(2014) Mike Resnick, Pyr, £8.85 / Can$19 / US$18, trdpbk, 303pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14991-8
This is space opera, pure and simple. Indeed, it is a simple story simply told. As with many others that he has written, it is set in the author's 'Birthright Universe' and is described as the first of the 'Dead Enders' series.
Currently mankind has moved its home from the Earth to Deluros VIII, a planet much more central to the galaxy, and is the major player in the multi-species Democracy. Not all races are part of this arrangement; for example there is another group called the Traanskei Coalition, lead by the Kabori, with whom they are at war. Whilst the Democracy would like to negotiate a solution with the Coalition, the Kabori are not inclined to do so.
The Democracy have an idea, though. They have cloned a copy of Michkag, one of the Kabori's top generals, and this version sees the advantages of a more cooperative approach. All they have to do is swap their clone for the real thing. And so Colonel Nathan Pretorius finds himself on another perilous mission: travel deep into the heart of enemy territory, to a fortress in Orion, swap the two Michkags, and do so undetected (and, if possible, get home OK). And there in a nutshell you have the story.
Pretorius declines the normal military personnel he is offered, preferring instead to use civilians, ones with special and unusual skills that may help him succeed in tricking his way to their destination and completing his mission. The team he picks, along with his work-it-out-as-you-go-along approach, is reminiscent of Mission Impossible (the TV series, not the Tom Cruise films). Needless to say, there are many problems to be overcome on the way.
The book is composed mostly of conversations between the characters and this how we follow the planning and the action; there is little in the way of description. There is often light-hearted and amusing banter between the characters but this is at the expense of them seeming as serious as they ought, at times, to be. There is a time and a place for bravado and others times and places for knuckling down - but this lacks the latter. As a result of the reliance on conversation, there is little in the way of tension and the story just bumbles along without any real pace; their escapades in the fortress end up having the same intensity of, say, how they go about making the coffee. There would be more pace and excitement if there was more detail, something for the readers to get their teeth into.
In my youth, when I eagerly scanned the racks of cheap paperbacks for another Pel Torro (a.k.a. Lionel Fanthorpe) novel, I am sure that I would have found this book exciting. These days I like something with more meat on it, something that leaves me thinking and wanting to keep turning the pages because I have to know what happens next or how they get out of this situation, whereas this book was very easy to put down. There were no highlights, no climaxes, just more conversations during which our heroes also happen to succeed in this chapter's task and so progress the mission.
I noticed several small errors in the story. Early on, for example, they know Michkag is going to the fortress to meet a band of human renegades yet, once arrived at the fortress, Pretorius often reminds his team that any humans will be so out of place that the Kabori will shoot them on sight; this is presumably because the author has forgotten about the human renegades as Michkag is (now) there to meet a new race that we have not previously come across. There are so many things mentioned almost as throwaways in conversations that there are several such mistakes and this left me going 'err, what?'. Someone needs to go through this novel and get the story straight! Perhaps Pretorius needs to remember what he has already said before he says something different?
Whilst Lionel Fanthorpe's works often contained such weaknesses – it is known that he would knock out a novel in a weekend, simply dictating it into a machine before it was typed up and sent off unchecked – I would expect Mike Resnick to be more thorough; after all, he has received five Hugo awards and been nominated for a further thirty-one. This is a pleasant enough light and easy read but I doubt that it will win him his next Hugo.
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