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Death's Head: Maximum Offense by David Gunn
Review by Harriet Klausner
Del Rey Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345500014
Date: 29 April 2008 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

In the far distant future when Earth is considered a myth, Emperor Octo V rules the 10,000 systems yet seeks to expand his empire. Humanity is defined by three distinct groups: the Octavians, the Enlightened, and the United Free. The Octavians and the Enlightened are at war with one another and the latter can be recognized by the metallic braids on their skulls that represent each successive generation; they turned Enlightened when they used the Uplift Virus. The United Free controls more galaxies than their rivals as they pretend to be neutral, only desiring universal peace. Of course they do a lot of political manipulating so the universe runs the way they want it to.

Lieutenant Sven Tveskoeg and his squad the Aux are assigned by the United Free to go on a special mission to find a missing U/F observer sent to Hekati. Before Sven and his team reach the planet, an explosion on board occurs, he punches a hole through the crippled vessel and tosses people and supplies onto the desert planet. The survivors face harrowing experiences and soon conclude to their dismay they did not land on Hekati; the U/F sent them to another orb to test their fortitude and intelligence before setting them on their real mission.

When they exceed the expectations of their judges, Sven and company are shipped off to Hekati to search for the missing U/F representative. The residents of this artificial world are the dregs of society, including bandits, enemies of the government and political, criminal and clan warlords. Going from one dangerous incident to another, they are shocked once again when they realize their real mission.

The protagonist, Sven, has his own code of honor (though don't tell him you know that) as an interesting, enigmatic anti-hero. He is a man's man with his past having killed any softness he may have once had. Yet the audience will admire this hard-ass as he does what he must to complete the mission, but not at the cost of his crew and he will not harm the innocent, although he accepts that the rules of engagement mean crew and bystanders die. In many ways he will remind readers of Star Trek's Khan as well as Clint Eastwood's nameless character in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. His crew is loyal to him because he risks his life while being loyal to them. Women will want him, but the smart female knows to never give him her heart; he will break it.

This outer space tale is loaded with plenty of battle scenes in the air and on land; David Gunn makes the case that war is not tea time. In this thriller the adversaries loathe one another so much that atrocities are an acceptable norm of the rules of engagement, which makes Sven stick out as he prefers to avoid collateral damage if possible. The emperor looks like a teen, but emotionally and mentally he seems more like Star Wars' Emperor Palatine, although the audience does not get to know him as well as we would like; his philosophy is everyone else is expendable as long as he achieves his goals.

The three branches of humanity share almost identical DNA yet are radically different. Each group has a unique culture but shares in common expansion goals. The U/F is the most fascinating as they have hidden agendas that leave readers to wonder if they might prove as maliciously ambitious as the emperor. David Gunn provides a powerful and intense military science fiction tale starring a fascinating anti-hero.

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