"Deathstalker," Simon R. Green

Pros: The very occasional dramatic or intentionally funny moment
Cons: Exposition; constant logical inconsistencies; character inconsistencies; repetitive redundancy; cardboard characters; “kitchen sink” disease…
Rating: 1 out of 5

First published 8/12/2003

Owen Deathstalker is the latest lord in a Family long of line and great of honor. Unfortunately for him, he’s just been outlawed by the insane Empress Lionstone XIV, and he doesn’t even know why. In his attempt to escape he hitches up with outlaw Hazel D’Ark, who doesn’t trust him but feels she’s stuck with him. They head for the outlaw planet Mistworld, where the price on their heads is high enough to tempt even Hazel’s friend Ruby Journey, the bounty hunter.

But Owen’s AI, Ozymandius, has some unwelcome news. Owen’s dead father left files instructing Owen to find an old rebel legend named Jack Random as the start of a grand plan of intrigue and rebellion. That plan will take Owen to lost planets, and introduce him to a number of oddities from the Hadenmen (augmented humans) to the Wolflings (genetically engineered killing machines) and even his own legendary ancestor, the Deathstalker himself. And somehow, none of these famous things turn out to be quite what Owen was expecting…

Where on earth should I start?!

I could drone on about the endless exposition (Simon Green’s science fiction epic “Deathstalker” starts with 6 straight pages of it). I could complain about the redundant repetition that fills the book:

And then she was out of the tunnel, and the heat fell away from her like a burning blanket. She’d made her way through the obstruction. She was back in the open corridor, and the cool air was like a blessing.

(My translation: “And then she was out of the tunnel, and the air was blessedly cooler. She was out of the tunnel. She was out of the tunnel, and the air was blessedly cooler.”)

I could go on about the naming scheme, in which many characters’ last names are blatant summaries of those characters’ defining characteristics (in the spirit of that naming scheme I hereby propose that we rename the author to “Captain Obvious”).

Or maybe I could natter on about the cardboard characters, many of whom change personality or intelligence level at a moment’s notice. Some of them are blatant copies of each other with a few details changed. And their dialogue… Oh, dear lord, don’t get me started on their dialogue. Do you have a stomach for long monologues and speeches dressed up as dialogue? What about characters who conveniently sit there and wait to attack (or whatever else) until the other character is done speechifying? Or characters who have absolutely no reason to discuss something except as a flimsy excuse to impart information to the reader? Worst of all, it usually seems as though characters do and say things for no better reason than that they must in order to push the plot in the right direction. Oh, and did I mention that they all behave like adolescents when the thought of sex comes up?

Better yet, what about the author’s case of kitchen-sink-itis (as in, he’s thrown everything into his book and universe but the kitchen sink, and I think that might be around here somewhere too)? Cyborgs, man-made werewolves and vampires, aliens straight out of your favorite horror movies, Lovecraftian cities, a Gibsonesque cyberspace knockoff, espers (psychics), clones, ancient and mysterious alien artifacts, family feuds, intrigue merely for the sake of intrigue… You can find the bleeding entrails of at least 15 other books and movies in here, and it ain’t pretty. Green is no Lovecraft, Herbert, or Gibson.

The surprises, by the way, simply aren’t surprises. There are various hidden identities in this book, from the Masked Gladiator to the traitor in the main characters’ party. And not a single one is anything but obvious. The traitor really only can be one character, and the Masked Gladiator is the blatantly obvious choice. The identity of Hood, a mysterious patron of the underground, can also really only be one character when you stop and think about it. The author reveals these identities as though they’re surprises, but they simply aren’t.

And of course, the narration wavers in and out of various characters’ voices with no rhyme or reason. Worse still, the tone is almost always off. It’s flippant in the middle of dramatic events, or melodramatic to the point of hilarity when it should be merely dramatic. Horrific things are presented in an indifferent tone.

But I think I’ll focus on one problem. If I didn’t, after all, it would take me a week to write this review, and it would end up so long that no one would be willing to read it. I mean, really. For almost each and every page I could come up with a flaw to complain about, and this book is 521 pages long. (And did I mention the sequels?)

So here it is:

The constant logical inconsistencies

I’ve never read a book that contained so many contradictions and inconsistencies. Ever. You’re going to read the following examples, and some of you may be tempted to think that I’m being picky, grabbing onto a few mistakes and holding them up as a big deal. So you must understand that these are not isolated incidents. There’s an inconsistency in logic to be found on nearly every page. I’m leaving out most of them in the interests of not driving you insane.

First, let’s talk about the Empress and her court. When she holds court, she has the whole thing broadcast to everyone–noble and commoner alike. During court she has all of her undercover agents make contact and explain what they’re doing through her esper (i.e., the esper takes on the voice and mannerisms of the agent and reports on everything he or she is doing). Supposedly the lack of a name makes the agents anonymous. Now, if you were a part of an underground movement and you watched this broadcast, and you heard a report of an agent who has infiltrated your group (really–they talk about who they’ve infiltrated openly), and you got a good listen to his voice and look at his mannerisms, wouldn’t you go find out who the agent was and kill him within 24 hours?

Now let’s talk about the Empress’ funky stasis field. She uses it when questioning a man at some point. The idea is that she can “speed up time” in the stasis field, aging the man 10 years in the space of seconds–which of course she proceeds to do. Err, if the field is speeding up time, then shouldn’t the guy inside of it starve to death during that decade?

In the worst scene of the entire book (don’t worry, this is in the first fifth of the book–I’m not giving anything important away), a bunch of espers break into the impossible-to-break-into court room. Instead of killing the standard-issue lunatic all-powerful ruler, they… throw a cream pie in her face. They give the excuse that if they killed her someone just like her would take her place (a silly assumption, since supposedly the ruler just before her was much more reasonable), and that she somehow can’t take horrific revenge for something as non-violent as a cream pie. Didn’t anyone read the briefing about her being totally INSANE? She of course proceeds to kill all the espers, who with their last breath declare that they’ll kill her someday (considering that they should have easily predicted that she’d kill them, that’s a pretty sudden change of policy). To make matters worse, later on you find out things that make it ridiculous that the esper who threw the cream pie would have ever been that non-violent–it’s simply out-of-character for her.

We’re told “it wouldn’t do for the lower orders to see the aristocracy dying. It might give them ideas.” But the lower orders see the aristocracy die all the time in those court broadcasts.

We’re told that most people in this universe are normal humans, yet I’m not actually sure that we ever see a truly normal human. Everyone is hyped up somehow–genetic advantages, genetic manipulation, psychic powers, super training, battle drugs. Nearly everyone in the book is, at one time or another, described as moving “too fast for the eye to follow.”

And I simply must mention the food taster who died because he checked everyone’s food but his own. Most people taste their food automatically when they eat it.

I’d try to explain the weird logic behind the fact that projectile guns have been replaced by energy guns that take two minutes to recharge between shots, but why bother? It would take several convoluted paragraphs and at least four or five inconsistencies and contradictions, and really all you need to know is that the entire thing is a plot device to justify having sword fights all through the book.

And I’m sorry, but if the adaptive horrific living alien city really wanted to kill off the people wandering through it, it would have dropped a building on them or opened the entire street up under them, rather than killing them off one at a time in as melodramatic a manner as possible.

The truly amazing part is that the author himself makes his plot holes obvious by having characters handily explain why something couldn’t have happened the way it happened. I think in some cases he’s simply forgotten that he wrote it a different way five pages earlier, and in others he thinks that having a character say “well gee, I have no idea!” will make us think that he’s thought about the issue and has a solution that we just don’t know about… which I’m not buying for a second.

Characters literally contradict themselves or change their views from one sentence or page to the next. The party breezes through security just after noting that it’s “tighter than ever.” One character gives two separate and contradictory explanations for the creation of an alien artifact, two pages apart. The narrative notes that conditions in a chase make aiming impossible just before a character aims and blows someone away. A character notes that there aren’t any sensors visible in a doorway, then holds his ring up to a sensor. And this is one of my favorite (hah!) bits of dialogue between two people:

“Those aren’t real trees, any more than this is real sunlight.”
Owen frowned. “You mean these trees are fakes?”
“Oh, they’re real enough.”

(My translation: “These trees aren’t real.” “You mean they aren’t real?” “No, they’re real.”)

And did I mention that everything and its brother is dubbed the next stage of human evolution, or the most powerful esper ever created? And how come alien cities and artifacts always kill off the bad guys so darn obligingly?

Okay, I’ll stop now. Sorry. I got a little carried away there.

Saving Grace? Maybe Not

For a while I thought, “well, at least this isn’t as bad as the last book I gave a single star to, because that one was rampantly misogynistic, and this one has strong (if cardboard) female characters.” But that was until the main female character noted that:

“I was feeling down, and just in the mood to be bossed about and mistreated by someone big and dumb and domineering. You know how it is.”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Cyder admitted.

(Cyder being another strong female character.) The wording, of course, implying that it’s utterly normal for any strong female to feel the need to go get battered about by some psychopathic creep when she’s feeling down. Particularly since the domineering guy in question wasn’t just some jerk–he was a super-violent killing machine who likes using people in the worst ways. It’s one thing to have an otherwise strong character who makes a really stupid decision or two; it’s another to imply that all other characters of the same race, gender, etc. would see that as reasonable and perhaps even inevitable.


This is the kind of book that gives science fiction a bad name, that makes people think the genre as a whole is badly-written, adolescent fluff. It has almost no redeeming features, and makes every mistake and blunder in the book and then some. Twice. Maybe more like twenty or thirty times. The truly optimistic part of me hopes that maybe this is the result of Green saying to himself, “let’s see how bad a book I can get away with writing and still get it published.”

So don’t read this book–not if you have any sensitivity whatsoever to writing quality. It just isn’t worth the pain.

Standard warnings: Blood. Violence. Guts. Sex. Rampant stupidity.

Posted in Reviews
2 comments on “"Deathstalker," Simon R. Green
  1. miz says:

    Wow. I think you lack the perspective that is needed to be truly critical. Your critique comes off scathing and pompous. I would guess that your lover ran off with a science fiction writer and you are reaching for your pound of flesh.

    While Simon R. Green is clearly not an Asimov he has a certain charm, albeit the dime store novel type. His writing is fluid his concepts are unique.

    The genre of science fiction does not have to be based on scientific factuality’s and logic, there is room for creative construction, the creative force is the vehicle behind every writer. Simon R. Green is true to that spirit. The greatest science fiction writers allow the imagination to fill in the gaps where logic and factuality are not present.

    As for your Mr. Obvious statement, you really show your ignorance. That is called a literary device. He can spend time writing pages and pages describing characters and their perspective back stories or he can tell an entire story in a sentence or a name, it was quite brilliant and a tool that he chose to use to allow his readers to jump straight to the action.

    Of course his writing may not be your cup of tea. You may prefer a different style and that is well within your prerogative. Simon R. Green is certainly no Eric Frank Russell nor an Alan Dean Foster but he cuts his own niche and that’s to be appreciated.

    If I am going to spend the time to read a critique or a review, I would like to hear from someone who has, at the very least, the integrity to not shit all over another persons talent and ability. Try a little objectivity.

    You come off like a failing writer whose dreams are crushing them into the ground. Your perspective from the gutter stinks, rise above it, and learn from those who publish, recognize the good and point it out as well as the things that you have trouble with. Balance is the key to writing. You can be ridiculous if you can be serious. You can be sad if there is joy, and certainly hate if there is love. Anyone who reads your review knows what you hate about Simon R. Greens, Deathstalker, but what did you love? If you can’t find that, well then you will never understand why he was published.

    As to publishing well, it is someone’s job to recognize talent and writing and they get paid very well to do it. In fact they put their reputation and livelihood on the line every time they allow a writer to publish. You on the other hand, sacrifice nothing in spouting your opinion. Try putting your heart into it and maybe you will understand why Green gets book deals.


  2. Heather says:

    I’m sorry you feel that way, but certainly you’re entitled to your opinion. I find it interesting, however, that you think it improper for me to criticize someone else’s writing, but not for you to criticize mine. We’re both entitled to our opinions, whether positive or negative. If what you believe of me were true, I sincerely doubt there’d be only 3 rating-one reviews out of the roughly 500 or so books and items I’ve reviewed. If anything people have said I tend to be, overall, too soft on the books I review. I simply call them as I see them, and try to include enough information that folks can make their own decisions. If that approach bothers you, well, I hope you find other reviewers more to your taste. And believe me, if I’m going to be jealous of any writers, it’s going to be Garth Nix, Anne Bishop and Patricia McKillip–three authors whose works truly shine with talent and skill.


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