Writing pop SWARS fiction has been good to Tim Zahn; not only has it given him college funds for his son, but it seems to have polished the talents that won him his first Hugo. Angelmass got overlooked in the Hugo derby last year, but I found it entertaining and enthralling.
Our hero is a fresh-out-of-grad school scientist manhandled into being a spy for Pax, the sort-of Federation that rules most of the Galaxy in this far future of Human colonies grown large and independent. Pax was once a peacekeeping group, but we learn very quickly that they are now becoming ruled by accountants, folks whose worship of profit borders on insanity.
Pax sends Jereko Kosta off with instructions to spy on the Empyreans, a five-world system of Humans who have an edge. They have found tiny beings, spewed from a nearby black hole they named Angelmass, that seem to turn anyone who wears one into an improved person, both more ethical and more reasonable. Pax neglected to mention that Kosta is really supposed to be a decoy, a sacrificial lamb, to distract the Empyreans from initial setup to support an eventual invasion fleet.
Kosta is the original innocent, a lousy spy but a solid researcher. He crosses paths with Chandris: young, pretty, sharp-witted, but from a poor and crooked background. Fate pushes them together, in spite of initial dislike, because they both get caught up in questions about what the angels really are, how they work, and what is actually happening out at Angelmass. All the plot elements, the Pax invasion fleet, the angels, an Empyrean Senator who doubts the angels, the researchers who study the angels, collide in a tense finale that changes many things in all their worlds.
Zahn has a number of well-developed characters (the starship captain is particularly well done, as are the other researchers at Angelmass Institute). He kept me turning pages, eager to see where this impressive max of speculative science and space opera was going, and he surprised me at the end. While his insights into Human nature are not exactly new deas, they are well observed.
Recommended by Ann Cecil .
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