A collection of science-fiction and fantasy short stories from an author best known for his Star Wars expanded-universe novels.
Zahn offers a variety of tales originally published from 1981 to 2014 in magazines such as Analog and Amazing Stories, anthologies, and even a sci-fi convention program. In the titular “Pawn’s Gambit,” hostile aliens kidnap a human and force him to play a game in which the winner will return to his planet and the loser will die. In “The President’s Doll,” voodoo is real, and a doll with the power to kill the president has been stolen. Another features a blind woman who has the power to see through the eyes of other people. Many of Zahn’s stories feel out-of-date, with obsolete references to things like “Soviet nerve gas” or an entire story about a magical copy of the Yellow Pages. Beyond the stories’ set-dressing details, the concepts themselves are often regressive. The cast of characters is overwhelmingly male; even aliens with tentacles or described as “a tailless albino alligator” are still referred to as “he.” A few stories border on downright objectionable, such as “The Giftie Gie Us,” in which a male protagonist spends an uncomfortably long time deciding whether or not he’ll coerce a blind woman to have sex with him and spends a moment surmising that she’ll go, “if not willingly, at least passively.” However, the collection’s biggest flaw is its graceless prose. The stories here are full of clunky, infodump phrases (such as, “by now, nearly five years after the holocaust”). Even worse, many of them end just as their setups are beginning to show promise.
A grab bag of decidedly less-than-amazing stories.