Last review for 2016! Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker War
New Year’s Eve!
I’m staying in for the evening, both ’cause I’m an antisocial dork, and also because I didn’t feel like dealing with masses of stupidly-drunk folks. New Year’s is Amateur Night, dangit. But, in a treat for any other anti social nerds reading this blog instead of going out (or just perusing through it with a hangover on Sunday morning), have a book review!
Deathstalker Rebellion was one of the first books I reviewed for this blog, so it seemed appropriate to read the sequel, Deathstalker War at the end of the year. Don’t worry though, this won’t be the last book I review for this blog (barring Skynet activating with the ball NYE ball drop or something).
As one could expect from the title, Deathstalker War isn’t exactly what you’d call high literature. Or even high-class science fiction. The plot of the book (such as it is) centers around the a rebellion against a Ludicrously Evil Empire run by a Ludicrously Evil Empress. The whole book is pretty much one giant fight scene. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s four giant fight scenes, as each “chapter” is really its own independent novella. It’s an odd way to structure a book, to be honest– it makes me think if the Deathstalker series was serialized somewhere, but I’m fairly certain it was originally published as a series of novels.
Green never met a dial he didn’t want to turn to 11, and that gonzo tendency is really on display here. There are swordfights and laser guns and cyborgs and killer robots and psychics and pretty much anything else Green felt like throwing in. Except for the Space Vampires and Space Werewolves that showed up in the last book, as apparently they decided to sit the big fight out. As much as Green tries to make things into a grand and epic conflict, the designated heroes (folks with names like Owen Deathstalker, Psycho Jenny, Kid Death, and so on) are pretty much invincible. A lot of characters even wind up pulling new superpowers out of their butts to get them out of perilous situations– multiple times over the course of the book. It’s … pretty sloppy plotting, to be honest.
The book’s second chapter/novella (chaptervella?), “Innocence Lost,” is both the most interesting part of the book, and the most unnecessary to the further plot. In it, a couple of sword-wielding space heroes zip down to a planet that’s been quarantined for years, due to the unknown, terrible horror there. It’s one of those ‘the only person who made it back from that planet was driven to madness by what he saw’ planets. Green devotes a bunch of pages to talking up how dangerous the planet is, and how it’s a doomed mission, and so on. So finally, the adventuring party lands, and what do they find?
See, the planet was supposed to secretly be a resort planet full of life size robotic kids toys– like Westworld meets Sesame Street. But then, some killer robot AI’s infiltrated the resort planet and made all the toy robots sentient, with a definite “Kill all Humans” agenda. Nasty, sure, but hardly the kind of stuff to break someone’s mind, especially compared to a lot of the other brain-blasting horrors running around these books. I have to wonder what prompted Green to say “you know what the third volume of my crazy-ass space opera needs? Teddy bears who kill people.”
The funny thing is, Green actually has some interesting ideas buried in his ‘Toy Planet’ idea. For one, some of the toys resist their new programming, and thus fight against the ‘bad’ toys. There are even a few neutral toys as well, such as the superhero toys who are only interested in seeing who’s the strongest, or an “Adaptor” (read: non-copyright-infringing Transformer) who calls himself Anything, and longs to have a new robot body so he can change into whatever he wants, as opposed to the few modes he’s designed with.
Anyway, the Player Characters– er, sorry, protagonists, team up with the good toys, and set out to sail down a river into a dark forest to find the guy they’re looking for, a legendary “Red Man” who mysteriously controls toys both good and bad. It took me way too long to realize “holy crap, he’s really doing a Heart of Darkness riff, isn’t he?” And the thing that really came out of left field was the realization that the Kurtz analogue is Santa Claus. Or, well, a guy pretending to be Santa, but still. I did not expect things to become seasonal all of a sudden.
So yeah. Crazy stuff happening here– honestly, “Innocence Lost” would’ve worked better as its own standalone thing, because as gonzo and fun as it is … it absolutely doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the series. The Evil Empire and its Evil Empress are shown to be sadistic and cruel at every turn, to the point where I wondered how the hell it operated coherently in the first place. One of the most popular entertainments in the Deathstalker universe is gladiatorial combat (to the death, of course). It just doesn’t compute that the bloodthirsty empire would hold fluffy childhood stuff in such high regard. It’d be like if someone included Barney in a Dune novel. (Which, given the bad things I’ve heard about the Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson Dune prequels, might actually happen). It’s probably not a good sign when the setting of a Warhammer 40k novel makes more sense than that of your novel.
And the funny thing is? The whole mission doesn’t even influence the rest of the book. Apart from one of the characters manifesting new psychic powers when convenient, you could cut the entire section from the novel and not lose a thing.
In any case, Deathstalker War chugs along for a couple hundred pages after Santa shows up (and is immediately forgotten as the next chaptervella starts). There’s a bunch more swordfights, and at the very end there’s more ass-pulling as characters switch sides and reveal their secret plans and betray each other and yet remain polite enough for the various nemeses to pair off and duel each other one at a time.
So yeah. Deathstalker War isn’t a good book. This said, it’s still a fun book. I mean, if you’re in the mood for swordfights in space, the Deathstalker series is the way to go. If I’d somehow stumbled across these books when I was a kid, I’m sure they would’ve become my favorites and I’d have a whole bunch of nostalgia to go with them. Really though, they’d be even better pieces of gonzo space opera if Green had any sense of pacing or scale– by the time you reach the umpteenth bloody battle at the end of the book, it just becomes ‘standard,’ you know?
Funny thing is, there are six more Deathstalker books. Craaazy. I’m not really inspired to start tracking them down, but who knows what I’ll find next time I start digging around in the dollar bin?
Stay tuned, my dozens of readers! As I think I’m gonna hammer out the obligatory retrospective/resolution post tomorrow with the new year and all.