Saturday, August 28, 2010

Book Review: 'Starhammer' by Christopher Rowley


4 / 5 Stars 

‘Starhammer’ (Ballantine /Del Rey, 1986, 297 pp., cover art by David Schleinkofer) is the first novel in the so-called ‘Vang’ trilogy; the succeeding volumes are ‘The Vang: The Military Form’ (1988) and ‘The Vang: Battlemaster’ (1990).

I didn’t acquire the Vang trilogy during the 80s, nor do I remember it getting the attention that other trilogies of the era received (such as Harry Harrison's 'West of Eden' series). As the 21st century dawned it looked like the series would be something of a modestly successful example of 80s space opera, if nothing more memorable.

All that changed in November 2001 with the release of the video game ‘Halo: Combat Evolved’ on the Xbox. In short order the Halo games became a marketing juggernaut. When Jason Jones, one of the producers at Bungie Studio, disclosed that some features of the game were borrowed / inspired from the Vang trilogy, it focused new attention on Rowley’s novels and today used copies of the trilogy sell rather dearly on eBay and amazon.com.

In ‘Starhammer’, the far future is a place of limited ambitions for humanity. Despite the arrival of FTL travel and the colonization of thousands of planets, the human race is the de facto slave of the laowon Empire: a race of humanoid, blue-skinned aliens who can be ruthless in suppressing dissent. The regions of space still open to ‘free’ humans are steadily dwindling under pressure from laowon political factions, and Earth itself is ruled by a quisling who answers to the laowon imperial family.

Jon Iehard is a human with mild psy abilities, born on the frontier world of Glegan, and reared as a serf to the loawon administration that governs the planet. Jon experiences firsthand the cruelty of laowon rule, and when he matures, he makes his way to one of the last few remaining free worlds of humanity: the Nocanicus system. Jon finds employ as a detective on the Mass Murder Squad, hunting down terrorists determined to sow fear and disorder among the elites at the top of the economic food chain.

Jon receives a new assignment: find an elderly man named Eblis Bey, a religious fanatic responsible for the detonation of a bomb inside a laowon space station; twenty of the aliens died, including members of the Blue Seygfan royalty. The pressure on the human government to find and turn Eblis Bey over to the vengeful laowon is intense. But as Jon Iehard embarks on his pursuit of Bey, the mystery behind the older man’s actions only deepens. For Eblis Bey is on a quest to reach the planet Baraf, where among the ruins of a long-dead alien civilization is rumored to rest the Starhammer: a weapon of immense power that can turn its wielder into the ruler of the galaxy.

The laowon want the Starhammer as much as Eblis Bey. But access to the Starhammer won’t come easily….for nestled within its depths is another weapon, equally ancient, and just as formidable….

‘Starhammer’ takes some time to get underway; the first few chapters barrage the reader with a lot of improvised alien proper nouns and terminologies a la ‘Dune’. Indeed, the main plot doesn’t start to develop until well into the first third of the narrative, as author Rowley methodically spends quite a few pages laying out his world construction of the laowon and their human thralls. But once Iehard receives his assignment to track down Eblis Bey the novel starts to gain momentum, and then the adventures come fast and hard all the way to the last page.

[Readers familiar with the ‘Halo’ franchise will recognize the origins of The Flood and the (rather effeminate) alien robot, 343 Guilty Spark.] 


As an example of 80s space opera ‘Starhammer’ comes across very well, and is superior in my opinion to that quintessential standard of the genre at that time period, Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’.

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