While I consider myself a science fiction/fantasy fan, I must admit that, realistically, I’m more of a fan of fantasy. My taste in science fiction reading is fairly limited. I am not nearly as enamored of “hard” sci-fi: pages of realistic and scientifically feasible explanations of how the featured Mechawidget actually works. I’m really just into good futuristic yarns. This may be why I tend to watch more science fiction movies and TV than read science fiction books. That and it has been far too long since a good fantasy movie has been made. For good, old-fashioned, pulpy, space adventure, you can’t get much better than David Gunn’s Death’s Head series.
The series centers on Sven Tveskoeg: ex-legionnaire, ex-sergeant, and now-troublesome officer in the Death’s Head. The Death’s Head is the elite military unit in service to the emperor OctoV. If villages need to be razed, planets decimated, or prisoners tortured–guess who gets called… With their amorality and their skull-adorned black uniforms the reader will very much get a Nazi Special Forces vibe…this is intentional. The deadly and vicious Sven is an up-and-comer in the Death’s Head…and he is the hero of our story.
Little is known of Sven’s background before he was sentenced to death for insubordination in the emperor’s Legion Etranger. However, it is soon revealed that there is much more to Sven that meets the eye. He is a huge and imposing man who has the ability to heal at an accelerated rate (ala Wolverine). He also, though at great cost, seems to have the ability to communicate with the bestial ferox…a tribal race of beings for which there has been no communication, only warfare. He is apparently 98.2 percent human and 1.8 percent…something else. It is also clear (to the reader, and later to Sven) that his “otherness” is being put to use by the mysterious and god-like OctoV for his own secret purposes. It is these machinations that prompt his recruitment into the corps of the Death’s Head.
Sven is, by nature, a scrapper. He often uses violence as his most elegant form of self-expression. He’s lived a hard life and definitely has no qualms on making life harder on those who cross his path. While cold-blooded and ruthless, he nevertheless has a streak of fierce loyalty. It is this stubborn nascent nobility that eventually forces him to take on the leadership of the Aux (auxiliary), a rag-tag group of misfit conscripts that lost their leader in a bloody, and ultimately senseless, battle that ends the first book in the series. He is an anti-hero in every way…a bad guy fighting his way through a universe of worse guys.
In many ways he reminds me of the type of character that Robert E. Howard would have created: strong, brutal, inherently masculine, noble, and primal. The entire series hearkens back to the old pulp novels with their violence, blatant sexuality, and testosterone-driven plots. Furthermore, the stories are just plain fun. You find yourself rooting for Sven even as he brutally slaughters hundreds of people, even more so when he gives various smug adversaries their necessary comeuppance. There are definitely interesting new technologies being explored here (primarily in the form of weapons) and some interesting socio-political situations that can spring from societies in which death can simply be an inconvenience (for the rich and powerful, at any rate). However, Sven is the type of hero who would be as at home on the plains of Cimmeria or in the temples of Zamora as he would be in the cockpit of starship or on the field interstellar battle.
Gunn’s writing is brisk and sure. The novels are told from Sven’s point of view…and he doesn’t have time to examine the minutia of how things work or even why. He’s trying to stay alive and a step ahead. There is humor, but it is of a decidedly grim quality. Much of it comes from the “mouth” of the SIG Diablo…a sentient (and highly illegal) gun that Sven acquires. The SIG is good and he knows it…and isn’t afraid to say so. He is probably the only being able to match Sven’s thirst for violence and makes a perfect partner for him. In the hands of other writers, the SIG could easily come off as hokey, almost as a Disney-esque sidekick (though admittedly darker). Instead it meshes perfectly within Gunn’s dark vision of a war-torn universe.
The first novel (Death’s Head) details Sven’s escape from execution at the hands of his own unit, his strange living arrangements with his ferox liberators, his recruitment and testing by the Death’s Head, his fateful choice to not assassinate the daughter of a fellow ex-prisoner, and his recruitment of the Aux. The second book (Maximum Offense) details the further adventures of Sven and his Aux and the machinations of the United Free, the most powerful and technologically advanced civilization in the known universe.
A third book has also been released (Day of the Damned), though I have yet to read that one.
I’m looking forward to it.