Deathstalker by Simon R. Green
Deathstalker is a re-read, but from back in the days before I started keeping track.
It is the distant future. Humanity is dispersed through the stars as part of a vast empire, ruled from planet Golgotha by (currently) the Empress Lionstone XIV. Life in the Empire isn’t easy for the poor and middle-classes, but they don’t have it the worst by far. Nonhuman species are either exterminated or enslaved, and ESPers (those with mental powers such as telepathy) and clones are enslaved outright (legally, neither are human). This is justified by pointing out that the only nonhumans so far encountered have been vicious monsters. Humanity is alone against the rest of the galaxy (or wherever), and must use whatever weapons and tactics it can. Even humanity’s own weapons have sometimes turned against it: the cyborg Hadenmen went all borg and tried to convert the rest of humanity to cyborgs; the Wampyr addict humans to their blood and become something like cult leaders; no one even talks about the Wolflings. The AIs broke away and moved to their own planet, Shub, from which they remain an enigmatic, high-tech threat. And then there are the ESPer and clone underground.
Lionstone keeps order by cunningly and viciously applying both the carrot and the stick; entertaining the masses with gladiatorial combats and threatening them with weapons and mysterious vanishings. With the nobles, she has the weapon of outlawry; everyone’s hand against them. No one lasts long. This fate awaits Owen Deathstalker, last of his line.
Owen is an odd choice for outlawry; a minor historian living quietly in his family fortress on a distant world, he makes no effort at politics after his father’s murder. But he is outlawed, and only escapes death with the help of his family AI and the organlegger Hazel D’Arc (Hazel didn’t set out to help Owen, but her ship was in his system when the battlecruiser sent to ensure his death arrived. On the plus side, her ship destroyed the battlecruiser; on the minus side, her ship was destroyed too. Teaming up with Owen gets her off the planet, and she certainly isn’t more wanted than she was before). The three of them flee to the rebel planet of Mistworld.
Captain Silence and Investigator (alien-fighter) Frost are in command of the Imperial ship sent to deal with Owen and their failure to do that combined with the loss of their ship should get them sentenced to death. But Lionstone has other tasks for them, some of which may get them killed anyway, and others of which may lead to them crossing paths with Owen and Hazel again.
The Masked Gladiator is the champion of the arena, his identity known only to a few: noble fop (and generally considered all around waste of skin) Finlay Campbell, wastrel son of a powerful noble family. He’s an adrenaline junkie who only comes alive when he’s fighting, or when he’s with his true love, Evangeline Schrek. Evangeline’s family is unaware of her dalliance with Finlay (and his knows nothing about it either); she in turn has a secret or two that even he doesn’t know.
On Mistworld Owen and Hazel hook up with old perennial rebel Jack Random, Hazel’s old friend Ruby Journey, and the Hadenman Tobias Moon (his powers mostly stripped from him by time’s draining of his batteries). From there, plans laid out long ago by Owen’s father lead them to seek out Owen’s ancestor, Giles, the first Deathstalker, in his original fastness on planet Shandrakor. He of course should be long dead, but has been in stasis ever since he fled the Empire, back in the day. He, in turn, leads them to the Madness Maze, which will change them all in ways they cannot anticipate (the last people to walk the Maze created the Hadenmen). But Silence and Frost are not far behind them, guided by a traitor in their midst . . .
Big, thick book with a massive cast that I’ve barely even touched on, and plotlines that seem to run all over the place. Not yet playing with the supernatural, Green here takes advantage of Clark’s law and makes it hard to see the difference, sometimes, between tech and magic, or between fallen angels and gods and men. Typical Green, in other words. Mildly recommended.
On The Razor’s Edge by Michael Flynn
You might remember Flynn as the author of the poet and tragic Wreck of the River Of Stars (here). With this series, he has taken on space opera. Since this is the 4th (and possibly last) book of its series, we’ll start with a brief and hopefully spoiler-free look at the setting and the first book (or, you can just accept that it’s highly recommended and go look for The January Dancer).
It is (again) the distant future. The known galaxy is divided between The United League of the Periphery (in the Pegasus Arm) and the Confederation of Central Worlds (in the Orion Arm). Strangely, the Confederation is more of an empire, while the United League is mostly only united in their desire to remain free of the Confederation. Fortunately, there’s an inter-arm rift between the two, and interstellar travel is accomplished by means of an interesting and even plausible method that, when you break it down to archetypes, is basically stargates, so they only need to guard the outcoming points (a fleet guarding a stargate that he judges to be the most likely site of an invasion from the Confederation plays a role in the first book). Of course, there are Confederation spies in the League: the Shadows of the Name, a combination of spies, counter-spies, and secret police. Their closest counterparts in the League are the Hounds of Ardry, based out of High Tara,
The Hounds are part secret service, part intelligence service, part law enforcement . . . kinda like the Mounties or the Texas Rangers, allowing for the fact that a lot of the territory they patrol doesn’t actually answer to High Tara at all. Basically, Hounds work alone for the most part, calling on a few other for support with big problems. If you ever see a large group of Hounds, you are either in their headquarters or at ground zero for a real big problem. Hounds also, by the way, take on a code-name in the form of a celtic-sounding name.
For the most part, the series focuses around the Hound Bridget ban, aka the Red Hound (for reasons relating to her appearance). When I say “focuses around“, I mean that Bridget ban is by no means the main character of the stories, but she is always near the centre of things.
In this case, there is a civil war going on among the Shadows of the Name, which concerns Bridget ban because the shadows have kidnapped one of their agents from the League, one Donovon, whose shattered mind hides an identity that might be very important to the rebels. Bridget ban knows Donovon, but she doesn’t like him much (or claims not to) and would be happy to leave him to his fate but her daughter, the Harper Mearana, has a different opinion and has gone after him, leaving Bridget ban no choice but to gather allies and head off into the Confederation. The story mostly follows Donovon and Mearana until the Hounds catch up with them and all three groups . . . well, that would be spoilerous.
This is nothing like the Wreck of the River Of Stars, but is still greatly imaginative, interesting, and lots of fun to read. I recommend the whole series highly, and am looking forward to what Flynn writes next.