The Icarus Hunt

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.


9 thoughts on “The Icarus Hunt

  1. I love it when a book holds up to the nostalgic memories of the first time it was read. This sounds great. The only Zahn I’ve read is his first Star Wars trilogy and based on that alone I know that I like the guy’s writing style. Your review has me excited to go and pick up a copy of this. I am planning on reading Leviathan Wakes later this month and am hoping to enjoy it as much as others have. In the meantime this is now on my list.

    And I know exactly what you mean about the ever-growing to-read list. I too have several novels that I would like to revisit and yet the pile of never-before-read keeps growing too.

    • Leviathan Wakes and The Icarus Hunt compliment one another nicely – there’s some similarities in the workings and feel of the world, and I’m always on the hunt for similar books and movies. (Chris Bunch’s Star Risk, Ltd series also feels like it would be a good fit.)

      I was pretty happy that this held up nicely. My tastes have changed quite a bit since that time, and while there’s some things that I’d have liked to see differently, there weren’t many.

      This year, there’s not a whole lot of books that are new that I’m realy looking forward to, unlike last year: just Caliban’s War by James A. Corey and John Scalzi’s Redshirts, although I’m sure that there’s a couple of others here and there that will crop up. Hopefully, I can play catch up!

      • Another series that I’d like to revisit at some point would be Zahn’s Conqueror’s Trilogy, which examines a first contact situation and war. The first book is from humanity’s perspective, the second book is from the alien’s perspective, and the third wraps it all up together. I don’t know if I’ll get to it this year, but hopefully at some point!

      • Redshirts can’t come out soon enough, and the cover for Caliban’s War is what finally got me to quit stalling and go pick up a copy of Leviathan’s War just before Christmas.

  2. I think I’m interested in Redshirts more out of habit than anything else: Fuzzy Nation was fun, and I’m not expecting Redshirts to be anything hugely different in style than that one.

    I *LOVED* the cover for Leviathan Wakes. I want it as a poster for my wall, framed up somewhere. Caliban’s War isn’t quite as neat, but I do like it.

    Incidently, the cover for Icarus Hunt is something that attracted me to the book in the first place.

    • Thus far Scalzi has been pitch perfect for me. His books are exactly what I want them to be. While none of them have been unique additions to the field of SF, they did help rekindle a love of SF for me back when Old Man’s War was released. He knows how to write a good, fun story with characters that you can care about and for the most part his books have been great to recommend to folks who are iffy about science fiction. Thus far they have always turned out to be a hit with them.

      I like Leviathan Wakes’ cover as well, but it was seeing the second one that kicked me in the butt. Probably in part just because it made it more real that the next book was due out relatively soon and that I better get this one read to see if I like it before I go out to spend money on the second (something I’ve been known to do all too often).

      The cover for Icarus Hunt is very nice, who is the artist?

      • They’re decent. I still think Old Man’s War is one of his better books, but I haven’t really read anything between that and Fuzzy Nation. FN was lighter than I would have liked, I think, but I think that it was intended like that. I’ve no complaints.

        No clue about the cover for Icarus Hunt.

      • The Android’s Dream is a fun novel if you like caper stories. Once you get past the long juvenile joke of the first chapter it is more of a madcap chase novel with sf trappings.

        His joint project Metamorphosis is very good. All 5 stories are set in the same near-future Earth setting and there are echoes of some of the classic authors there.

        I didn’t mind the lightness of FN. The second half felt like an episode of Perry Mason to me and I actually enjoyed that quite a bit. Then again I think the original novel was light as well and I’m glad that he didn’t try to make it better so much as reboot it since he was touting it as an homage and that his desire was to get people to go back and read Piper.

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