Monday, December 14, 2009


Our book today is the slam-bang sci-fi novel Killer by David Drake and Karl Edward Wagner. The book (an entirely successful outgrowth of an equally successful but substantially different short story by the same title) is set during the reign of the emperor Domitian and features the stoically heroic big game hunter Lycon, who has provided many an exotic beasts for the slaughter of the Roman games. Lycon has developed many contacts over the years, and the story opens when one of them shows him a weird animal found by some natives in Numidia in the rubble after a mountaintop exploded. The creature in question is man-shaped, with tough scaly blue skin and razor-sharp claws, and all the other animals in the caravan hate it instinctively.

Drake and Wagner are old hands at crafting expert sci-fi thrillers; they set to work immediately playing on the delicious narrative tension that arises from the fact that we understand right away that the creature is from another planet, whereas Lycon and his associates can't possibly think that and so spend the bulk of the novel simply to trying to comprehend how such an animal could exist in the world. The creature is cunning and at least human-smart, and it quickly escapes and begins to create havoc. Lycon pursues it with a pack of enormous dogs, and the results are sadly predictable:

Lycon was less than a hundred yards from the hedge, when the blue-scaled lizard-ape vaulted over the thorny barrier with an acrobat's grace. It writhed through the air, and one needle-clawed hand slashed out - tearing the throat from the nearest Molossian before the dog was fully aware of its presence. The lizard-ape bounced to the earth like a cat, as the last two snarling hounds sprang for it together. Spinning and slashing as it ducked under and away, the thing was literally a blur of motion. Deadly motion. Neither hound completed its leap, as lethal talons tore and gutted - slew with nightmarish precision.

Lycon skidded to a stop on the muddy field. He did not need to glance behind him to know he was alone with the beast. Its eyes glowed in the sunset as it turned from the butchered dogs and stared at its pursuer.

In the course of the pursuit that follows, Lycon gains the help of a mysterious "native" who conceals secrets just as otherworldly as those of the blue-skinned man-ape, and the hunt quickly goes from desperate to gruesome, as the hunters find an old associate hanging from the rafters of the creature's latest lair, his goo-encased body serving as an unwilling incubator:

Smiler's throat convulsed. Then his lips moved and spewed not words but blue-shimmering larvae the size of men's fingers - dozens of them, gouting up to flop onto the wood and writhe on vestigial legs toward the man who had just approached. Blood sprayed from Smiler's lips and throat together as the entire substance of his body seemed to convulse and give way to pass more of the things that had just hatched within his living flesh.

Killer takes the premises of Alien and Predator, shakes them vigorously, and transports them two thousand years into the past. The pace of the action never slows down for a moment, and the neat little trick the authors (both of whom are lifelong unapologetic advocates of the neat little trick) pull off at the very end will have you smiling for days. David Drake went on from Killer to overwrite severely - he's still a first-rate craftsman, but the best thing he could possibly do for that craft would be to summarily kill off every single character in all of his ongoing series, take a solid year off from all writing of any kind, then take a solid year to write - really write - one self-contained novel that will have no sequels. It would sweep the sci-fi awards if he did, you mark my words.

And if Killer prompts even a few of you to hunt around and explore the gritty, dark fictional worlds of Karl Edward Wagner, so much the better. A fat new collection of his work - with a fittingly badass new cover illustration - would be a fine thing indeed. Fortunately, in the meantime, we have this novel - in which both of them are clearly having a whale of a time.


Anonymous said...

When can we look forward to your long, contra-Atlantic Monthly "Best of Year" fun? More expansive than ever? New lists for the ages? Bleary-eyed Steve?

steve said...

It's on its way, fear not! And yes, it will indeed be more expansive than ever - but unlike most of the other such lists out there, mine has to wait a bit longer, because I'm still actively, ferociously READING every day. It's entirely possible that some book technically published in 2009 could still make it onto either the list it WANTS to be on or the list it very much DOESN'T want to be on!

F-Stop said...

Why do you never give me books like this to read?