The Domino Pattern by Timothy Zahn

Frank Compton used to be an agent for the security forces of Earth, but that was a piece of cake compared to what he’s had to deal with working for the aliens who run the Quadrail, an interstellar transportation system connecting a dozen civilizations across the galaxy.

He’s been trying to end the domination of an alien lifeform called the Modhri. This enormously powerful creature wants to rule the galaxy by controlling the thoughts of all its citizens. It does so by having parts of itself “infect” others on contact, and act as agents for it without them being aware they’re being manipulated. When Frank and his assistant Bayta journey to investigate a connection between the Modhri and the Filiaelians, they come up against a conspiracy on the Quadrail.

Passengers are being murdered…but something besides murder haunts the Quadrail. A plot is brewing that even the Modhri fears. And once again, Frank and Bayta may be the only ones who can stop it.

the-domino-patternThe Domino Pattern is one of those books I saw when browsing Tor’s website and it took my fancy – I’ve read a couple Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy books and loved his style and wanted to check out some original fiction by him. What I didn’t realise at the time is that The Domino Pattern is the fourth book in an ongoing series, but luckily enough this was a very focused story that managed to get a newbie to the series interested enough to read on, regardless. So, after jumping on mid-series, what did I think? Read on for more…

The first thing that struck me about The Domino Pattern is that it’s set entirely aboard on of the Quadrails trains, a system of ftl travel that spans the galaxy. The route taken here is longer than usual as it crosses the entire galaxy, taking up to six weeks, which gives Zahn plenty of time to establish a story and has the confines of the setting to work with. The Quadrail system is run by the Spiders, a race that controls it entirely and they have systems in place to stop any weapons being carried aboard to carry out illegal acts. But when travellers start dying Compton and Bayta are on the case, digging deeper to uncover just what is going on.

The Domino Pattern reminds me very much of Murder on the Orient Express, but instead of Poirot we have Frank Compton, a former agent for Earth’s security forces with all the skills needed to tackle the mysterious deaths. With the victims all part of the same party it does lead to some interesting aspects when Compton investigates the relationships between them. But of course, nothing is that simple and one discovery leads to another.

The characters are all well portrayed and enjoyable to read, with even the alien ones working well and showing that despite despite being set on a confined train, the wider galaxy has plenty going for it, but also some serious issues. Compton is likable as the main character, his partner Bayta complementing him nicely, and the supporting characters doing a good job. Zahn can certainly tell a good story with a whole host of humans and aliens at its centre.

As I mentioned earlier, I jumped on this series without reading the first three books, but it hardly matters – the information needed for the story to be successful is present here in buckets, while some little bits and bobs are mentioned early enough and well enough that the surprises due later in the novel are still surprising, but also have a good amount of gravity behind them for someone who hasn’t read the previous books. I got the feeling that the times this information was raised it wouldn’t be to the detriment of more experienced readers of this series, but simply as a gentle reminder that they are important facts and not to forget them.

The whole novel was enjoyable, from the investigative aspects to the wider picture, and Zahn did a great job of delivering a thrilling story. I did have one gripe about The Domino Pattern though – the investigation (which took up the majority of the novel) went on a little too long for my liking and felt drawn out with little happening at times. The ending (the last 60 or so pages) remedied all this though as it put the story into fast forward, delivering action and information in the right amounts and ending with a bang.

I’ll be checking out the rest of this series to find out more about the history and will very much look forward to where it goes from here.

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