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Death's Head by David Gunn

01/10/2008. Contributed by RJ Barker

Buy Death's Head in the USA - or Buy Death's Head in the UK

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pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. 345 page hardback. Price: $24.95 (US), $32.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-49827-4). Death’s Head pub: Transworld Publishers/Bantam Books. 544 page mass market paperback. Price: £6.99 ISBN: 978-0-553-81871-0.

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Sven Tveskoeg is an ill-mannered, ill-natured, insubordinate grunt who should by all the rules be put to death. Instead, something about him has drawn the attention of Emperor Octo V who inducts Tveskoeg into his elite 'Deaths Head' gives him an intelligent Sig Diabolo gun, an illegal Kyp symbiote and sends him off fight against the Uplifted, cyborg intelligences. Sven knows he's being used as a pawn and that pawns are always expendable but has no intention of being expended. As Tveskoeg fights his battles, the god-like United Free Watch, possibly meddle and wonder if they could put this violent man to their own uses.

This is a taunt piece of noir writing. The prose is stripped back, brimming with machismo and the pace never lets up. This is first person writing as it should be. We're embedded deep in the head of Sven Tveskoeg experiencing the universe with him. It's a style I know some people find infuriating but I've always found it one of the most exciting and breathless to read.

When it's done well.

David Gunn does it well. The unfamiliar landscape of Tveskoeg's mind is jarring at first but fantastically enjoyable once it clicks in.

If you read and liked 'Altered Carbon' by Richard Morgan but thought Takeshi Kovacs just wasn't quite violent and misogynistic enough then you're going to adore 'Death's Head'. It's an absolute riot of 'Boys Own' machismo from start to finish. It doesn't so much beg to be read as hold you by the back of the neck, put a gun to your temple and threaten to blow your brains out all over the pages if you don't finish it. I couldn't put the book down and ended up staying up all night to finish it which ruined my precarious physical health for four months.

It was worth it.

'Death's Head' is not a book brimming with new ideas and neither is it presenting the reader with big questions and subtle underlying themes the way writers like Iain M Banks do. By framing his story in a semi-familiar universe (there are echoes of Banks in the structures of the galaxy, the United Free are particularly reminiscent of 'The Culture') and sticking to what he's good at, action, David Gunn has produced a bit of writing that has me looking to my thesaurus for new superlatives. That's not to say there aren't themes and arcs running through the book. There are. The story constantly hints at bigger pictures and more to come.

It doesn't ask you to question morals and motives, though, it just asks you to pull the trigger and grin at the gory mess. Tveskoeg is an ultimate warrior and is always thinking about violence. He enters a room and checks which everyday objects he can use to kill the people in it. He sees an enemy that most would quail at and feels a certain savage joy at the prospect of besting it.

Gunn also does something you just shouldn't do. He takes a violent, semi-psychotic main character and gives him an even more violent and psychotic sidekick. The Intelligent Gun. The Sig Diabolo is thoroughly deserving of its own paragraph. It should be a one trick joke. Tveskoeg says, 'Lets kill things' and the gun says, 'Lets kill things bigger.' That should be it. However, It doesn't quite work like that, it's almost as if the gun makes Tveskoeg examine his own behaviour and question it. The prospect of this violent man being the one who has to holds back sows a rich vein of (inky black) humour throughout the book.

'Death's Head' is not going to win any prizes for subtlety but if it's break neck pace and adventure you're after then you need this book. The hints of a larger story arc within 'Death's Head' have me salivating at the thought of another instalment.

RJ Barker

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