I'm going to start with one from the actual queue though: Timothy Zahn's Cobra Trilogy. I've been listing it as one book, but it's technically an omnibus edition of Zahn's first three Cobra novels, and I'll review each separately below. As a side note, Zahn is currently in the process of writing another trilogy set in the same universe (the second novel was published this year, with a third tentatively planned for January 2012) and plans a third trilogy at some point in the unspecified future.
- Cobra by Timothy Zahn - Though this is not Zahn's first novel, it is among his first, and it shows. It is certainly not bad and you can see flashes of what he would grow into, but it is quite unusual. The pace of the novel, in particular, is rather strange. It starts off in rather standard military SF fashion, with a youth signing up for a war against an invading alien race. Of course, young Jonny Moreau gets assigned to a new, elite force of guerilla super-soldiers, packed to the gills with concealed weaponry. You get the standard training section, then you're off to war. But the war lasts approximately one chapter, and we're back in civilian life, but Jonny's powers (which cannot be removed) are causing problems. He's having trouble fitting back into civilian life, an interesting perspective, to be sure, though something that's been covered a lot, even in military SF. But then, even that section of the novel doesn't last, and Jonny is sent off on other adventures. The conflicts that arise are reasonably well done, but the solutions often leave a poor taste in your mouth... but then, that seems to be the point of a lot of it. This is an interesting approach, but Zahn hadn't quite reached the height of his storytelling powers just yet, so it reads a bit stilted. I think if Zahn had attempted something similar later in his career, it may have been a bigger success. It's a fine read, but nothing particularly special, except insofar as it gets you to the later books in the series.
- Cobra Strike by Timothy Zahn - This book picks up about 20 years after the first, and follows the next generation of Moreaus (though Jonny also plays a big supporting role) as they attempt to cope with living in an isolated trio of worlds. A new threat appears, and the Cobras are sent to investigate. I won't go into too much detail here, as this book is a little more cohesive, telling one story from start to finish. I'm not entirely convinced about the conflict or the ultimate solution, but it's definitely an easier read, and you definitely see more commonality with Zahn's later works. A worthy sequel and indeed, an improvement on the original.
- Cobra Bargain by Timothy Zahn - The last book in the series, and probably the book that most resembles Zahn's later success. It's not quite as accomplished as his later work, but it's up there, and it's the one book in the series that really had me turning the pages. This one jumps us forward another 20 years. Jonny has passed away, but his sons have established themselves in planetary politics and the third generation of Moreaus are becoming Cobras. This time around, we follow Jasmine "Jin" Moreau, the first female Cobra, and one of the more engaging protagonists in the series. Of course, things never go as planned and Jin is quickly caught alone in enemy territory. Things have changed there over the last 20 years, but it's still a dangerous place, and she finds herself in an uneasy alliance with certain members of the enemy. Quite entertaining, and the pages turned themselves more in this final novel than in either of the previous two. Indeed, I read the last 150-200 pages in one sitting. Is it worth reading the first two novels to get to this point? Maybe for fans of Zahn, but it's certainly not something I'd recommend folks start with. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't count it as one of my favorites, even amongst Zahn's other work.
- Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold - This book picks up right after the end of Shards of Honor, with Cordelia Naismith marrying Lord Aral Vorkosigan. And as it turns out, Aral has taken up a rather important position in the Barrayaran government - one that involves lots of behind-the-scenes politics and intrigue, betrayals and conspiracies. The book starts out a bit on the slow side, establishing all the players in the coming civil war. Things come to a head in the second act, and our protagonists take the initiative in the final act. The mixture of high technology with old-school Machiavellian duplicity is an intriguing one, and Bujold masterfully weaves a web of cunning and deception throughout the plot. Cordelia is a wonderful protagonist, and her outsider's perspective provides the perfect lens through which the readers can get a look at Barrayar and it's odd mish-mash of traditions and ceremony. Near as I can tell, this is the last book in which Cordelia is the main character, and if you're interested in reading these, I recommend starting with the omnibus edition, called Cordelia's Honor (which contains Shards of Honor and Barrayar). Highly recommended.
- The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold - With this novel, Bujold shifts the protagonist from Cordelia to her son, Miles Vorkosigan. Without getting into too much detail about the previous books, Miles was born with various physical impairments - in particular, his bones don't develop normally. So physically, he's somewhat frail (and very diminutive), but he more than makes up for that with his mental acuity and cunning. This book starts with Miles' failure to gain entrance into the Barrayaran military academy (he couldn't pass the obstacle course without breaking his leg), after which he must find something to do with himself. The rest of the novel plays out like an old "Adventure on the High Seas" type of story (but in space!) Indeed, Bujold has mentioned that her series is modeled after the Horatio Hornblower novels, which partially explains the mixture of past and future present in the books. Miles makes for a great protagonist, and I love the way his predicament escalates so quickly... and how he somehow manages to hold things together. I read most of this book on my way to (and returning from) Las Vegas, and very much enjoyed it. I was a little hesitant at first, and at first I was a little worried that Bujold was taking too obvious a path, but she manages several twists on the formula later in the novel that really turned things around for me. Indeed, the novel ends very much on a political bent along the lines of Barrayar. Very entertaining novel, and I can see why this is a popular starting place for the series (apparently most of the novels in the series are about Miles). I'm very much looking forward to exploring more of this series (and I have about 10 new books on my shelf now).