Saturday, December 15, 2012

"Deathstalker" by Simon R. Green

The Iron Bitch - her Imperial Majesty Lionstone XIV - ruled the human Empire with fear. From peasants to masters of the galaxy's most powerful families, all were subject to the queen's unpredictable decrees of "outlawing" and death.

Owen Deathstalker, unwilling head of his clan, sought to avoid the perils of the Empire's warring factions but unexpectedly found a price on his head. He fled to Mistworld, where he began to build an unlikely force to topple the throne - a broken hero, an outlawed Hadenman, a thief, and a bounty hunter. With their help, the Deathstalker took the first step on a far more dangerous journey to claim the role for which he'd been destined since before his birth...

With breakneck action against a backdrop as wide as the universe, this stunningly told tale is Simon R. Green's most extraordinary novel yet.

A long fan of Green's, I first thought about reading the Deathstalker series while working my way through one of his Secret Histories entries (Eddie Drood enlists the help of a Deathstalker, though for the life of me I can't remember which one). The idea sat on a back burner of my reading brain until I found a copy on Amazon for a penny + shipping. Well, why not, I thought? If it's good, great. If it's horrible, not a huge investment, and I could always donate it to the library.

This is a much different sort of work than what I'm used to with Green. Instantly I noticed that this is in third-person narrative, meaning I might get the chance to see a lot more than usual. (Both the Nightside and Secret Histories series are told from a first-person perspective). "A lot more" is putting it mildly. This book has everything - heroes, villains, beautiful women, space travel, an "Imperial Force" which brings up all sorts of thoughts of huge armies and certain space opera movies, cyborgs, regeneration machines, stasis fields, etc. There's even an arena (called appropriately enough, The Arena) where gladiators of sorts fight against each other to the death, just as in Roman times. At over 500 pages in mass market paperback, this thing is truly epic. And of course, now that I'm finished with it, I find myself wanting to continue with the next book in the series - and keep reading until I'm done with the Deathstalker Saga. Hopefully that will happen before the next millennium.

Anyway, back to Owen and his tale of woe. As the story opens, Owen is about to make love yet again to his girlfriend, only to be attacked by her as she tells him he's been outlawed - wanted dead or alive. Owen kills her and begins his life on the run, something he's not very good at, as he's forsaken the usual Empire intrigues for a life as a historian. Rescued by smuggler Hazel D'ark, he continues running for his life, picking up Hazel's friend and bounty hunter Ruby, tracking down the legendary rebel Jack Random, and bringing his ancestor, the original Deathstalker, out of stasis. There's Oz, Owen's lifelong AI friend and protector, who saves his galactic rear end more than once. And there's Tobias Moon, an augmented man aka Hadenman, who leads them to the Darkvoid, hoping to awaken his fellow Hadenmen from their arctic slumber.

While reading of Owen's adventures, the reader is also introduced to several of the clans or Families of the Empire: the Campbells, the Wolfes, the Schreks. The Empress herself and her high court are also introduced, and yes, the similarities between this court and those of Europe back in the day will not be lost on anyone. There are court intrigues galore, as well as costumes that sound like they wouldn't have been out of place in those same European courts. And while I appreciated being able to see all the characters and get all the background, it's a lot to take in, and sometimes a bit distracting. At first, that is.

Green's masterpiece with such a huge cast and what appears to be a sprawling plot is this: as you're reading and reading and reading, you start to see the small, almost infinitesimal, connections. Then those connections become threads, and those become wires, and suddenly - it all makes sense. It takes talent to bring these seemingly separate stories together in a way that doesn't feel like they've just been mashed together. And while I love Green's first-person, snarky narratives, this book is just as good if not better. It's definitely on the more serious side, as befits a tale as epic as this one. There are still a few moments of comic relief, but overall, Green plays it serious here.

I highly recommend this for science fiction fans, and fantasy buffs would probably enjoy it, too. I look forward to the next installment of the series, which I so desperately want to read right now. But I think I'm going to give myself a break and read some shorter, lighter works over the holidays. 'Til we meet again, Deathstalker.

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