(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)
Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to Lugt, Schwestern! Die Weckerin lacht in den Grund from Richard Wagner's Das Reingold (Spotify, YouTube).
There is nothing comparable to starting the year reading a good book. Especially when it is an unexpected, surprising one. This has been the case for me with Pawn's Gambit and Other Stratagems, a collection of short fiction by Timothy Zahn. I picked it up without having read anything by the author before, knowing only that his was very well regarded for his novels in the Star Wars universe. And I am really, really glad that I decided to give this book a try.
The first thing that surprised me was the wide variety of topics and styles of the many stories of this collection. You will find pure science fiction, as in "The Price of Survival" or "Cascade Point", but also classic fantasy, as in "Clean Slate" or "Trollbridge"; there are humorous stories ("Music Hath Charms") and deadly serious ones ("The Final Report on the Lifeline Experiment"); tales about trolls, dogs, Wall Street brokers, voodoo dolls and magical telephone guides. In fact, one of the many pleasures of reading Pawn's Gambit and Other Stratagems is to start a new story and be surprised (again) by the imagination of Zahn.
I did like almost every story collected in the book, but there is a handful of them that I found to be truly excellent. "The Final Report on the Lifeline Experiment" is very lucid take on a highly polemic issue that the author manages to expose, explore and dissect in an unexpected way. A perfect example of the power of science fiction as a speculative tool to approach important topics of social and human interest. Highly recommended.
"Hitmen-See Murderers" and "The Ring" are another two of my favorite stories in the book. Both deal with the consequences in the life of normal, ordinary people when they find a magical object and try to use it to make a difference. Somehow, these two tales reminded me of one of my most admired authors, Tim Pratt, who has also approached this subject several times and in a similar fashion. Again, two must-read stories.
"Pawn's Gambit" is another highlight of the collection. Similar in topic to the classic "Arena" by Fredric Brown, but with some connections to "Laws of Survival", by Nancy Kress, and even to The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks, this is one of those science fiction stories which you can't literally put down until you know how it ends, something that also happens with "Protocol" and "Proof", both very original and thought-provoking stories.
The other tales included in the book are also very good. For instance, I had a lot of fun with the light "Music Hath Charms" and "President's Doll" and was surprised by the fresh take on classic fantasy topics of stories such as "Trollbridge" and "Clean Slate" and by the ambiguous but very intelligent ending of "The Price of Survival". Oddly enough, the only story that I was not entirely satisfied with was "Cascade Point", a Hugo Award-winning novella that strained too much my suspension of disbelief.
All in all, Pawn's Gambit and Other Stratagems is an excellent collection of short stories, with an amazing variety of themes and topics and some truly marvelous stories. I highly recommend this book to each and every fan of short fiction.