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New Mysteries Around Every Corner: The Sibyl’s War Trilogy by Timothy Zahn

Saturday, April 25th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Pawn A Chronicle of the Sibyl's War-small Knight A Chronicle of the Sibyl's War-small Queen A Chronicle of the Sibyl's War-small

Covers by Stephen Youll

I’ve come to rely on Goodreads more and more often for unbiased book reviews. It started two years ago, while I was religiously checking the great feedback on my just-released The Robots of Gotham. Goodreads is filled with amateur reviewers, but I discovered many of them had spot-on critiques of my first novel. Always a pleasure to see those 4- and 5-star reviews of course, but in the end I found those readers able to articulate problems were far more valuable.

Yes, you’ll always find the occasional 1-star, 1-word review (“Unreadable’ was my favorite), but I was able to get something useful out of pretty much every other negative review, and quite a bit more than that from many. In fact, one of the best insights on my book came from a negative review by Goodreads member Jrubino, who wrote:

The complexity and depth of this novel is wonderful, yet its impact is greatly diminished by a video-game pacing… this formula is tiresome. That’s too bad as the world-building is unique and interesting.

I think that’s right on point, and it’s exactly the kind of thing I need to hear as I plunge into writing the second book. I’m fond of the way I set up The Robots of Gotham, with all my main characters trapped in a Chicago hotel in the middle of an unfolding robot apocalypse, but — as several readers have helpfully now pointed out — chapter after chapter, that constant “action and return” becomes repetitive, especially in a longer book. If I can fix that in The Ghosts of Navy Pier — and I’m pretty sure I can — I think it’ll be a much better book.

Goodreads has become enormously useful as a broad measure of public opinion, which is a darn useful thing for a writer trying hard to get better. And surprise, surprise… it’s also pretty useful when you’re looking for a good series to read, like Timothy Zahn’s Sibyl’s War trilogy, which wrapped up this month with the release of Queen.

To be honest with you, I wasn’t very interested in this series when the first book Pawn arrived. It was received with generally lukewarm reviews, and even — which has a well deserved rep for calling books as it sees them, even those from its parent company — called it “Entertaining But Bland” in a lengthy piece by Liz Bourke.

But Timothy Zahn is a reliable writer, and I was curious enough to keep tabs on series. Eventually I turned to Goodreads to get a broader opinion, and I’m glad I did. There are plenty of satisfied readers there, and here’s the 4-star review (by Tad) that finally convinced me to give the series a try.

Timothy Zahn kicks off a great new space opera trilogy with Pawn… 19-year-old Nicole and frenemy/street thug Bungie along with the ER doctor they’ve kidnapped to treat Bungie’s wounds are in turn abducted and find themselves on the spaceship Fyrantha where they have been recruited as part of a maintenance crew.

Nicole finds that she is a Sibyl, which means with some pharmaceutical help, she can understand the living ship’s instructions and relay them to others. Nicole discovers she has it better on Fyrantha than she ever did on the streets of Philadelphia. Bungie, however, is desperate to escape and Nicole’s fear of his wrath leads her to explore areas of the ship which should be off limits. She discovers that there are several alien races on board beyond the ones who abducted her and that the ship holds a lot of mystery. How big is it? What is its purpose? And who is really in control?

Zahn does a great job of letting you see the ship through Nicole’s eyes, with new discoveries and new mysteries around every corner…. Zahn captures the wonder of space and starships and aliens. The characters are solid and interesting, the action is exciting and the mystery will keep you turning the pages.

How does the series unfold, and how does Nicole’s role change? There’s a pretty strong hint in the chess-themed title progression (from Pawn, to Knight, to Queen). But staying light on spoilers, here’s an excerpt from William Bentrim 5-star review at Goodreads.

Nicole, a Philadelphia street wise alley rat has grown a great deal since Pawn and Knight. This volume finds her gaining confidence in her role and recognizing that she has something to give to others… The evil overlords, the shipmasters, soon discover that Nicole is what she claims, the Protector of the ship. They attempt to add allies to their mission of enslavement but that has unexpected results.

This is a saga of personal growth as well as a good space opera. Zahn creates a great mini world within the Fyrantha, an alien warship/AI struggling to stay alive.

Here’s the complete details on all three volumes in the trilogy.

Pawn (347 pages, $25.99 hardcover/$8.99 digital and paperback, May 2, 2017) — Excerpt at the Tor/Forge blog
Knight (330 pages, $24.99 hardcover/$8.99 digital and paperback, April 16, 2019) — Excerpt at the Macmillan website
Queen (380 pages, $27.99 hardcover/$14.99 digital, April 14, 2020) — Excerpt at the Tor/Forge blog

All three were published by Tor, with covers by Stephen Youll.

See all our coverage of the best new SF and fantasy series here.


  1. I hope you’re careful with taking advice of readers (or anyone else, even great writers you love). There’s some writers who think that workshops are a plague that has watered down and blandified the writing world.

    I don’t have that level of conviction about its effects but I do think there’s lots of common criticisms and received wisdoms that are nonsense. And it’s always worth remembering that some of your favorite writers might not fare well with a very large audience.

    Maybe much of the very best won’t be well received by most people?

    Comment by Robert Adam Gilmour - April 25, 2020 3:59 pm

  2. > Maybe much of the very best won’t be well received by most people?


    An excellent point!

    There are writers who do brilliant work relying with no input from others. I’m not one of them.

    I got critical input from early readers on THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM that saved the book. It exposed numerous oversights and blind spots on my part. Yes, there was PLENTY of advice I ignored… and looking back, I probably should have taken some of that, too.

    I’m a writer who’s in love with my own prose. Pretty much the first time I hear criticism, my knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss it.

    To combat that, I learned a pretty useful technique: write the change. If someone I’ve learned to trust says a breakfast scene will be better if they’re eating pancakes instead of eggs, I try it. Now I’ve got two versions of the scene, and I wrote them both, and I can decide which one is better without being overly in love with either one.

    Many times when I do that, I see things I hadn’t before, and realize the change works better. It’s something that’s worked for me.

    I need strong beta readers for my books to be successful. Not everyone does, but I do.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 25, 2020 4:15 pm

  3. A book will come on my radar via reviews on established websites. if I’m interested, I’ll always check Goodreads. I didn’t always, I do now. And I find three-star reviews are the best indicators re the good and the bad. This is qualified by the nature of the original review. If this was overly negative, I’m curious to find out about the book’s good points. If the revew is overly laudatory, I want to know what’s wrong with it.

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - April 25, 2020 8:09 pm

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