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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"Death's Head" by David Gunn

Official “Death’s Head” Myspace
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Part science fiction, part military procedure, a sprinkle of cyberpunk and a whole lot of ass-kicking, David Gunn’sDeath’s Head” is an irresistibly fun debut novel that reminded me of a cross between Neal Asher’s Ian Cormac books, Richard K. Morgan’sBroken Angels” and Glen Cook’s Black Company novels with a hefty dose of videogame inspiration thrown into the mix—think Halo, Gears of War, StarCraft, Doom and Half-Life.

Taking place in a far distant future where Earth is but a myth, 85% of the known galaxy is governed by the utopian-like United Free, and the other 15% is fought over between the Enlightened and the Octovians, “Death’s Head” follows Sven Tveskoeg, an ex-légionnaire handpicked by the Emperor of the Octovians to become an elite Death’s Head soldier serving under General Indigo Jaxx. First though, the 28-year-old has to pass a series of tests to prove his loyalty & abilities. Once that is done, Lt. Tveskoeg is thrown into the middle of the war between the Octovians and the Enlightened, which will stretch our 'hero's' limits to the breaking point. There’s a few other things going on as well, some minor subplots, a drop of intrigue, but for the most part, “Death’s Head” is basically 368 pages of non-stop shooting, killing, sex, cussing and blowing up things. Not exactly complicated reading, but then again, it’s not meant to be.

As far as the characterization, “Death’s Head” is narrated in a first-person point-of-view by our ‘hero’ Sven Tveskoeg. Like the plot, Sven is not very complex. He’s full of cynicism, ruthless and a very proficient killer who likes his booze & women. Definitely not what you would call an ideal role model ;) On the other hand, Sven does seems to enjoy playing the “knight in shining armor” and is loyal to a fault, so perhaps there’s more to him than meets the eye. Without a doubt Lt. Tveskoeg is much better developed than the book’s other characters who are mainly one-dimensional stereotypes that are primarily there so Sven has someone to interact with. There were a couple of interesting personalities among the auxiliaries, but basically this area of the book is not one of the author’s strong points.

What I did like about Sven though was his straightforward approach and the way the narrative reflected his personality. So, instead of excessive exposition, brainy vocabulary (the author makes some funny references regarding this), thoughtful meditation or the examination of motives, the story is simple and to the point. The flipside with all of this is that there’s just not enough information given to the reader, which was probably the biggest problem I had with the book. Details on the war, on the different species/planets we meet up with, on some of the book’s scientific applications, the characters’ backgrounds, etc., are hard to come by. Heck, some relevant information wasn’t even given until the latter half of the novel, which could easily have been provided at the beginning. Of course there’s a simple explanation right? Well, based on the clues I managed to uncover—a three-book deal signed by the author, the cliffhanger ending to “Death’s Head”, the novel’s subtitle: Book One of The Aux—it's easy to see that “Death’s Head” is part of a series, and Mr. Gunn just wanted to save some revelations—Why did the Emperor specifically target Sven in the first place? What is that 1.8 percent of Sven’s genetic makeup?—for later volumes, which is fine by me. Still, some more data would have been nice.

Of the science fiction elements, “Death’s Head” utilizes a lot of familiar concepts—telepathy, artificial intelligences, talking guns with their own personalities, hive-mind collectives, cybernetic enhancements, planets with extreme biospheres, cloning, etc.,—and while the author doesn’t really do anything new with these concepts, that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. After all, the focus is not so much on coming up with original ideas and making them plausible, but more on placing Sven in difficult situations, arming him with exotic weaponry, and letting the fireworks fly!

Bottom line, David Gunn’sDeath’s Head” is a massively entertaining debut that kicks off The Aux series with a promising bang, and while the book may have its share of problems—storytelling, characterization, info-dumping—it’s easy to overlook such issues when "Death's Head" is so damn fun to read...

FYI: “Death’s Head” first came to my attention thanks to Neal Asher’s review HERE and was released in May via Del Rey (USA) and Bantam Press (UK). Go pick up a copy today!


Anonymous said...

I loved the series. No, it is not high literature, not even close. Part of your detraction actually fits though. The lack of scientific explanations fit in a first person narrative. You can describe driving a car without a detailed explanation of the workings of an internal combustion engine.

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