This year, a major goal of mine is to try and cut down on my ever-growing 'to read' list, which has slowly crept into the triple digits over recent years. There are a handful of books that I've been meaning to get back to and revisit from earlier days, and at the top of the list was Timothy Zahn's 1999 science fiction / mystery novel, The Icarus Hunt. The book was one of the novels that I first read during my transition from Star Wars novels to mainstream genre novels, and it's been a book that's stuck in my mind since I first read it.
The story opens with Jordan McKell, smuggler and ship's pilot, meeting up with Alexander Borodin, who hires him to take his ship, the Icarus and its sealed cargo, to Earth. Deep in debt to crime lord Johnston Scotto Ryland (Brother John) and his superior, Antoniewicz, McKell accepts, and ships out with the assembled crew. Shortly after starting off, one of the members of the crew is murdered, and deep questions emerge into the nature of their cargo.
The Icarus and her crew quickly becomes the target of an intergalactic manhunt from numerous factions: the Patth, a commercial race that holds a near-monopoly on interstellar shipping, believe that the cargo is an advanced star drive that would undercut their own technological advantages, while an unknown agent amongst the ship's crew has begun to endanger the crew. As the Icarus and its crew jump from system to system, steps ahead of the Paath and the growing contingent of opportunistic planetary governments and criminals, the true nature of the mission comes to light.
Zahn's solidly-constructed world is one that sees a number of parallels with popular franchises, from Star Wars to Titan A.E. and Firefly, but feels wholly unique and original in its own right, and fans of the recently released novel Leviathan Wakes, by James A. Corey should certainly pick this one up in the wait for the next installment in the trilogy.
Of particular note is the story's structure: this is very much a mystery novel set in space: who the fellow members of the crew are, from Tera, who strives to keep her identity under wraps, Nicabar, a former EarthGuard marine, Chort, the crew's alien space-walker, Everett, the ship's doctor, Geoff Shawn, the hot-tempered electrician and Jones, the short-lived mechanical expert, who's murdered early on. There's also the nature of the cargo that they're carrying, and as more people appear in the sidelines who want to get their hands on the cargo, the book kicks into a race that feels genuine to the core. The pacing is perfect, and never overcrowded as the mysteries deepen and the characters all develop richly. Zahn has done an excellent job creating a cast of dynamic characters, and keeps the reader in the dark until the very end as to some of their true intentions: when I first read the book, I went back and re-read it to pick up on the hints along the way. All the way through, it's a gripping read.
The Icarus Hunt is a book that feels like a solid hit out of the park, and while all of the plot points come together in the final chapters, the setting of a McKell in the dining room with all of the players feels more like homage than sloppy structuring. All along the way, Zahn has constructed a plausible, fascinating world that hints at other stories (sadly, this appears to be the only one) at every corner of the galaxy. It's a book that takes a lot of common story elements and mixes them together into something that's greater than the sum of its parts, and has very few books that it can really be compared to. Even better, it holds up past my nostalgic love for it, despite the release of more recent, similar stories. Truly, a cult classic in the making.