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- Published on Amazon.com
Timothy Zahn broke into Star Wars in part due to his military sci-fi series Cobra and Blackcollar. When approached to do Heir to the Empire, Tim had nine books under his belt: The Blackcollar (1983), Cobra (1985), A Coming of Age (1985), Cobra Strike (1986), The Backlash Mission (1986), Spinneret (1985), Triplet (1987), Cobra Bargain (1988), and Deadman Switch (1988). Of those, Cobra and Blackcollar caught the eye of Bantam and led to the recommendation to Lucasfilm. As a fan of Zahn's Star Wars works, it was only natural to branch out and read his other work. Blackcollar was certainly a fitting choice.
The book takes place in the future, sometime around 2447. The Terran Democratic Empire and it's 28 planets, including Earth, lost a war to an expansionist species known as the Ryqril. Humans now live under occupation. Each planet is completely isolated from the others except for select government personnel. Humans in high level positions are forced to go through re-conditioning, ie. brainwashing. Living conditions are not exactly optimal and the Ryqril aren't very compassionate overlords. It is in this environment that a few cells of resistance remain. The main character, Allen Caine, is a young member of the resistance on Earth who has trained his entire life to fight the Ryqril and undermine their authority. After a lifetime of preparation, he's been given a mission to sneak off Earth and make contact with the resistance on another planet. It's their hope that this contact can lead to a new paradigm in the war against their oppressors. The key to their success lies with the Blackcollars.
What's interesting about this book is just how important the Blackcollars are to the story. Zahn could have gone a lot of different ways with the story. He could have pushed the history of the war, the fight of the resistance, the presence and views of the aliens. Yet instead of doing that, the focus of the story is the mystery of these aged veteran super commandos of a war that took place 29 years ago. These warriors were made into something beyond normal through the use of ability enhancing drugs. They aged slower, had faster reflexes and were generally smarter. In Zahn's own words...
"The Blackcollars were the low-tech warriors, with the martial-arts and the ninja-type weapons, because their enemy had easy ways of detecting large amounts of metal or power sources, so it was a different style of warfare. The Cobra books had a lot of political-sociological stuff as the Cobras are trying to create a colony with ordinary citizens cut off from Earth. The Blackcollars were more a chessgame-"cat and mouse" type of tactical storyline: the "us versus them" sort of thing. Trying to out-think and out-maneuver rather than simply out-gun the enemy." -Timothy Zahn, TheForce.Net interview, February 2000
Thus at the center of this story is a group of elderly ninjas. Yes, the Blackcollars are old. They were in their prime 29 years ago. The age reducing drug called Idunine was cut off after the war. But even with the years against them, the Blackcollars are not to be underestimated. These guys are deadly. One Blackcollar can take out an entire room of hostiles in close quarters combat. On top of that, they don't even use guns. Like their real life ninja counterparts, they use shuriken and nunchaku. They also have armored ninja suits that can protect them from laser fire. And like Zahn said in the quote above, the Blackcollars are very intelligent. Rather than out gunning their enemies, they outsmart them.
On his mission to defeat the Ryqril, Allen Caine heads to the planet Plinry where he hooks up with the fabled Blackcollars. From there, a plot is born that leads to sneaky missions, espionage and subterfuge. There's action, some small nuggets of history and a few, rare glimpses of the Ryqril, but the heart of the story is the characterizations of the Blackcollars. Zahn carefully creates full identities for each of them. As the story progresses, they became interesting and intriguing plot points. I found myself wondering who each individual character was, what their backstories were, what their motivations are. They become compelling characters that you care about and want to learn more about. After all, these are the champions of the human race and Earth's last hope for rescue. It's easy to root for them.
However, underneath that gung-ho storythread of resistance fighters fighting against their oppressors, there's an opposing storyline that's even more entertaining: loyalty. The Ryqril are the obvious, easy to spot enemy. Yet the resistance biggest foe is collaborators aka collies. With the brainwashing programs the Ryqril have developed, no one can be certain who is a traitor and who isn't. When Allen Caine is sent to an entirely new planet, he has no idea who he can trust. The intrigue is further pushed by odd behavior from the Blackcollars. Early on there is a subplot that undermines the loyalty of some of the Blackcollars. Allen is witness to actions that don't make any sense. They keep him in the dark without any justification for their actions. Later on, the whole aspect of traitors and loyalty takes on new heights as the collies begin infiltrating their ranks. Allen is forced to question the trust he has put in the Blackcollars when the unthinkable is brought to light.
There aren't too many flaws with the story itself. Cassettes do get mentioned and tend to date the story a bit, but it's easy enough to overlook something like that. My one problem with the story was the Nova class ships. They become a central plot point but its never clearly illustrated why they are so important. The story implies that they are big ships and thus powerful weapons to have. Yet there's never anything that shows the reader just how big and powerful they are. We never get to see one in action or hear anyone recount how deadly they are. It would have been very helpful to have had a passage describing one in action to illustrate why they are so important and feared by the Ryqril. This shortcoming definitely hurt the ending a little. There are events that unfold that I was not able to fully appreciate due to my lack of understanding of just what a Nova class ship represented. If they had been described a bit more, I think the payoff would have been a lot better.
In the end, Blackcollar is a character driven suspense story with a great atmosphere. The backdrop is formed by a hostile society filled with collaborators and dissent. There's an extremely tantalizing history of galactic warfare and alien conquest. Sci-fi elements appear here and there, yet they never drown out the character elements of the story. Instead, all of these little elements-the Ryqril, the war, the hi-tech gadgetry-are sprinkled throughout to spur the imagination and enhance the experience. I also loved how cerebral the plot was. Zahn managed to weave the characters in such a way that it was hard to lock down their motivations and loyalties. The plot had an elusive way of heading different directions from one moment to another. It created a really solid story. While it did have a flaw or two, it was still a good book. I give Blackcollar a four out of five and definitely recommend it to any Star Wars fan looking to broaden their horizons.