Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Deathstalker (Simon R. Green)

(The Deathstalker Saga, Book 1)
Simon R. Green
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Owen Deathstalker never wanted to be head of his Clan, once one of the most powerful in the vast interstellar human Empire. The inter-Family schemings, their dark perversions, the bloodlust only barely sated by the great Arena on Golgotha... none of it held any allure, and that was before his father was cut down in broad daylight by imperial forces. He bought himself a lordship on the most out-of-the-way agricultural world he could find, devoting himself to his history studies and his mistress. It seemed the best way to live a long life in the Empire.
It didn't work.
The increasingly-cruel, increasingly-paranoid Empress Lionstone XIV outlaws him seemingly on a whim. In a single moment, Owen loses everything: his title, his money, his so-called friends and allies... even his mistress, who informs him of the bounty on his head while attempting to kill him. Turning to the other Clans in the Empire would be worse than a mistake: they're too caught up in their own schemes and backstabbing and pretenses of loyalty to do anything but shoot the Deathstalker on sight. Aside from his trusty AI, Ozymandias, Owen is alone in the galaxy - but his late father left him plans, plans Owen now has no choice but to follow. Even if they take him to the Mistworld, lone bitter holdout of cutthroats and mercenaries and outlawed beings like clones, rebellious telepathic espers, and escaped genetic projects from the Empire's many laboratories.
Owen Deathstalker never meant to start a rebellion - especially not one with such inauspicious members as a failed clonelegger pirate, a washed-up legend, a half-machine Hadenman, and a bounty hunter who's as likely to shoot any one of them as their Imperial enemies - but it's his only choice if he wants to survive.

REVIEW: Clearly and admittedly inspired by Star Wars, this sweeping space opera starts quickly and maintains a high-octane pace through most of its length. The galaxy Green invents seems half-improvised, full of disruptor pistols and over-the-top courtly fashions and numerous disaffected races (many of unnatural origins) scrambling for survival, among other inventions - several of which start to feel like thinly-redressed tropes borrowed from other sci-fi franchises as the story goes on. This is a universe where interstellar hyperspace travel is commonplace, where the human genome can be unspooled and respun like so much silken thread, yet where the sword is still the favored weapon of the Families. It's the sort of leap of logic that requires a fair bit of belief suspension to accommodate. More often than not, it works... but Green overextends himself with so many different names and Families and secret identities and schemes, not to mention at least two distinct continuity hiccups. (And those were just the ones I caught - being a notoriously oblivious reader, I suspect there were others.) The narration also tends to rely on colloquial modern English, a little more strongly than simple "translation convention" (the agreement between author and reader, that allows for the story having been "translated" into English despite taking place in another time and world) can gloss over; Green's frequent use of "bloody", in the English curse-word context, in particular grew grating to this American reader who was trying to escape into a Far Fantastic Future. For that matter, there was a subtle sexist undertone that started wearing on me - though, given the George Lucas inspiration, I suppose that's to be expected. By the end, I was simply hanging on to finish the piece... and that ending felt decidedly inconclusive. Granted, this is simply the start of an eight-book series, but I'd hoped for a little more sense of a wrap-up, and the epilogue in particular felt forced. I enjoyed some of the spacefaring swashbuckling, and Green presents some nice images and ideas that wouldn't be out of place in the Star Wars galaxy far, far away, but overall I found there were just too many twists and conveniences to keep me hooked. (If I found Book 2 for free, though, I wouldn't rule out giving it a try. Parts of this one were really rather fun, despite its flaws.)

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