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A novel by Timothy Zahn
(1995, Bantam Spectra)

The Conqueror's Saga, book 2

The politics and the war from the Zhirrzh point of view, as they discover that the humans might be ignorantly innocent, after all.


-- 2nd reading (hardcover)
October 3rd to 15th, 2013


The first time I read this book, I was astounded at how the author managed to capture the alien perspective of this conflict, injecting some of their own culture, and seeing humans completely from the outside. Even though I remembered the major payoff at the end, the book still lived up to expectations. Although the culture is rather human, in that they divide their day into standard divisions and use transports to get around, have human-like politics, it is all presented from a different point of view. Sub-arcs instead of minutes, and all sorts of expression turned on their sides for the alien culture. It was very impressive. And of course, we finally get a hint as to what the Elderdeath weapon really is.

Spoiler review:

It is very hard to create an alien civilization that seems truly alien. One way to do this is to change their attitudes, which makes them hard to understand, or to change the way the look and act, which can also make them difficult to relate to (I think the best example of this kind of difference is in Asimov's The Gods Themselves). Another way is to make them think and act like humans, with petty politics, research, and economics, but change the way they name things. This what Zahn does here, and he does it masterfully. It is so well done that it didn't occur to me until later that the Zhirrzh really did human-like things, only in a Zhirrzh fashion. All units of measurement, from distances to time, were changed. Human-like expressions were changed to suit Zhirrzh physiology, and so on. It was actually quite fun trying to figure out what they meant when they were talking.

The major difference between the Zhirrzh and humans is their Elder-state. When they are old enough, a gland is removed which allows them to live essentially forever in a ghost-state. There is a whole gossip culture surrounding them, and wars have been fought over them. In fact, it is said that the Elderdeath weapons were created at some time in the past, but forbade afterwards, due to the pain and death they cause the Elders.

The book takes place completely from the Zhirrzh point of view. The first plot point involves Thrr-gilag and his mother, who wants to steal her fsss organ so she can never be raised to an Elder when she dies. This ties in to the political arena, where Cvv-panav would really like to wrest control of the government from the Overclan Prime. The Overclan uses Cvv-panav to trick Thrr-gilag's mother, and her fsss organ is stolen and returned to her, but she is arrested.

Cvv-panav wants Thrr-gilag's engagement to Klnn-dawan-a cancelled, because he doesn't agree with interclan marriage. Thrr-gilag spends a lot of time helping Klnn-dawan-a in her alien research, which takes place on a world conquered by the Zhirrzh, where the aliens are kept at a pretty primitive state. But on that world, they are approached by Prr't-casst-a, an Elder whose Elder husband has gone missing on Dorcas, the human world where the Zhirrzh have their beachhead. For some unknown reason, the Dhaa'rr clan wants to destroy his fsss, so they go to make an illegal cutting of the organ to take to Dorcas, to help him get back to the base. They are not caught, but the Overclan knows about it, and both Thrr-gilag and Klnn-dawan-a are supposed to head to Dorcas with the cutting. Unfortunately, Thrr-gilag is intercepted by news of his mother's arrest, and Klnn-dawan-a is stranded on a world with humans attacking.

On Dorcas itself, Thrr-gilag's brother Thrr-mezaz is in charge of the beachhead. He tracks humans trying to get to a certain location near the base, and chases them away. Of course, he is completely in the dark about CIRCE, the human weapon that doesn't really exist. Then the humans take Prr't-zevisti's fsss from its pyramid, which was outside the base acting as sentry, something Thrr-mezaz gets in trouble for. For the entire book, Prr't-zevisti hides from Dr. Cavanaugh, listening in on her conversations, and enduring various electron microscope scans of his fsss organ. It is he who discovers, quite painfully and by accident, that the humans did not fire the first shot, but they used an Elderdeath weapon, nonetheless, when they first encountered the Zhirrzh. For radio emissions are lethal to Elders. I guess the background radiation from the rest of the galaxy is too small for any effect, but the concentrated bursts can kill them!

I liked this revelation, and it was fun to see from the other perspective, where I of course knew about the link. That's what makes these books so much fun to read a second time. The real enemy has to be the Mrachani, who arrive on Dorcas and obviously set off an explosion in their own building to simulate a human attack. Fortunately, the Zhirrzh already don't trust the Mrachani.

There are more plotlines left hanging in this book, as absolutely nothing from the first book is resolved here, and there are now plots from the Zhirrzh culture left over. Still, this book is unique in my experience, in being so well written from such an alien point of view.


-- First reading (paperback)
October 18th to 25th, 1995


I was really amazed at how Zahn pulled this one off.  Totally from an alien perspective, where we know who the aliens are -us!  And we finally figure out that we did fire the first shot, in a way.  It's subtle, but it becomes obvious that radio is lethal to their spirits!


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