In my experience, you can count on Timothy Zahn for three things: clean, sparse prose; good pacing; and great action scenes. The first book in the Cobra War series hits all those marks in admirable style and makes for a quick, entertaining sci-fi novel.
In a far Earth future, a series of colony worlds are defended by Cobras, elite warriors with weapons and other enhancements surgically implanted. It has been years since the last big war with an alien race called the Troft (who, if I'm reading it right, are actually surly turkeys with space guns). In the intervening peace, humanity has lapsed back into a slightly demanding complacency. The Cobras spend most of their time these days hunting spine leopards, space beasties which seem to eat everything on the frontier but the rocks. The troops are also derided as an unnecessary government expense. Into this slightly tense atmosphere comes a mysterious note addressed to one of the most famous soldiers alive, Jasmine "Jin" Moreau.
Not that I've ever had this happen to me, mind you, but if and when I receive a note which begins "To the Demon Warrior," I don't think my first reaction will be to run off to another planet. Then again, I'm not a cybernetic super-soldier. When the unsigned missive slides across a table early in the story, it's clear there is huge meaning in that phrase, but as a newcomer to the series, the nature of that meaning wasn't immediately apparent. Alliance begins a new trilogy, but is actually the fourth Cobra novel. Zahn wrote the original set from '85 to '88, so I think my ignorance can be forgiven. With a twenty year lapse, a little more back-story would have been nice, but that's not really Zahn's style. His focus is the action at hand and moving the story forward, leaving the reader to pick up the scattered crumbs of exposition. In the context of the whole novel, it's relatively minor, but I do think it creates a slightly jarring effect in the early chapters which may be off-putting to some readers. After all, if J.K. Rowling can squeeze in a review after a year-long lapse, I don't think building a bit of a bridge across two decades would have killed anyone.
It would be easy to write this novel off as your average hard sci-fi romp, but another thing I've learned about Zahn is that he doesn't let his readers off so lightly. From the get-go, it's difficult to miss the book's contemporary allegory. We find ourselves in a future whose attitude about the military is mixed, and depending on who you ask on the colony worlds, the Cobras are either noble defenders of the frontier or outdated, technological money pits. Likewise, the world Jin Moreau and her soldier son travel to, Qasama, is a middle-east analogue awash in an all too familiar fundamentalism. The tensions which run between characters, so familiar in our own world, are rendered subtly and brilliantly. They never dominate the conversation, but are certainly there, like a low minor chord which alters the whole symphony. Zahn isn't selling a particular philosophy or making a political statement, but his inclusion of these themes is just strong enough to make the reader ask questions about our world, our attitudes.
And isn't that what good science fiction is supposed to do? The far off places and times are more than just escapist fabrications (although there's something to be said for that too). They are a means of providing perspective and distance which allow the reader to ponder the world in which he or she lives. While never so overt as, say, Ray Bradbury, Zahn has always been a great purveyor of such ruminations, finding ways to do so without sacrificing his explosions. Cobra Alliance is no exemption from this pattern, and it sets the stage for a great trilogy.