables with aliens and space-ninja. Given that the blackcollars are a bunch of crochety old men, it might make sense to compare Blackcollar to RED instead, but Blackcollar lacks RED’s sense of humor.

As far as I can tell, I’m in the minority here in not liking Blackcollar. Part of the issue was one of expectations: I really really enjoyed Zahn’s Conqueror’s trilogy and was hoping Blackcollar would be in a similar vein. Unfortunately, while the Conquerors’ trilogy examines how cultural misunderstandings can lead to war, and tells a story where all sides are sympathetic and interesting, Blackcollar is a straightforward “Good guys kill evil aliens and their human pawns”. There’s nothing else going on here. You can sum up the entire book in one sentence: “Space ninja kill aliens”.

So if you’re looking for a book that’s action packed and totally undemanding, it’s a great read. If you like your books to have interesting plots, character development, or any degree of subtlety whatsoever then you are totally out of luck. I’ve seen plenty of authors do light, fun reading without ending up as shallow as Blackcollar. I’d chalk it up to Zahn’s inexperience (at the time) as a writer, because the whole thing feels like a high school student’s Halo fanfic.

Strengths

Zahn is good at writing action sequences

Space ninja!

Weaknesses

No character development

The plot is paper-thin

Space ninja? really?

Recommendation

I have never recommended this book and probably wouldn’t generally. It’s a good book for video game fanatics who don’t like to read. If a parent came up to me and asked for a book to try and get their video game obsessed child away from the TV, I might recommend Blackcollar. Otherwise, it doesn’t have enough going for it to warrant a recommendation. I’d recommend other Zahn books (like the Conquerors’ trilogy I mentioned earlier) before I’d recommend this one.

There’s a lot of military science fiction out there that’s far better than Blackcollar. Here’s what I’d recommend instead (or, if you do like Blackcollar, here are some other books to try out):

Conquerors’ pride / Timothy Zahn

Old man’s war / John Scalzi

The forever war / Joe Haldeman

Starship troopers / Robert Heinlein

 

It turns out I ended up getting some of the later books in the series as well. Theoretically this means I’ll get around to reading them and will be in a position to say whether or not the series gets better. Considering that I’ve got something like 200 more things on my “to be reviewed” list right now that’s not likely to happen soon, but it might happen all the same.

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