August 2012

The first thing I noticed is that this book is typeset rather differently. The earlier ones had a somewhat distinctive look. This one is uchmore densely set and is thus a lot more words since it also comes in at a few more pages. Too many plot threads to tie up in the same number of words as the earlier ones, I think. This really works as a finale to a series. All the major plot points, personal and societal, come together in a nicely converging pattern and Compton’s ingenuity, diplomacy and fighting skills are all given a work-out here. There’s a mix of action on the trains, the train stations, another space station and a planet. Ancient tech, ancient crimes, revelations of past and present duplicity by individuals and races all come together in a satisying action-packed denouement.

My only problem is that one of the mysteries of “Trains in Space” was never solved. Sure, in the first book the explanation is given that it’s not the trains, tracks or tube that are the secret, but the coreline. However, this doesn’t really explain how the tube that encloses the coreline can be built over such huge distances (halfway across the galaxy). A bit of hand-waving is given where an apparent speed of 100 kmh compared to the tube translates to 1 light-year per hour “external” (relativity, schmelativity) speed (and no worrying about causality problems). But there’s no mention of any contraction of space occuring and a tube big enough to take sixteen train lines across tens of thousands of lightywars would need the mass of multiple star systems to complete. Still, this is Space Opera, not hard SF and so one just has to accept the background without delving too deeply and enjoy the story.


The fourth of five books in the Quadrail series. Frank Compton and hybrid sidekick Bayta are off across the galaxy to the Filiaelian part of space. I mentioned in my review of Odd Girl Out that the Compton versus Modhri in a battle on the train motif was looking a little tired. Zahn realised this and the Domino Pattern is a classic murder mystery on a train, Orient Express style, though not stealing any significant plot points except the issue of murder in an isolated conveyance. The ongoing plotline of the series stays initially in the background of this book, while the denouement nicely links back to events in the first book. The plot hangs together well and in addition to the twists and turns in the murder mystery of this book, there’s a couple of interesting developments in the ongoing series that sets up the finale to come.

The third installment of the “Trains in Space” sequence see Frank once again confronted by a murder (almost) on his doorstep. Barely has he got home from the last adventure but he finds a beautiful woman waiting in his house – having broken in. Having ejected her he’s then called to her murder scene, since she stole his gun which puts him under suspicion. There follows the usual routine o on-planet and on-train shenanigens between Frank and his arch-enemy the Modhri. Once again there’s plenty of action and a few twists in the tail. it is, however, getting harder for Zahn to retain the tension of the onboard adventures. The limiting factor of the trains was an interesting one in an SF setting to start with but it’s now getting quite restrictive for this action-adventure series. Still good, but there it’s getting harder to sustain, I think.

Japanese has a lot of homophones. This is at least partly due to their importing of Chinese characters and their pronunciation. Japanese has a much more limited set of phonemes than Chinese and so symbols which have different sounds in Chinese get imported into the same sound in Japanese. These collisions or near collisions make Japanese a great language for puns, as are Chinese and English for both related and different reasons. My flashcard system Anki is set to give me 15 new cards a day from (currently) the JLPT 1 set of vocabulary, which some kind other user have entered (I alter them to my needs and preferences as they come up). Today, the word 幹部 pronounced “kanbu” meaning executive, senior manager or officer came up. I often double-check words for extra meanings (and particularly for use as adjectives – many Japanese nouns can be used as adjectives with the particle な or the adjectival phrase 的な added). The electronic dictionary I use does lookup by phonetic entry (using roman letters though it has a kana entry option as well, though most Japanese people seem to use the roman letters, too). The first entry for “kanbu” is not the word I was looking for, but the homophone 患部 meaning “diseased part”. Great fun for puns, methinks.

Apologies if the Japanese characters don’t get transferred to LJ properly.

The sequel to Night Train to Rigel continues the adventures of Frank Compton, the interstellar Quadrail system and his sworn enemy the Modhri group mind. In this installment, further machinations by the progenitures (OK, the Shonkla-raa they’re caled in this universe) are revealed and despite the “Third Man” reference in the title, this is a bit more of a Maltese Falcon than anything else. A bit of breaking and entering, a 1%er getting beaten to death on a train (we pretty much know who from the start, so this is a “whydunnit” rather than a “who dunnit”). Enough plot twists to create the Monaco Grand Prix circuit, with a few bits of paranoia thrown in. If you like the first, it’s definitely worth keeping on with these.

I’m not caught up yet with reviews, but this one is fairly easy to do since, in the best “Blue Peter” tradition, “Here’s one I prepared earlier”. I first read and reviewed this book when it came out and re-reading the review, my views didn’t change on a second reading. It’s still tightly plotted, with a great background, nice characters who get rounded out. Plus, “Trains in Spaaaaaace!”

Original Vector Review:

Night Train to Rigel is, as the name suggests, something of a homage to the hard boiled detective novel. Unlike many such pastiches, however, this one involves a real Space Opera background to go with the cliches of the beautiful woman, the convoluted plot twists and the gun play.

We start with the almost-obligatory corpse. Not only is this in complete keeping with the hard boiled genre, but it provides the staple start to the story with the hero knowing a lot less than everyone supposes (allowing the author to keep us as well as the main character in the dark) while providing the other characters with a certain amount of suspicion and distrust. Frank Compton is an engaging principal character whose own present agenda is kept nicely hidden from the reader while his background and character are revealed in just enough detail to flesh him out. His James Bond antics are believable given the sacked government agent background, and his connections at the highest level of this multi-lifeform society provides enough clues and red herrings to keep the reader guessing about the main plot until the end.

In fact, the whole book is a nicely judged balance of detail and broad brush, explanation, obfuscation and revelation. Building not just a single new world but a number of them, complete with fast than light transit system between them, would be enough for several books this long for many authors but Zahn presents a mostly convincing past, present and potentially holocaust-riven future in a mere 350 pages while bringing the plot along at a fair clip. In scenes reminiscent not just of books from the forties but a whole sub-genre of movies, too, a substantial chunk of the action takes place aboard a nicely imagined interstellar train service, allowing for the usual sense of isolation yet urgency this provides.  In a nod to his own inspirations, even, the principle character realises the parallels between his own situation and classics such as The Lady Vanishes.

The final expose of the plot is a satisfying explanation of the underlying mysteries of everyone involved, while the bad guys are given both justification and a measure of pathos to round things out, while the good guys have their own moral dilemmas and secretes, so neither side are cardboard cut-outs.

We may see Frank Compton back on the interstellar rails again at some point in the future, gumshoeing his way around the galaxy, but then again after saving not one but several space-going civilisations, how could he top this? Given the skill with which Zahn presents a whole new world in one reasonable length volume, he could go on to a whole new setup each time.

Definitely worth catching if you like any or all of rip-roaring space opera adventure stories, hard boiled SF or futuristic train travel.