Conquerors’ Heritage, by Timothy Zahn (Bantam Spectra, 1995)
They say there are three sides to any conflict: yours, mine and the truth. In Conquerors’ Pride the Humans met the aliens they call the Conquerors, and interstellar war began.
Conquerors’ Heritage, the second novel in the trilogy, unfolds from the perspective of the aliens, who call themselves the Zhirrzh—and who refer to their new enemies as the “Human-Conquerors”.
It’s a fascinating look at a believable alien culture. The Zhirrzh are clan-based and tradition-bound, controlling 18 worlds to the Humans’ and allies’ much larger commonwealth.
Zhirrzh are bipedal, with two opposable thumbs per hand, beaks and poisonous tongues that can stiffen enough to slice an enemy’s throat. They also have tails which circle perpetually to disperse their body heat; the faster the spin, the hotter—or more upset—the individual.
One of the main viewpoint characters is Thrr-gilag, who’s been demoted for his handling of the Human prisoner, Pheylan Cavanagh, in book one. At least he’s still part of the team to contact a race claiming to be unwilling subjects of the Human-Conquerors’ rule. But the Elders’ reaction to his disgrace may bring the end of his bond-engagement to a young Zhirrzh scientist.
Meanwhile on one of the Zhirrzh beachhead worlds in Human-Conqueror space, his brother Thrr-mezaz commands the occupation force and tries to outmanoeuvre the Human-Conqueror commander. Thrr-mezaz is under pressure too after a decision that cost the group one of its Elders. He and Thrr-gilag hatch an outlandish scheme to make things right—unless they’re caught.
Then there’s Prr’t-zevisti, a Zhirrzh Elder. At first I wondered why the narrative kept returning to this peripheral individual who was accomplishing nothing, but it’s so the readers will know he’s in position when his moment of insight comes.
Discovering the truth about the war rocks his worldview. Should he tell the others? Could it make a difference? After so many deaths, they can’t simply call off the fighting.
Zhirrzh don’t often die as we know death, but live in a non-corporeal state when their bodies die. The presence of generations of observers, busybodies and advisors makes an interesting dimension of their society, giving tradition a weight greater than on earth.
One of the subplots in Conquerors’ Heritage is perhaps the Zhirrzh equivalent of euthanasia: should a citizen have the right to choose not to continue outside the physical body? The issue threatens the stability of the entire Zhirrzh culture and causes almost as much fear in government circles as the rumour of an unstoppable Human weapon: CIRCE.
Readers wondering how the Cavanagh family is dealing with the fallout from book one need to hold on for book three, Conquerors’ Legacy. Given the suspenseful ending to Conquerors’ Heritage, I strongly suggest picking up a copy of book three before finishing book two so you can keep reading.
Timothy Zahn’s current novels are the Cobra War series and Terminator Salvation: Trial by Fire. I’m excited to see a new Star Wars novel coming from him next year too. The Conquerors series is still available through online bookstores, as well as through used bookstores.