01/11/2009. Contributed by RJ Barker
pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. 342 page hardback. Price: $26.00 (US), $30.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-50002-1 pub: Bantam Press. 396 page enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-593-05873-2.
check out website: www.delreybooks.com and www.rbook.co.uk
Farlight is the Capital of Emperor Octo V's Empire. Sven Tveskoag and his Aux troops are there for a bit of downtime. Naturally, this means everything is about to go wrong.
Civil strife is brewing and the hand of the, Godlike, U/Free is fanning the flames of war. Sven and his Aux are soon pulled into the fight as the Byzantine games of galactic politics are played out violently around them. With the whole planet against him, Sven is forced to play a long and deadly game where the survival of him, his troops and the Empire is at stake.
David Gunn's 'Death's Head' books are like oubliettes. You fall into the pit and eventually emerge out again, squinting, shell-shocked, with a chunk of time missing from your life and feeling a bit dirty. In a good way.
They're one-sitting books that demand you read them all at once or they will kick your face in. Naturally, I don't want my face kicked in so when this came through the door I sat down and read.
It's great. Flawed in places, but the flaws cease to matter as the text is blade sharp, dancing in front of your eyes and distracting your mind from the odd plot hole.
Tveskoeg's slow, constant fight against his own killer instinct are quietly comical and the comments of his intelligent gun often laugh out loud funny. All the things that make this a truly great series of military SF are still here: The Aux and Sven's 'you'll die when it's useful to me attitude' as well as the genuine warmth he feels for his troops. Sven's inability to obey orders, heroic last stands and the breaking of bones and faces for not being respectful enough are also back in abundance.
Sven Tveskoeg never stops. He's either killing someone or something, thinking about how to kill someone or something or wondering why he didn't kill someone or something and wishing he had. On the rare occasions he's not doing any of those, he's drunk or rutting, sometimes both. Tveskoeg is a raging Id, as suits his role as the last remaining true human. Sort of human, anyway.
There are problems. If you've not read the previous two books, I doubt you'll understand some of what's going on, though I imagine you will still enjoy the book, such is the vicious pace of the writing and the action. Sven also spends a large amount of the book without his prosthetic arm and for the life of me I couldn't work out how he did some things one-handed. But it doesn't spoil the enjoyment or cause you to be pulled out of the action.
Keep taking ground, that's Sven's motto and it's how David Gunn writes. Going forward is what this book does. In fairness, sometimes at the expense of the larger plot arc. It's so fast-paced, plot points pass by in a blur and you miss things you do need to know. There are also times when it feels like the author got a bit bored and wanted to move on. Some characters who are built up are killed off in a perfunctory way. Although that's the realities of war, it's unsatisfying for the reader. Not that you'll care much as the face kicking, head shooting action is still relentless.
Fans of Dan Abnett's 'Gaunts Ghosts' books and military SF in general will consume 'Death's Head' with a relish as it is at the peak of the game, but read the previous books first or you may get lost.
It's also worth warning that the book ends in a way that leaves more questions unanswered than answered which is frustrating. It is not a satisfying climax. However, that fault will be remedied when Mr. Gunn shoots out his next load of words. I can't wait.
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