Mission Impossible in Space: The Icarus Novels by Timothy Zahn

Mission Impossible in Space: The Icarus Novels by Timothy Zahn

The Icarus Hunt (Bantam Spectra, August 1999) and The Icarus Plot
(Baen Books paperback reprint, June 27, 2023). Covers by Paul Youll and Dave Seeley

Timothy Zahn is one of my favorite short story writers. I read his early fiction, like the Hugo Award-winning novella “Cascade Point,” in the early 80s in Analog magazine, and in gaming mags like Ares and Fantasy Gamer. In 1983 I thoroughly enjoyed his debut novel The Blackcollar, the runner up for the Locus Award for Best First novel. In the following years he produced some major work, including the bestselling Star Wars novel Heir to the Empire and its sequels, the Cobra series, the Conquerors trilogy, and the popular Dragonback books.

In 1999 Zahn published The Icarus Hunt, the tale of a renegade space pilot named Jordan McKell, who ekes out a living at the edges of the iron-fisted regime of the Patthaaunutth, dabbling in interstellar smuggling for customers who represent the last vestiges of free trade in the galaxy. When McKell and his alien partner Ixil are hired to fly a strange ship named The Icarus and its special cargo to Earth, they soon find themselves caught up in events that could change the course of galactic history.

My old website SF Site published a fine review of The Icarus Hunt by Donna McMahon in 2001.

Smuggler Jordan McKell feels certain his pseudonymous employer hasn’t told him everything about the mysterious sealed cargo he’s supposed to pilot to Earth. And sure enough, before McKell can even blast off, things heat up. First he’s detained by the port authorities as a suspected murderer. Then his employer disappears, leaving him with a note, a cash box full of wages, and a hastily assembled crew of mismatched humans and aliens flying the strangest looking ship McKell has ever seen.

Things can only get worse — so naturally they do. After the death of a crew member, McKell realizes that he has a murderer on board, and then he discovers that every government in the quadrant is in pursuit of the Icarus. Before long he begins to suspect that his cargo could change the future of the galaxy — and now it’s his responsibility.

The opening chapters of The Icarus Hunt promise a strong mystery/suspense novel, and indeed this book does not disappoint. Timothy Zahn rockets the reader along, lobbing plot twists at every turn…

I especially enjoyed McKell’s partner, Ixil — an alien whose two symbiotic pet ‘ferrets’ act as his extra eyes and ears. Zahn has written a number of Star Wars novels, and The Icarus Hunt reads as though it was originally outlined for the Star Wars series (with Han Solo and Chewbacca as protagonists?), and then the set dressings were changed slightly to make it more mainstream. But who cares if the technology is WWII with blinking lights, and every spaceport has a Star Wars bar scene? Well, I didn’t. I got swept right along.

Twenty-three years later, Zhan published a second novel set in the same universe, and that instantly made it one of the more interesting releases of 2022 for me. I missed the hardcover release of The Icarus Plot last year, but I won’t make the same mistake with the mass market paperback, arriving next week from Baen Books.

Analog SF&F has a fine review:

This is Zahn at his best — great characters and settings, great worldbuilding, great suspense, and just a ton of action and space opera fun… It’s also a passion project for the author, so if you enjoy Zahn, it’s not to be missed.

But my favorite review was by Declan Finn at Upstream Reviews.

Zahn is the man who single-handedly revived the Star Wars franchise with his 1991 release Heir to the Empire. But he has multiple series and worlds that have nothing to do with film franchises, and he’s returning to one with The Icarus Plot. It’s a surprisingly tight thriller, where the tension revolves around the simple question: Who trusts who?

Six years ago, the freighter Icarus disappeared with all hands aboard. Five years ago, bounty hunter Gregory Rourke and his partner Selene were hunting the Icarus’ captain Jordan McKell when they were both ambushed. Now Rourke and Selene are trailblazers, surveying unknown worlds. Now they’re hired by a mysterious pair who want them to return to bounty hunting. The target? Another member of the Icarus. For Rourke, it looks like payback time. But Rourke is about to find himself hip deep in a plot with more players than he can possibly realize…

When I first heard about this book at at Baen panel, Toni Weisskopf described it at a sci-fi caper novel. While it may be the best genre description for the book, it is a serious understatement. This is one long Mission Impossible scenario, only several groups are running their own long cons on everyone else. Can Rourke discover the truth in an endless stream of lies? Can he find out who to trust before he gets stabbed in the back? If he survives, can he manage his revenge?…

The tone of the narration is not quite SciFi noir, but close. The writing is smooth and effortless, serving multiple purposes at once. The opening involves four pages of thought, observations, cultural notes, and analysis in order to head off a bar fight, and it’s all entertainingly readable.

The next 350 pages are pure Hitchcockian thriller, only in science fiction. There are no Weber-tonnage of missiles. There are no grand shootouts or fistfights. There’s only the ever-looming threat of total annihilation if Rourke makes even the slightest slipup.

Here’s the publishing details for both books.

The Icarus Hunt (Bantam Spectra, 362 pages, $23.95 hardcover, $6.50 paperback, $7.99 digital, August 1999) — cover by Paul Youll
The Icarus Plot (Baen Books, 340 pages, $25 hardcover, $9.99 paperback and digital, July 5, 2022) — cover by Dave Seeley

Get all the details, including the first six chapters, at the Baen website.

See all our coverage of the best new science fiction series here.

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Tony Den

I sometimes think we have some sort of cross Atlantic telepathic link John. I have just finished reading the Conquerors, and was so impressed I was considering re-read of The Icarus Hunt, mostly because i have forgotten more than I can remember of my first Timothy Zahn read. Having discovered there is a sequel at ISFDB I decided to look for this and then read them together. Lo and behold a day or two later you have this article up. I hope The Icarus Plot delivers as well as Hunt did. Can’t wait for my copy to arrive.

PS: Anyone reading this that hasn’t read the Conquerors, do yourselves a favor and give it a whirl, you will not be disappointed!

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