Deathstalker is the first book in a 9 (yup, nine. Count ‘em if you like.) book series. A cosmos-spanning Space Opera, matching Star Wars for inter-galactic murder, intrigue, and general mayhem (politics, in other words) and far surpassing it for cleverness and humour. Deathstalker is probably the most entertaining of the Manichean sci-fi, and in many ways the most refreshingly original. It does get a bit repetitive the further in you go, though. Especially after about part IV. Since I don’t intend to review every single book in the series, it’ll try and hit the highlights here. It’s going to make this review fairly long, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Deathstalker is a fairly typical – especially when judged by today’s standards – epic fantasy set in a sci-fi environment, meaning that the science and tech is way ahead of any possibilities on Earth today. Whether it’s the same universe as ours though, is difficult to say. The possibility is never explicitly rejected, (indeed Earth steel is referred to) but never quite confirmed either. Still, it is good Space Opera. To elucidate, Space Opera is a genre of fantasy and sci-fi writing that became popular in the 1950′s. While originally a pejorative term, it is now used to denote a particular type of science fiction adventure story. It’s a sub-genre of speculative fiction that tends to employ flamboyant, romantic, and at times megalomaniac narrative, set almost entirely in outer-space. It can also be added here (courtesy the Wikipedia article) that like soap opera, it has nothing to do with actual opera. I’m not so sure about that; it’s correct as far as it goes but I think there’s more to it than that. Check out the site and its source material for more details if you’re really curious, and would like to make up your own mind.
Anyway, Green himself has acknowledged the debt he owes to other writers in the genre, like Leigh Brackett, Roger Zelazny, Robert Howard, Michael Moorcock etc.
The Deathstalker saga can be divided into two main episodes, each with an eponymous but different Deathstalker as its main protagonist. This book kicks off the series (although there is a set of novellas that chronologically precede this) by introducing us to Owen Deathstalker, head of clan Deathstalker and Lord of the planet Virimonde, being at the time a minor lord and amateur historian, and generally living the life of an obscenely wealthy aristocrat. The Empire in which he lives and is a lord in, however, is a corrupt, decaying edifice, ruled by a psychopathic and utterly ruthless Empress, Lionstone XIV. Green has a thing for psychopathic women, it seems. When suddenly outlawed for no good reason, Owen finds himself on the run and trapped on his own planet. On the verge of a sudden and messy death, he’s spectacularly rescued by Hazel D’ark, a clone-legging (same as bootlegging, with a slightly different source of raw material) mercenary pirate, who for reasons of her own, ends up being marooned on the planet Virimonde.
He’d been on the run from his own security guards, badly wounded, fleeing desperately in a damaged flyer. They’d shot him down only a few miles from his Standing. He’d staggered away from the burning wreckage, bleeding profusely, and set his back against a nearby tree, to hold him up while he made his last stand. And then Hazel had appeared out of nowhere to save him from his enemies, cutting them down like a glorious if somewhat shop-soiled valkyrie, and together they’d fled Virimonde.
The quote above is actually from Deathstalker Honor, the fourth book in the series, and set at the time when Owen and Hazel return to Virimonde in pursuit of arch-villain Valentine Wolfe. Imagine Marilyn Manson as high as Keith Richards/Moon and with the ability to carry out any and all atrocities (with a great deal of style) and you have a more-or-less clear picture. Valentine is probably my favorite character in the series, and is certainly the villain with the most savior-faire and the best lines. Valentine Wolfe is a degenerate. He’s never found a taboo he wouldn’t break or a drug he wouldn’t try at least once. A subtle plotter, he delights in playing all sides. Notably, he has dabbled in the rebel underground, made deals with the rogue AIs of Shub (the official enemies of humanity), built war machines and star drives for the Empire, and masterminded hostile (aggressive negotiation as its called in Star Wars) takeovers of opposing Clans, all the while altering his body chemistry far beyond human norms.
In the author’s own words:
Dressed as always all in black, his pale white face surrounded by long dark ringlets of oiled and scented hair, his mouth a scarlet slash, and his eyes heavy with mascara, he looked the very picture of the utter villain he strove to be. And the drugs, the glorious drugs, ran riot in his system as they always had. It had been truly said of Valentine that he’d never met a chemical he didn’t like, and if you could smoke it, swallow it, inject it, or stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, Valentine was right there at the front of the line, ready to give it a try. He saw his chemically enhanced mind as an ongoing work of art, and was constantly striving to perfect it. The ultimate high was still out there somewhere, and Valentine pursued it tirelessly.
Also taken from Deathstalker Honor, which I happen to be conveniently reading right now.
I’ve waxed eloquent about Valentine in the hope that it’ll interest you enough to make you want to read the series. There are other great characters: Jenny Psycho, the esper heroine, for one. Finlay Campbell, for another, a fop and dandy to most but is actually the Masked Gladiator, the only undefeated fighter in the Arena. And his clone girlfriend, Evangeline Shreck and his estranged wife Adrienne. Then there’s Julian Skye the esper, the news team of Toby Shreck and Flynn. Oh, and other villains like Dram the Widowmaker, Half-A-Man, BB Chojiro, the AI’s of Shub…but I digress. There’s a lot of Deathstalker universe to be explained first.
So back to the story of the first book: Deathstalker.
With no one to trust but each other, Owen and Hazel enter into an initially reluctant partnership that will naturally strengthen and blossom into love, which is the first step towards a cascade of events that will eventually topple an empire and so much more besides. But that’s a lot later. So, as an outlaw on the run, Owen discovers what life is really like for the majority of the Empire’s imperial subjects, and even worse, what it’s like by those the Empire doesn’t consider human like espers, or clones. Appalled by the poverty and deprivation he encounters he swears an oath, on his blood and honor, not to rest but keep resisting until Lionstone’s (the evil empress, for those of you keeping up) evil empire is overthrown. Espers by the way, are human beings with paranormal abilities – telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, and other Westlife song-title endowments. In Lionstone’s Empire, espers (and clones) aren’t human, they’re property to be used and abused at will. Oh, incidentally, here’s a bit of sci-fi trivia: Alfred Best is credited with coining the term esper in his 1951 novel The Demolished Man.
Anyhoo, back to the story. Fleeing from Virimonde, Owen and Hazel go to the only place in the Empire where they can be reasonably sure they won’t be clapped in irons and shipped back to Lionstone for the bounty on their heads. Well, not right away, at least. The only rebel planet left in the entire Empire, the esper controlled and protected planet Mistworld, where all the dregs of humanity (and quite a few other species and races) flee to when there’s nowhere else to go. That’s Mistworld for you; where crime is an art-form, swindling a taken-for-granted activity, and general mayhem and intrigue part of everyday life. And that’s just a typical day. It is on Mistworld that Owen Deathstalker acknowledges, if not entirely embraces, his destiny to be the one who brings down an empire. History unfolds here too, as other important characters join the fledgling rebellion. There’s Jack Random, hero of the rebellion and a legend in his own right, the leader of countless (and mostly unsuccessful) attempts at liberating planets from Lionstone’s empire. Ruby Journey, the ruthless psychopathic female (there’s one in every single Simon R. Green series: Ruby, Roxanne, Suzie Shooter…the list goes on) bounty hunter. Tobias Moon, the genetically altered Hadenman. As you might have guessed, this becomes the group that forms around Owen, and once they get their Maze powers, on their choices and actions will an empire stand or fall. More on the Maze later.
So, after Empire forces catch up with them on Mistworld, Owen and his new gang decide to go to Shandrakor, the planet of monsters. Also the last known resting place of the very first Deathstalker, Giles, the founder of the clan and Owen’s ultimate ancestor.
After waking Giles and getting him to join team Owen, events on Shandrakor eventually take them on to the world of Haden, hotly pursued by Empire forces led by Captain Silence and Investigator Frost, the enforcing right-hand of the Empress. Haden is the standard mystery world, wherein lie all the answere and/or remidies for resolving the human condition. Here, the most important device in the series appears. The Madness Maze.
Like all good fantasy novels, there’s a magical, almost holy object that bestows remarkable powers. But you have to go through the ‘arduous quest’ in order to attain them. So, everyone transcends through the Madness Maze, and gain incredible powers, essentially to change reality by force of will. Which is a damn good thing since whenever any of our heroes run into trouble later (being the kind of rebels they are, they run into a fair amount) their Maze powers always come to the rescue. Somewhat annoyingly, after a time. Like the gift of Boost, the genetic heritage of clan Deathstalker that makes you stronger and faster than your opponent will ever be. Owen keeps relying on it, overly so.
Certainly by the tie you reach Deathstalker Honor or Deathstalker Destiny you’re thinking to yourself, yup, here it comes, same old find bad guy-chase him-lots of ridiculously outnumbered fighting, and then…Maze Powers save the day! Dire situation saved from the precipice of defeat! It gets a bit prosaically banausic after a while, despite the expanding on the theme of power addiction , as dangerous and more potent than any drug. This is developed more fully in the later books. For all their courage and bravery (and there’s a lot of that) our heroes also have their flaws. It’s part of what makes Deathstalker more real to read than say, Lord of the Rings, or Raymond E Feist’s Magician series.
When it came out, Deathstalker received somewhat mixed reviews. Some call it space opera-schlock, but also admit that it works wonderfully well. Others were much more critical, condemning it for logical inconsistencies (true) repetitive redundancy (very true, as I’ve tried to make clear myself), and cardboard characters (perhaps a bit harsh). John Berylne called it “fast food sci-fi”, catering to the lowest common denominator by throwing in too much edge-of-your-seat thrills at the expense of actual craft or plotting.
Still, it’s great in the first three books, which are totally worth reading. I highly recommend you get to at least Deathstalker War, which is part III. That resolves a lot of major plot-lines – fall of empire, requited love – and answers a lot of the big questions. It of course also sets up the rest of the series quite nicely, despite having a (relatively) happy ending.
Of course, to know the real story behind the aliens, the AI’s of Shub, the Mater Mundi and much much else you’ll have to go through the lot. You could do a lot worse. It’s only nine books and half a million words or so.
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org