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Book Review: Hellhole by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson

hellhole brian herbert kevin j anderson Book Review: Hellhole by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson


Frontier planet Hallholme has earned the moniker Hellhole due to its immensely inhospitable environment: static storms, myriad endemic illnesses, and poor agricultural prospects are just a few of the issues that its down-and-out inhabitants have to deal with. But Hellhole is, after all, a no mans land that at its best is a dumping ground for the Empires unwanted, including General Tiber Adolphus, whose attempt at revolt against the Empire has seen him sent into lifelong exile. But Adolphus refuses to be put down: he has spent years slowly working to unite the numerous nearby independent planets in order to secede from the Empire once and for all. But the Empire, led by the ferocious Diadem Michella, has little intention of letting this happen.

My thoughts

Ill come clean and admit right away that Ive yet to read Dune, Frank Herberts space opera classic to which Hellhole apparently makes more than a passing nod, so youll have to excuse my ignorance here. Still, it doesnt take more than a page or two of Hellhole to realise that Herbert isnt the only influence here: this book departs from modern day progressive SF to wallow shamelessly in the golden space opera stuff of the mid twentieth century, and one can almost picture Asimov and his kind leaping up and down and exclaiming, me too, me too! Unfortunately, Hellhole suffers from many of the issues that plague its ancestors, and lacks the endearing factor that made those earlier books readable despite their shortcomings.

Perhaps the biggest fault of this novel is that its so determinedly epic. Everything about it has a tone of vastness, of hugeness, of verbosity. The cast of characters is George RR Martin-esque, and the setting essentially British colonialism but with bonus space travel. However, while the novels breadth may be impressive to sometheres a clear notion of a huge narrative sandbox in which to playthis breadth results in a significant lack of depth. Were given a number of hastily sketched worlds with which we must become accustomed, and all of them in the midst of political tumult. In addition, were made to contend with the various sources of alienation and disenchantment touched upon throughout the novel: these range from civil war to invasion to alien forces to usurpation. While each of these is an admirable and intriguing theme in its own right, theres so much going on here that the reader is given little more than a cursory description of whats going on.

Another issue, to me at least, is the political machinations that are the focus of this book. Were given a political system thats straight out of feudal times, with noble families and Lairds and Ladies galore, and one thats crumbling under its own decadence. While I know that space opera is typically old-fashioned and conservative in nature, I always find the notion of aristocratic society reclaiming dominance over meritocratic systems rather tough to believe. And particularly when the politicians in this book seem to be more focused on sex scandals than anything else.

On that topic, I cant help but note that I found the depiction of relationships, marriages, and power balances rather an issue in this novel. Weve reverted to times where individuals (namely women) are married off into politically notable families, and the whole thing smacks of a destructive John Howard-esque nostalgia for white picket fences and apron-clad homemakers. In addition, the way in which women are depicted in this novel is an issue, too. While were given a female figurehead in Michella, shes depicted as a power-hungry ingenue (indeed I imagine her as evil Mom from Futuramaincidentally, while were at it, I also envisage the unpleasantly named Adolphus as Adama from Battlestar Galactica), and any other notionally powerful women are in such a position due to the fact that theyve clawed their way back from the brink after suffering at the hands of men. One woman, Michellas daughter, is on the run after her extramarital affair with a nobleman is discovered; Tibers lover Sophie is recovering from the slights of her ex-husband; and young Antonia is on the run from a misogynist who, incidentally returns to rape her. The fact that each of the key female character has been cowed for sexual reasons while their male equivalents are on the run due to political or occupational reasons is something that is hard to ignore.

In addition to all of this messiness, were suddenly forced to contend with a subplot about a group of aliens ostensibly seeking their own version of the rapture. Its a plot device that involves X-Files-esque slimy black pools and Bodysnatchers-like possessions, and its one that seems to randomly fall from space and land in chapter 50 (or whichever chapter it isI dont have the book handy), leading to a bit of bemusement on the behalf of the reader. While Id let this sort of narrative zaniness go in an episode of Stargate or even an old issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, this sort of stuff doesnt really have much of a place outside of serialised fiction. (And while were on the theme of serialised fiction, I should point out that Hellhole ends, after 500 or so pages, on a cliffhanger.)

While the various bits and pieces of this plot are interesting enough in their own right, its hard work for the hapless reader, and the poor characterisation thats one of the major shortcomings of this novel doesnt help matters. Characters are drawn with wide, scant brushstrokes, and were never really given enough time with each character to truly get inside their heads. Its a shame, as the worldbuilding is there, and with a more thorough approach to characterisation, this book could have been a good deal stronger.

While ardent lovers of golden age sci fi may revel in the back-to-basics feel of Hellhole, I cant help but feel that its time these old-school authors took a page or two out of the literary oeuvre of some of todays up-and-coming authors. Great sci fi can be world-changing stuff, but this, Im afraid, isnt.


Rating: star Book Review: Hellhole by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Andersonstar Book Review: Hellhole by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Andersonblankstar Book Review: Hellhole by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Andersonblankstar Book Review: Hellhole by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Andersonblankstar Book Review: Hellhole by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson (okay)

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With thanks to Simon & Schuster Australia for the review copy

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