I’ve read more than a few “franchise” books, by which I mean stories where an author writes a story within an existing universe, such as Diane Duane’s Spider-man books (very good) or Warhammer 40K stories. I always wonder how much of a help or hinderance the existing framework is for the authors; after all, it probably does some of the creative heavy lifting, but it constrains the possible stories by having someone looking over your shoulder more than usual, both from the fans of that universe and its caretakers.
Timothy Zahn is likely best known for his Thrawn trilogy set in the Star Wars universe. I rather enjoyed them, and based on the strength of those stories picked up this book. I was cautiously hopeful as I hadn’t read very much of his other work aside from the Star Wars novels, and I was curious to see how Mr. Zahn would set about creating a brand-new world. I can happily say that he did not disappoint.
The story opens in New York City, with a couple walking home from a play. Roger and Caroline Whittier are people with deep personal issues, constantly at odds due to their different personalities and approaches to everything: he is more analytical and avoids confrontation, she more emotional and willing to speak up for the underdog. This tense situation is broken up by the sudden intrusion of an armed man who hustles them into an alley and makes an odd request: that they take with them a young girl named Melantha who is lying unconscious on the ground. Out of compassion, the Whittiers’ agree, and thusly are drawn into an ancient conflict.
As the title states, the two parts of the trouble are groups known as the Greens and Grays. Both have strange and advanced technology and a bitter hatred of each other, with few qualms about using them in public, or against outsiders to their conflict. Unfortunately, the police are soon drawn into the “secret war”, bringing more attention to their problems. Melantha is important to both sides, and they will stop at nothing to secure her from the Whittiers.’
Roger & Caroline, as mentioned, are involved with their own disintegrating relationship, and the introduction of a strange young girl at first puts a heavy strain on their lives. However, her presence and the pressure from both sides draws them to defend her and to solve a war. The police are soon involved as well, and seeing their response to the escalating conflict adds more intrigue and tension to the story.
There are a lot of characters in this story, and they are all given some care. Interestingly, we never see the action or from the POV of either a Green or Gray, only the humans. However, the different culture and approach of each side is well explained, as is their types of technology and gifts. The Green, as their name suggests, are more connected to nature, while the Gray are more acclimated to an urban environment.
Zahn does an excellent job in fleshing out his protagonists and their inner voices. In the beginning the frustrations of Roger and Caroline towards each other are distinctly uncomfortable and made the story slightly difficult to read. As it went on I was happy to see that they were growing closer, making their interactions more pleasant, and in fact I looked forward to seeing how the next twist or obstacle would bring them closer together. It’s done in a very natural and organic way, as opposed to the fire-forged relationships seen in other books and movies. You get a sense of what drew them to each other in the first place and how this harrowing situation realistically makes them understand each other in a fresh way.
All in all it was an excellent story and certainly encouraged me to seek out other books by Zahn, as well as hope for a return visit to this universe. It has a lot of possibilities to explore.
As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.