HEL’S EIGHT by Stark Holborn (Book Review)
In Hel’s Eight, Holborn returns to the desolate moon of Factus and her ex-con protagonist Ten Low, both place and person strangely haunted by the “Ifs.” You can read my review of Holborn’s first excursion into this compelling but hostile landscape here. In Hel’s Eight Stark delivers more of the desperate dystopian existence, an endless struggle for survival. The barrenness of Factus’s environment and the iniquity of the governing factions and corporations sit in sharp contrast to the lush vibrancy of Holborn’s prose.
As Ten Low and a companion are forced to cross on foot a dry desert better driven over
“We walk through noon, shadows squirming beneath our boots… With each step, the ground cracks beneath my feet, sending up dust until it is like trying to breathe chalk. It curdles with the sweat on my face and forms a paste that dries and flakes from my skin like plaster.”
Second books in a series can be tricky. Sometimes the first book ended on a falls of Rauros style cliff hanger, and the reader is hungry to find out what happened next (and possibly frustrated at being kept waiting!). However, Ten Low like Triggernometry (another of Stark’s books I’ve enjoyed reviewing) was an effective standalone story that tied up its plot threads neatly, if not quite in the tidy bow of ‘and they all lived happily ever after.’ In Ten Low Holborn gave her characters and her readers a narrative landing pad that they could walk away from. Hel’s Eight picks up the characters after a few years gap ready to launch them on a fresh adventure (Much as Advanced Triggernometry picked up the mathematical sharp-shooter Malachy Brown after what the reader might hope was a comfortable and relaxing hiatus).
Those second books that are not a simple continuation of an unfinished story face both opportunities and perils for the author and the reader. We read because we find the characters compelling, we want to know what happens to them and – in the course of a good story – to watch those characters grow and change. But at the same time we know what we like and we like what we know so authors face the challenge of delivering Schrodinger’s sequel – a book that is at once different and the same as its predecessor.
In Hel’s Eight, Holborn interleaves Ten Low’s present tense tale of current events on Factus (and elsewhere) with past tense journal entries recorded by Pec Esterhazy – one of the earliest arrivals on the prison colony moon several decades before Low’s own landing. Esterhazy’s story overlapped with Low’s when the grizzled old convict played a significant part in the closing stages of Ten Low, so this insight into her back story makes a nice blend of familiarity and innovation. The journal itself is no mere digression as Pec, the characters in the pages of her journal, and even the journal itself force their way into Low’s present-time experience.
While much of the action takes place on the decidedly inhospitable surface of Factus and its war torn shanty towns, we do get some off world excursions to add colour (and comfort) to the challenging future of Holborn’s imagination.
And, in the endless churn of life and death on Factus there is plenty of opportunity for new characters to arise and capture our attention, even as old ones fall into the dusty wayside. For example, we meet Rouf – a young mercenary with a metal hand, who wants wealth but needs friends. There is also the Alcaide (fortress commander) Baba Guelo – a villain well versed in psychological torture who wants to force Low into ‘performing’ by conjuring and directing chaos at will. And beyond Guelo lurks the shadowy figure of Lutho Xoon, corporate chief of Xoon Futures which is aggressively buying up or taking out every scrap of Factus territory that it can. That shift from the political villains and manipulators of Ten Low to the power-hungry corporate corruptors of society in Hel’s Eight possibly reflects transitions in contemporary society between the writing of the two books!
We and Low get to resume the acquaintance of some old and capable friends. Well, I say old, but General Gabi Ortz wasn’t exactly old when we last met her as a ferocious thirteen year old genetically augmented solider of the Accord. Five years later she is still a teenager, and has lost none of the sharpness of tongue and reflexes that was made her so engaging a character. For example when Rouf unwisely intrudes on a conversation between Low and Gabi.
‘We were almost eaten alive by Road agents,’ Rouf says, pushing through the curtain and grimacing as they sit.
Gabi stares at them hard before switching her gaze to me. ‘Who is this silverfish and why are they talking to me?’
Along the way we also catch up with Malady Falco, leader of a generally benevolent bunch of reprobates the G’hal, and the fly-boy, Silas with whom Low once enjoyed an overdue and well-earned moment of tenderness.
Factus itself continues to surprise with its varied landscape of deserts, mines and huddled tin shack communities. While not exactly beautiful, the reader can’t help but feel a certain affection for the honest harshness of its environment. As Low says
‘I thought I hated this place, but my chest aches at the sight of it, like a dislocated bone pushed back into place. I place a hand to the window, almost laughing that a forbidding, desolate rock that once served as the Accord’s dumping ground for the scum of the system should feel like home.’
And again we have the Ifs the jewel in Factus’s dusty crown, a feat of alien invention that sets a bar for any writer’s imagination. My favourite Dr Who monster was the one introduced in an episode that barely featured the Doctor or his companion Martha. I refer of course to the weeping angels who, besides being quantum locked so they can only move when observed, attacked by flinging their victims into the past and ‘feeding’ off the lost opportunities that went with that temporal displacement. (Sadly, in later appearances the Weeping Angels seemed to abandon that unique attack feature and become more routinely murderous.) Holborn’s Ifs have that similar gem of imagination – creatures/beings/entities that live of probabilities and possibilities, gracing a few with visions of possible futures, while hoping to ‘feed’ by steering the future into a path of maximum chaos.
With their influence strongest in the murky Edge region on Factus, nearby settlements eschew any game of chance, no dice, no cards where even a tossed coin can bring the Ifs charging in to wreak havoc.
I admire the alien-profligate imagination of Adrian Tchaikovsky who (besides the evolutionarily accelerated spiders, octopuses and even crows of Children of Time, Children of Ruin and Children of Memory) gave us a different kind of alien in an electron-microscopic entity of encoded DNA. However, Holborn doesn’t gift her the Ifs even that much of a physical existence. Instead swirling ephemeral clouds of malicious chance swarm around Low giving visions of bloody futures but without distinction between what will or what could happen.
Holborn’s prose is full as ever of poetic imagery and glorious lines, whether delivering pencil sketches of side characters like Pure
Simon Pure the data broker sits in the armoured booth like a soft-bodied crab squashed into a discarded shell.
His voice is casual, but it doesn’t do to forget how sharp Lazar is, beneath the rust of this place.
Or capturing the sensation of the Ifs clustering around Low
Already I can feel the strange greasiness in the air, as if the world has turned and I’m on the wrong side, looking at its weft.
Or taking leave of another friend she might not see again
‘Wish me luck,’ I say, voice breaking.
I turn into that gap where my name should be, climb onto the mare and ride into the darkness.
As the story opens Low is lurking in isolation near the Edge still paying off the debt of lives she once took by offering life-saving medical care to those that dare to come close to the domain of the Ifs. But a visitor comes to draw her back in defence of the fragile shoots of independent civilisation on Factus. The Ifs show her a disaster, but not whether it will come to pass if she stays or if she goes.
Holborn’s style is reassuringly light on exposition, though she also eschews the kind of catch up summary that seems to becoming fashionable. The immerse approach drops the reader into a potential confusion of factions, people and places – like riding a mule into a sandstorm – but one always has confidence in Holborn’s mastery of her narrative. The various threads gradually weave themselves into a coherent and thoroughly enjoyable whole.
This second book in Low’s tale builds elegantly on the world and story of the first and leaves scope for further future visits to Factus and other worlds of the somewhat fragile Accord. Holborn has developed Low’s compassion, or at least the regret and restraint she shows in the taking of lives. In Ten Low she seemed driven by the simple accounting of life and death and the need to balance her own ledger (and in particular to save Gabi despite the fact that the adolescent general would only ever view her as a traitor). In Hel’s Eight we get more a sense of grief for the shearing of so many threads of possibility, so many unwalked future avenues, that death entails. It is a reminder of what complicated and entangled lives we lead ripe with potential, even if our personal wave functions eventually collapse to just one road. However, Low is determined that even on a place so devoid of resources, promise, or opportunity as Factus, anything is possible!
Hel’s Eight is due for release on 21st March and is available to pre-order HERE