Starhammer by Christopher Rowley
Published by Del Ray books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Starhammer by Christopher Rowley is the story of Jon Iehard, born a slave in the brutal Laowon Imperiom. The Laowon are a species of blue-skinned humanoids who run a ruthless and repressive empire. They have no concept of a fair trial, and their only form of punishment is expiation by torture. Minor infractions may involve five minutes in the Agony Booth, while major ones may involve slow and painful death for the transgressor's entire family, or even much of the community.
Jon is saved from such a mass execution by a Laowon princess who finds him sexy and makes him her pleasure slave. He uses his favored position to gain enough power to spearhead a palace coup and make good his escape to the small number of systems where humans are not under direct Laowon domination (although they are forced to tolerate a Laowon presence and have "friendly" governments.)
There he faces prejudice from humans who blame him for his own victimization, calling him "laoman" and "laobreed," implying that he's somehow a tainted and less than entirely human because he was not born free but instead had to win his freedom. But he manages to find employment in a police force that handles the Kill Kults, ritualistic mass murders.
While dealing with one of these cultists he rescues and befriends Melissa Baltitude, daughter of a powerful oxygen baron, one of the people who provide breathable atmosphere to the artificial habitats. However her bigoted father is enraged to know that she has even spoken to him without being properly chaperoned and decides to destroy Jon.
Meanwhile the Laowon demand that the humans put their best hunter on the case of a human who murdered a gathering of Laowon big wheels, so Jon is selected for the duty. He gets his friend Meg, a computer whiz who doesn't care about people's backgrounds as long as they're good, to help him. She breaks a bunch of vital information out of a Laowon battlecruiser, discovering in the process that the Laowon intend the human investigation to fail so that they can punish the humans as a race for failing to obtain justice for them.
As a result the Laowon take Meg off to the Brutality Room to be tortured to destruction. Jon discovers this and goes in to break her out. In the process he slaughters a number of laowon, something that makes him a hunted man. He then connects up with Melissa, who uses her small spaceship to get them off the space habitat and off to the comet where the human revolutionary and his friend are waiting.
These humans are members of a sect called Elchites, who believe in the freedom of humanity and know the location of the Winston Churchill, the lost Testamenter battleship which has the last example of the Baada drive which would have given humanity FTL travel. Jon inserts himself and Meg in their group and in a stunning space fight against the Laowon they recover the Churchill and head off to Baraf, where the Starhammer awaits them. However Melissa Baltitude is captured by the Laowon, who figured out she was involved in Jon's escape, and she is held as a tool.
A billion or so years ago Baraf was a wet jungle world, the home of a gentle froglike race of philosophers called the Wisdom Wishing. But they were menaced by the parasitic Vang, a terrible race that regarded all other organisms as either host or food. In a desperate attempt to protect themselves, the Wisdom folk built a device which imploded stars and caused them to go nova.
However the Vang had already landed on their homeworld by the time they could put the device to work, so their entire civilization was doomed. They used their entire sun as reaction mass for some kind of time machine, throwing themselves into the unimaginable future where they hoped to find the Vang destroyed. The Starhammer continued to work after they were gone, destroying the suns of the Vang worlds.
Baraf was captured by Pleonie, one of the Pleadies, and was burned to a barely habitable cinder. In human times a human ship crashlanded there and humans made it their home. By the time the main colonial wave of humanity arrived, the first settlers had mutated into horrible cannibalistic monsters, made all the more dangerous because they were still completely sapient.
It is to this hellhole that Jon and his companions must come. They have a harrowing journey across the sands, narrowly escaping slavers and canibalistic tribes several times. All the time a powerful Laowon fleet is hurrying to stop them, and it turns out that the Starhammer complex is infested with a remnant of the Vang. Finally Jon and two of his companions survive to find the Starhammer and activate the controls. And thus comes the final confrontation with the Regent of the Laowon Empire.
This is of course only a capsule summary of a book that has all sorts of gee-whiz wonderful ideas. It has all the wide-eyed wonder and fast-paced action of the old space operas, but with less rubber science and more modern characterization. Women are companions and confidents who often have as much if not more talent than the male leads. There were only two real problems with the book, and these were both loose plot threads that were never tied in.
First, did Meg ever recover from her catatonia? The last we ever see of her, she is being taken to an Elchite hospice on Baraf and the Elchites promise to tell her what happens when she wakes up. Second, what ever happened to Melissa Baltitude. We last see her a captive of the Laowon, part of the ground assault force that is attacking the Starhammer. Was she destroyed with the rest of the Laowon force when the Starhammer's defenses were activated, or was she spared?
However, those two dropped threads don't damage the enjoyability of the story all that much.
Review posted October 9, 2014
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