by David Gunn
Review by John Berlyne
Bantam Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0593058321
Date: 07 May 2007 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Review of U.S edition by Harriet Klausner /
"The violence is EXTREME, the death toll MONUMENTAL, the sex DIRTY, the action NON-STOP... and the entertainment OUTRAGEOUS" - cover copy.
Reviewed this issue and recommended.
Bantam are not a publisher that I would readily associate with hard core military SF, but they have found a powerful and explosive example of the genre in David Gunn's Death's Head, the first in a trilogy featuring Lieutenant Sven Tveskoeg, one of the classiest fictional hard men I've come across in a long time.
The curtain rises on a classic in media res opening – we meet Sven as he is released from the tortuous baking confines of 'the cage', a place of punishment and one which he has no business surviving. As a legionnaire on some far flung desert planet, he has just completed a stint for insubordination in that stinking hole and thus we quickly learn two important facts about him – that he is one tough son-of-a-bitch and that he is unafraid to speak his mind – and these defining character traits carry this compulsively interesting character through the narrative of this novel.
The tableau against which everything plays out is not at all complicated – this is a fairly standard far future setting, with ideologically opposed factions killing each other over territory that encompasses not land masses but star systems. As a legionnaire, Sven is a regarded as pretty lowly soldier – a grunt, but he's tough – unnaturally so – and he possesses a number of innate and strange talents, that allow him to pass up the ranking ladder, the most obvious one of which is an innate ability to kill. Very soon after his release from the hole, Sven's entire regiment is slaughtered by a group of ferox, a fierce and feared indigenous creature with a social structure very alien to that of humans. Taken captive, he forms a bond with the creatures and finds he is able to psychically communicate with them, though only when in extreme pain. Soon enough though, the ferox themselves are slaughtered and Sven's welfare passes to the Death's Head – an elite force, fiercer and more feared than the ferox. There our man is sucked into a series of dangerous, seemingly dead-end scenarios, and the plots twists and bucks like a sack of snakes.
The structure of Death's Head is almost 'picaresque' in that we follow Sven's adventures as he is buffeted on the winds of his fate. In all this Gunn keeps the background details fairly vague – but soon enough it becomes clear that our man is being used by powers far greater than he, for ends unknown (though presumably all will be made clear during the course of the trilogy). If our focus character were not so engaging, this kind of plotting might lose the reader early, but Gunn pitches his characterisation perfectly – Sven is a mass of contradictions that constantly crash against each one other - he's no philosopher or wit, but he has a talent for both; he is a professional soldier and stickler for obedience but doesn't take too well to being ordered around; he's lousy at politics, but a consummate diplomat; he is friendless yet commands absolute loyalty – and at all times, he is a killer, intent on causing mayhem, but always detached from it. His status flips between leader and lead throughout the novel and his reactions to these changes are what holds our attention rigidly throughout.
There's no great sub-text at work in Death's Head and as a novel it has no pretensions other than showing off the 'true grit' of its hero – in this it is extremely successful. The bonus for both author and reader is that Death's Head is far from the linearly plotted grenade-fest that Gunn's approach might have produced or that the publisher's hyperbole suggests.