With over forty published novels and countless shorter works to his name, author Timothy Zahn is certainly one of the most prolific living sci-fi writers. Over the course of his 30+ year career, he's received multiple award nominations, won a Hugo in 1984, and even revitalized the Star Wars franchise. He's perhaps best known for his Thrawn Trilogy—whose namesake character has become "one of [the] Star Wars fandom's favorite villains" (USA Today)—but his work extends far beyond the universe George Lucas created. His original fiction is of a similarly epic scale, as his human protagonists explore the dangerous wilderness of space. Keep reading for a selection of Timothy Zahn books that feature compelling characters, skilled world-building, non-stop action, and fast-paced plots.
The Blackcollar Series Books 1–2
After 30 years of obeying their Ryquil alien overlords, resistance groups within the Terran Democratic Empire are finally taking a stand. Allen Crane is a member of one such group, and his latest mission may finally lead to the Ryquil's defeat—but only if he can manage to track down the fabled Blackcollars. Under the guidance of these ninja-like space warriors, Crane can develop their skills and join their ranks to form an intimidating fighting force that will free the TDE once and for all…
The Backlash Mission picks up one year later, as a sufficiently-trained Crane and his Blackcollar allies return to Earth to take on the Ryquil. But winning this battle will be no easy task—especially when unforeseen rivals come out of the woodwork.
The Quadrail Series Books 1–3
When we first meet hard-boiled spy Frank Compton, he’s just been ousted from the Western Allied Intelligence agency. He’s also just pilfered a once-in-a-lifetime prize from a dead man’s pocket—a ticket aboard the Quadrail, which connects the galaxy’s 12 empires. But once Frank is on the galactic train, he’s summoned by the strange robotic aliens who maintain it. The “Spiders” have heard rumors of Frank’s hardcore, lawless ways—and that’s why they've entrusted him with the fate of the Quadrail, of Earth, and of humanity itself...
This collection also includes the second and third books in the Quadrail series—The Third Lynx and Odd Girl Out—which see Frank and his half-human love interest detangle conspiracies, solve murders, embark on dangerous rescue missions, and face a villainous group-mind bent on world domination.
Soulminder poses a what-if question that has always fascinated sci-fi writers and fans: What if humans didn’t have to die? Since the tragic death of his five-year-old son, Dr. Adrian Sommers has dedicated his life to achieving immortality. With the help of engineer Jessica Sands, he develops technology that preserves your soul while your corporeal body fades away—thus, ensuring that you live forever. But for all the good the Soulminder machine can achieve, it can also bring out the worst sides of humanity...Can Sommers manage to stop the body snatchers, druggies, murderers, and other shadowy figures from using his invention for their nefarious intentions?
Dragon and Thief
When teenage thief Jack Morgan is blamed for a crime he did not commit, he has no choice but to live in exile on a faraway planet. But while awaiting the perfect moment to return to his place on Earth, he makes a peculiar friend: Draycos, a crash-landed dragon of the endangered K’da species. In order to fulfill his mission and ensure the continued survival of his kind, Draycos must find a human host with whom he can form a symbiotic bond. Though Jack isn’t keen on giving up his body, he eventually agrees—but only on the condition that Draycos will use his influence to help him clear his name. With Draycos manifesting as a tattoo on Jack’s back, the joined pair set out to save Jack and the K’das futures before they both fall into ruin.
This collection is a showcase of Zahn’s early short stories, as many of these stories were previously published in SF/F magazines. One highlight is “Cascade Point,” the Hugo Award-winning novella about space travel, alternate realities, and the people who experience both. In “The Price of Survival,” Zahn examines the ethics of draining life-sustaining fuel from the sun when it will incite disaster throughout the rest of the solar system. Meanwhile, the titular Hugo-nominated tale sees aliens identify their biggest enemies via board game tournaments. These stories, and the twelve others in the collection, all feature the twists, action, and suspense that readers love most about Zahn’s writing.
Earth’s overpopulation has forced humanity to turn its eyes upwards and find salvation among the stars. But after launching vessels into space, they’re shocked to discover that others have beat them to the punch—many others, as a matter of fact. Various alien species have already called dibs on the best available planets, leaving human explorers with the crappy leftovers: the desolate and barren Astra. Needless to say, nobody is jealous when the Earthlings establish a settlement there and discover that its soil is lacking in minerals. But when someone stumbles across an ancient artifact that explains Astra’s bizarre conditions, this once-unwanted planet becomes the crown jewel of the galaxy...
Of all the wonders of the solar system, Angelmass—a black hole whose particles influence human behavior—may be the most wondrous of all. But not everyone looks upon it favorably. Unlike the galactic Empyrean colony, the Earth-based Pax see it as a potential brainwashing tool for anyone who uses it. To ensure their upstairs neighbors do not abuse its powers, the Pax send Jerko Kasta on an espionage mission, where he'll operate at the heart of an Empyrean "angel" hunt. Along the way, he gains a greater understanding of these mysterious particles—and their true nature—while tensions between the Pax and Empyreans continue to escalate. Can Jerko get both sides to see the Angelmass for what it truly is before a bloody war breaks out?
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A deadly solar shield is all that stands between humans and the metal-rich rings of the planet Solitaire—but two human lives guarantee successful passage. Who better to take on the fatal journey than people already condemned to die? Thus, sacrificing death row inmates has become the most popular way of entering and exiting the Cloud. It’s through this method that the gifted Gilead Raca Benedar travels to Solitaire, hoping to broker a trade deal on behalf of a powerful mining company. But when Gilead speaks to the woman who’s meant to die for their return trip, his heightened powers of observation allow him to recognize her innocence—and that he must prevent her wrongful death by any means possible.
Graduate student Danae Panya is over the moon when she’s given permission to study Triplet, a three-planet system riddled with unsolved mysteries. It’s Danae’s intention to get to the bottom of these mysteries—from Triplet's origins to the unique cultures and inhabitants of each world—though she’ll need the assistance of Ravagin to pass through the finicky portals. But despite Ravagin’s familiarity with the planets, even he could not foresee the growing conflict between the demons of Karyx and the humans of Shamsheer. Can the pair find a way to emerge from the fray, or will Danae’s once-in-a-lifetime adventure end in their deaths?
Much to the dismay of the Tampy aliens, humans continue to search for other habitable planets and leave destruction in their wake. But much to their glee, the Tampys control the one thing that would make such missions a hell of a lot easier: space horses. Speedy and telekinetic, these creatures function as living vessels to transport their riders to the different corners of the universe. They’re also the center of an ongoing tug-of-war between their owners, the aforementioned Tampy, and the humans who’d do anything to get their hands on them. But at long last, it seems the two groups have made a peace agreement—and will be sharing their first adventure and space horse...
Currently Zahn has three trilogies set in the Cobra universe, with the most recent novel in the series, Cobra Traitor, hitting shelves January 2018. The first book in the series, Cobra, was released in 1985. Set in a future in which humans have begun to colonize space, it follows the alien invasion of the Trofts. After the Trofts easily overpower off-Earth human colonies, humanity resolves to take down the powerful invaders with weapons hidden inside a package the aliens would never expect...humans. The result is the Cobras, cyborg super-soldiers enhanced with one purpose in mind: killing Trofts. But the deadly enhancements of select humans have far-reaching consequences. As Cobra Johnny Moreau learns first-hand, people on Earth and on colonies will be forever changed on the personal and political level by the creation of the Cobras.
Pawn: A Chronicle of the Sibyl's War
Pawn is the first book in Zahn's ongoing Sybil's War trilogy. The protagonist is slightly different than what one might expect from a Zahn novel; instead of a cybersoldier or intergalactic PI, the hero is Nicole Lee, a Philly 19-year-old struggling with alcohol issues and a deadbeat boyfriend named Bungie. When one of Bungie's criminal side-hustles gets him and Nicole into serious trouble, the pair are rescued by the crew of an incredible ship called the Fyrantha. Life aboard the Fyrantha allows Nicole to find a purpose and peace she longed for on Earth — but the apparent safety of the ship hides secrets and inter-crew politics which could prove deadly for the new passengers.
Star Wars: Heir to the Empire
Although the sci-fi universes Zahn creates whole cloth are utterly gripping, no list of his books would be complete without at least nodding to his Star Wars Thrawn Trilogy. The first in the series, Heir to the Empire, was published in 1991, and had a profound influence on the future of the franchise. Heir to the Empire greatly increased the popularity of the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU), the term used for the majority of non-movie media set in George Lucas' galaxy far, far away. Although the EU was revoked from canon in 2014, the science fiction elements and sensibilities emphasized by Zahn in the Thrawn trilogy continue to influence canonical Star Wars properties today. Zahn's iconic villain Grand Admiral Thrawn is also one of the few characters to remain in-canon following the death of the EU. In other words, the Thrawn series is a essential chapter in Star Wars history. More importantly though, it's just a damn fun read.
Heir to the Empire opens five years after the close of Return of the Jedi. No longer busy with daily combat against a fascistic empire, Luke, Leia, and Han are pursuing a sense of normalcy in their lives, with Luke a Jedi Knight and Han and Leia expecting twins. But the peace the Rebel Alliance fought so hard for is threatened by the machinations of the powerful Grand Admiral Thrawn, a Chiss alien eager to see the Empire restored to power.
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