Star Wars is over for now. The Expanse is off the air, and we have months to wait until Star Trek comes back to the big screen. So where are we going to get our recommended dosage of crazy-ass space action? The Far Stars trilogy by Jay Allan is a fun, wacky ride.
To be fair, I’ve only read the first book in the series, Shadow of Empire, which kept me zipping through the pages at warp speed. This is the kind of book series where interstellar rogues go on impossible missions, everybody is ridiculously good at whatever they’re good at, and the action basically never slows down for long.
The first book starts with the main hero, Arkarin Blackhawk, being sent into an arena, wearing only a loincloth, to fight the baddest fighter on a planet of space pirates—oh, and the badass fighter is riding on a dinosaur. It’s that kind of book. (Read the opening section here.)
We soon learn that Blackhawk—who is not only genetically engineered to be awesome but also has an artificial intelligence in his head, giving him inside info—is on the planet of space pirates because he was rescuing Astra, the lovely-but-tough-as-nails daughter of a friend, from her kidnappers. He’s ordered the crew of his ship, the Wolf’s Claw, to take Astra home and leave him to his fate—but not surprisingly, “leave me behind” is the one order they won’t obey without question. (That happens, like, constantly in this book. You start to wonder why Blackhawk even bothers telling his crew to leave him.)
Soon, Blackhawk and his amazingly skilled crew are in a space battle with, like, all the space pirates. They’re forced to land on a backwater planet that’s in the middle of a bloody revolution against its corrupt aristocracy—and the revolution has gotten corrupt, too. Blackhawk has to find a new engine core for his ship, but ends up getting sucked into local politics. (Which, it turns out, aren’t actually all that local.)
Shadow of Empire is definitely a guilty pleasure, pure escapism at its most insane. Blackhawk is tormented by his own mysterious past (as all good space rogues should be) and his crew are all fiercely loyal to him. They include a pilot who’s the best damn pilot around, an engineer who works miracles in half the time they ought to take, a gunner who’s the best gunner, a sniper who’s the best sniper, and a handful of random soldiers who are damn good at soldiering. (The pilot, Lucas Lancaster, was an addict until Blackhawk beat him up and forced him to go on the straight-and-narrow path, leaving Lancaster totally clean and sober, and dedicated to his boss, in one of the book’s more over-the-top touches.)
To be fair, the bad guys are also crazily competent, except for one or two decadent potentates.
The fun of this book is mostly in watching Blackhawk and his crew get into one crazy scrape after another, with the same grim humor throughout:
“What we need to do is find a ship and grab its hyperdrive core—quick, easy, quiet.” He paused. “Maybe we don’t even kill anybody this time, what do you think?” He had to fight back his own laugh. He couldn’t remember the last job his people pulled where nobody got scragged.
Shira was leaning aginst a console, looking vaguely amused. But Ace spoke up first. “You know us, Cap. Gentlest souls in the Far Stars.”
Blackhawk smiled. “Yeah, that’s how I always describe you guys.”
He suddenly remembered he was still wearing the loincloth from the arena. “Well, if everything’s under control for the moment, I think I’ll run down to my quarters and change.”
“Don’t go to the trouble for me, Ark.” It was Astra Lucerne, stepping out from around one of the bulkheads. She wore a wicked grin as she walked into the room, her ice-blue eyes staring at the Claw’s almost-naked captain.
Meanwhile, Allan teases a larger storyline about galactic politics, in which the evil Empire wants to gain a stronger grip on the outer frontier, the Far Stars.
And it transpires that the kidnapping of Astra is part of an Empire plot to gain political advantage, and so is the arrival of super-advanced weaponry on the backwater planet where Blackhawk is caught up in a civil war. Allan has clearly thought a lot about the space politics of the Far Stars, a region in which the galactic Empire can’t dominate using military might because of the difficulty of transporting advanced ships and firepower through the dangerous region of space bordering the Far Stars. The Empire has always dispatched a “governor” to the region, but all of the previous occupants of that post have been disgraced imperial nobles, who were sent there as a punishment and treated the post as a sinecure. The latest occupant of the job, a man named Kergen Vos, is an ambitious schemer who aims to manipulate all the local skirmishes and civil wars in the region to set up a series of Imperial puppets in power.
Apart from all the battles, miraculous escapes and over-the-top action, this book is generally at its best when it’s expounding Allan’s somewhat pessimistic view of politics and human nature. Power doesn’t just corrupt, it makes people incredibly stupid—see the earlier reference to decadent potentates. The rebels on that backwater planet started out as idealistic freedom fighters, until their leaders got too much of a taste for power. Ditto for the leader of the space pirates. Astra’s father, Marshall Augustin Lucerne, is fighting a war to unify his home planet, Celtiboria, which means defeating a ton of shitty warlords.
There are no functioning democracies in the Far Stars—even the somewhat noble Marshall Lucerne just wants to create a more enlightened dictatorship, with a veneer of enfranchisement. Power, in Allan’s world, belongs to the strong-willed and ruthless, people like Lucerne and Vos, and if they don’t seize it, then you end up with a selfish, monstrous despot instead.
And meanwhile, the emotional center of the book is all about wartime atrocities, and the way they tend to haunt people. Marshall Lucerne, in one early section, obsesses about his fear that his victorious troops, at the end of the final battle for control over Celtiboria, are about to commit horrible war crimes against their enemies, and Lucerne has no idea how to stop them. (It never occurs to him to just issue an order saying that anybody caught committing war crimes will be shot, which might help.) And meanwhile, the main hero, Blackhawk, is haunted by his own past as a soldier in the Empire, and he’s terrified that if he gets involved in Lucerne’s wars, he’ll turn back into that person. In one memorable passage, he walks through a war zone on that shitty backwater planet:
Blackhawk kept walking, looking past the wreckage and the bodies all around him. The scene was oddly familiar, triggering long-suppressed memories, images of similar atrocities from long ago and far away: destroyed homes, the bodies of helpless villagers—unarmed men and women lying dead in the burnt wreckage. He’d seen it all before, too many times. These simple people were the pawns, the innocents lying in the paths of those who would claim power. And here, as so often before, it was they who paid the price, in pain, suffering, and death.
He pushed the thoughts aside, forcing the anger and guilt back into its place. His rigid discipline slammed down, blocking the distractions. He didn’t have time for self-loathing now. He had a job to do.
It’s moments like these, where we glimpse the self-hatred and anger inside the otherwise-perfect hero, that give Shadow of Empire a bit more weight.
Make no mistake, though—this book is basically a fun roller-coaster ride, with just enough emotional intensity and psychological depth to keep your arms and legs inside the carriage at all times. Shadow of Empire is a crazy, over-the-top, zany adventure in which rogues outwit space pirates, get caught up in a civil war, and have space fights in and around an asteroid field. It’s the perfect thing to tide you over until summer movie season gets going, in other words.