Night Train to Rigel Hardcover – Sep 15 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Hang on! Hugo-winner Zahn (Cascade Point) takes off on a rip-roaring interstellar train ride with hard-boiled hero Frank Compton, recently fired from Earth's Western Alliance Intelligence for whistle-blowing on the costly Yandro colony boondoggle, a U.N. scheme to make humanity a real interstellar power. From Earth's mean streets, Compton hops the Quadrail, a mysterious galactic system run by the alien Spiders, who give him four months to defuse an interstellar war being engineered by the gestalt entity the Modhri. With Bayta, "The Girl" sent by the Spiders to recruit him, Compton blasts his way through layers of subterfuge and teams of unpronounceable alien baddies. Seeing a new chunk of the truth fall into place about every hundred pages, Compton carries comic-strip action to dizzying extremes in this highballing romp. Situations predictable from tough-guy PI fiction and characters straight out of Dick Tracy (even though some wear chipmunk fur and others inhabit telepathic coral colonies) make this night train a juicily familiar joyride.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Zahn's latest is a highly readable thriller in space-opera trappings, set a few hundred years from now. The myriad worlds hosting intelligent life are tied together by the Quadrail, an interstellar transport system run by the enigmatic Spiders. Transport of weapons or military equipment isn't allowed, but someone, somewhere, appears to have found a way around the prohibition. The Spiders hire cashiered government investigator Frank Compton (he uncovered a few too many skeletons) to discover how and what threat it constitutes. By the third chapter, beings of a number of species are gunning for Compton from all directions. Zahn's ingenuity, a steady resource during a writing career now a generation long, makes it easy for him to come up with reader-rewarding demonstrations of his characters' similar quality. A great read. Roland Green
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The quadrail was built 600 years ago and has been operated since then by a mysterious race nicknamed the "Spiders" who are part organic and part machine. Until now they have always tried to stand aloof from politics between other races. Apart from the spiders, there are twelve other intelligent races recognised as major powers by virtue of having at least five inhabited systems: the human United Nations, with exactly five worlds, is one of the least significant of these twelve powers.
The story is told in the first person by Frank Compton, who used to be a top investigator for "Western Alliance" intelligence until he was fired for blowing the whistle on the bogus reports which had been used to justify the colonisation of Yandro, earth's fourth colony and hence the one which got UN officials the status of being a recognised empire.
Frank has just emerged from a meeting at which he was offered a new job, when he is accosted by a young man who has just enough remaining strength to utter Frank's name before dropping dead with multiple bullet wounds. The message which the man has given his life to deliver brings Frank to the Spiders, who want him to investigate a threat to both the Quadrail and the Galaxy. They tell him that someone, they don't know who, appears to have found a way to smuggle warships through the Quadrail and is preparing to launch a war.
Frank and his assigned partner, Bayta, who appears to be a human female but is very strange, begin to investigate. They soon begin to discover evidence of a vast and dangerous conspiracy which appears to threaten the entire galaxy - but is it the same as the one the Spiders warned about? And does Frank have a conflict of interest?
Frank and Bayta are soon enmeshed in a complex web of intrigue in which nobody and nothing, including Frank and Bayta themselves, is quite what they seem.
I had a little difficulty suspending disbelief in one or two of the ideas in this book - for example, how a railway network between the stars could be flexible enough to cope with the fact that stars move,and that the transfer stations would either have to orbit those stars or tend to fall into them. Once I'd got past that point and into the story I found it an entertaining and interesting read.
Most of the other plot ideas are not as original as the idea of an intragalactic railway, although they way they are put together is unusual. I didn't feel the charactisation was as good as this author usually manages.
Overall "Night Train to Rigel" is not up to the same level of brilliance as the best of Zahn's recent work such as "Warhorse", "Deadman Switch", or "The Icarus Hunt." However, I thought it had a lot more going for it than some of the strongly negative reviews here make out, and I did enjoy reading it.
UPDATE OCTOBER 2008
"Night Train To Rigel" has been followed by a number of sequels and there are now four published or expected books in the "Quadrail" series, which are:
1) "Night Train to Rigel"
2) "The Third Lynx"
3) "Odd Girl Out" and
4) "The Domino Murders."
There are multiple direct references to Hitchcock films (both explicit and otherwise). Much of the novel also has a generic Film Noir detective/horror story feel to it. But it still has a lot of the MacLean signatures as well.
The plot is not quite as tight as The Icarus Hunt, and the initial misdirection is so big that it almost feels like two books grafted together once the real plot conflict is finally raised.
The classic Pullman train setup is a wonderful image (sleeper cars and third class baggage cars to the stars at one light year per minute on a railroad through tubes connecting solar systems). But in the end it eventually comes off as something of a gimmick, used to justify all the conventions of the genre (like having to travel along the top of the train in order to reach a runaway engine).
All in all, a good book if you know the background references that Zahn is playing with. As a pure standalone, though, I can understand the reviewers who thought the plot was overly complicated and overly driven by coincidences and deception. However, the same could also be said of many of the classic Hitchcock films which this book is trying to reference.
The main character is Frank Compton, an ex-government agent for a futuristic Earth. He receives instructions from a messenger (murdered just after he delivers his message) to claim a ticket to ride a transit system called the "Quadrail." This amazing transportation system can transport people to various star-systems in days, but nobody except its operators understands just how it works. Mr. Compton is soon asked to participate in a mission that could determine the fate of the galaxy and assigned a partner, the mysterious Bayta.
This book has its fair number of twists and some decent action as well. The problem was, I never really felt myself feeling interested in what did or didn't happen with the various characters, or even with the plot in general. Zahn just doesn't seem to concentrate on the right aspects here to really capture the interests of the reader. It's almost as if he's "phoning it in." Sure, I enjoy a nice, light read sometimes, but I do like to feel like I can actually take an interest in the affairs of the characters.
The Quadrail system is run by the Spiders, an arachnid-like species. The trains travel through tubes that connect to stations in other solar systems. The four-railed tracks are built around iridescent Corelines running down the center of each tube.
In this novel, Frank Compton is a former agent of Western Alliance Intelligence. He was fired for blowing the whistle on the Yandro scam. Several scapegoats in the UN were publicly terminated from their jobs over the scandal, but Comptom was also canned six months later.
Bayta is a mysterious woman who serves as Compton's guide and liaison with the Spiders. She communicates with the Spiders through a form of telepathy. Bayta obviously knows various secrets, but is more closed-mouthed than Compton himself.
Korak Fayr is a Belldic commando officer. He and his men have apparently gone renegade, picking their own missions. Compton has a few encounters with Fayr before learning his status among his superiors as a loose cannon.
In this story, Compton has found another job and makes the final arrangements with his new boss. Upon leaving the hotel, however, he finds a person waiting for him on the street. He says a few things to Compton and then falls over dead. The boy has multiple wounds that should have put him to sleep or killed him much sooner. Compton finds only two items on his person: a Quadrail ticket to Yandro in Compton's name and a cash stick.
Since Compton was thinking of leaving Earth in the next few days, he just accelerates his departure. He catches the next flight to the Quadrail station. Along the way, he notices a young woman following the same route.
Once he reaches the train, he finds his seat in the last passenger car. Actually, it has a single file of seats down the center with freight on both sides. It currently holds only six other passengers besides himself. As he starts reviewing his information sheets, Compton falls to sleep.
Upon awaking, Compton finds himself to be the only passenger in the car. Then Bayta introduces herself and informs him that he is on the way to a meeting arranged by the Spiders. At their destination, Compton is briefed on a situation that the Spiders would like him to investigate.
Compton is presented with an unlimited Quadrail pass, but is also forced to accept Bayta as his companion. Her ability to communicate with the Spiders convinces Compton to drop his objections. Then they are returned to their train. Compton is moved to a compartment next to Bayta's quarters.
Strange things begin to happen during their journey. First, two drunk Halkas (who are not really drunk) knock on his door. Then the same Halkas break into a lockbox, steal a knife, and attack Compton.
A Bellco drunk becomes friendly with Compton. Later the Bellco and his companions knock Compton unconscious and stuff him in a bundle of spices. Eventually Compton learns that the Bellco is Fayr.
This tale leads Compton from one confusing incident to another. He begins to realize that he is being used as a diversion. Compton becomes very angry with Bayta on several occasions, but decides to continue his role despite her withholding information from him. Apparently he has no need to know.
Despite his ignorance of the reason for their actions, Compton makes his own decisions. Bayta gets exasperated with him, but she follows his agenda. Eventually, Compton contributes more than the Spiders ever expected due to his Intelligence experience.
This story combines high tech with classic cinema scenarios. Several Hitchcock movies are mentioned within the tale. The next installment is The Third Lynx. Enjoy!
Highly recommended for Zahn fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales of innovative space transport, unexpected villains, and competent intelligence agents. Anyone who has not previously read books by this author might want to start with The Blackcollar, his first novel.
-Arthur W. Jordin
I want to say again that Timothy Zahn is a great author, my favorite author who is still writing. Some excellent, highly recommended books are: Manta's Gift, Conquerors' Pride (first book of a great trilogy) and Heir to the Empire (even if you are NOT a Star Wars fan, this is the first book in a series that stands on its own).
Zahn also has many great books that are out of print but available used, such as Spinneret, Warhorse, Deadman Switch, Triplet, and A Coming of Age. These are all excellent. Zahn truly has a unique imagination.