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REVIEW: Night Train to Rigel by Timothy Zahn

REVIEW SUMMARY: Some well-tread sf tropes packaged into an entertaining story.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Human ex-agent Frank Compton is hired by the mechanical Spiders to locate the threat to the Quadrail train system that allows alien races to quickly travel throughout the galaxy.

PROS: Fun action-adventure; detailed plot; satisfying conclusion.
CONS: Reader kept in the dark too long; some events too coincidental.
BOTTOM LINE: A fun ride.

Humankind is the latest species to be considered part of an interstellar empire when it colonized the planet Yandro. When Frank Compton, an agent of the Western Alliance Intelligence, blows the whistle on some political corruption surrounding Yandro, he is fired. More than a year later, his unique skills and training are eventually wanted by the mechanical race of Spiders, who wish to hire him to find those responsible for an imminent attack on their Quadrail system – the mysterious train system that spans the entire galaxy and connects the multiple alien civilizations of the interstellar empire. This is a surprise to Compton as there are safeguards built into the Quadrail system that prevent any weapons from getting near it. As Compton soon learns, there are multiple factions involved in a conspiracy that will lead to the demise of just about every alien race in the galaxy. And these factions don’t seem to want him nosing around.

Night Train to Rigel is a fast-moving action-adventure story starting with its attention-grabbing opening scene. Compton is pulled into some unknown intrigue by a dying stranger with a message from the Spiders. His mission is to find the identity of an upcoming attack that the Spiders see in a vision of the future. Compton is accompanied by a woman named Bayta who can telepathically communicate with the Spiders. Together they ride Quadrail to find the unknown culprits.

Not a lot is known by Compton at the start of his mission and, unfortunately, not much is known by the reader either. The story is not so much a Whodunit as it is a Whatsgoingon. Sure, this is fine up to a point; a little mystery is fine. But Compton is presented with more and more questions and conflict before any of the answers start appearing. As a result, the mystery becomes somewhat diluted and loses some of its intrigue. One of the ways the mystery is piled upon Compton is through way-too-coincidental events. Compton runs into old colleagues, old acquaintances, and re-runs into old colleagues again. Even his partner Bayta is something of a mystery; as is the mysterious Modhri coral; as is the motivation of an alien benefactor – you get the idea. While everything is eventually explained, the length and level of darkness held over the reader for the majority of the story saps some of the impact of the otherwise well-planned and wonderfully detailed story.

The book comes with a healthy portion of sense-of-wonder. While the concepts themselves presented in the story are not really groundbreaking, they are certainly used to very good effect. Zahn’s aliens are believable and culturally interesting. Sure, hive minds have been done before, but the way they are used here is quite refreshing, in a zombie sort of way. The Quadrail itself, while shrouded in mystery as to its origins (until later scenes, anyway), is amazing in its ambitiousness and scale. The train setting also serves to create a feeling of the old black and white Hollywood movies with chases across rail cars, multiple exotic destinations, and a confined space in which to play out some hand-to-hand combat and intrigue.

That feeling, in fact, is really what keeps you reading. You want to find out what the mystery is all about and if the payoff is worth it. And while the unknown tended to overshadow the known, the book does present an enjoyable story when all is said and done. The very well done, action-packed closing scenes were especially enjoyable. By the end of the book, all plotlines (even the coincidental ones) are very neatly tied up leaving the impression that Night Train to Rigel is a fun ride.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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