High above the heavy air, the March People and the winged Drak met where the two suns crossed: locked in a battle as old as the ritual of life itself. For Amarson and his fierce lady Ameera, to live was to kill Drak; to die was nothing. That was the Law—until the long-winged Flier came, riding the crest of the thermocline….
In this masterful science fantasy adventure, S. Kye Boult has created a world that is both grippingly intense and luminously strange.
Hoo boy, this is an interesting one!
For starters, S. Kye Boult is not the author’s real name. Is anyone surprised by that? The author was actually named William E. Cochrane. He apparently took the name from the Skybolt missile, which he worked on for Douglas Aircraft. It’s apparent from the book that the guy definitely knew some stuff about airplanes, too. The novel is chock full of them. Aerial dogfights galore.
I also read on the ISFDB that this novel is a fix-up of several short stories. Five, I think. All the stories dealt with the same main character, Amarson, and his efforts to fight the villainous Drak.
Well, they might not be so villainous. I’ll get to that.
The thing about this book is that it takes place on another, unnamed planet, and is populated entirely by alien species. There’s not a single human in this book. That really took me by surprise in a good way. That’s not something I see very often.
We’re not told exactly what these alien species look like, either. It’s a clever bit of writing that hints at what these guys are supposed to be like without going “They are dog people.” After all, there are no dogs in the story, so you can’t have a character say it out loud, and having it described in narration is clunky. There’s not even a prologue thing to get it all going, it’s just there. Bam.
Well, Amarson isn’t actually a dog person. I think he’s more of a cat person? His people have claws that can retract, that much I know for sure, and they’re furred. They’re also an honorable warrior people who fly airplanes.
As soon as all that started to sink in, which took until about a quarter of the book, to be honest, I was pretty hooked. This was a genuinely interesting tale, even if the “warrior race” angle is a bit overplayed in both sci-fi and fantasy. Still, as the tale went on and I realized that there was never going to be a human character put in to give me some perspective, I got more and more into it. I wanted to know about these people and what they did and why.
What hurt it, though, was that the book was a fix-up. The different sections felt disconnected, with long periods of time passing between them, so the book really felt more like a short-story compilation than a novel at times.
Amarson and his people are fighting a long war against some things called Draks. The cover of the book portrays them as bat-people, and I’m in no position to argue. They have big claws and are described as barely sentient, but they use tools like spears. Amarson’s people are pledged to help protect some other folks, The Rivermen, from the Draks, as well as protect themselves.
The Rivermen are described even less than the March People (Amarson’s species). We know they have to keep moist or they get anxious, and that their religious rituals seem to focus on water, but they don’t live in the water. I imagined them as dolphin people but they may have been some kind of amphibian. They’re a lot smaller than the March People and don’t fight for themselves much, although one of their number is an inventor and provides weapons and technology to Amarson and his fliers.
Religious rituals take up a lot of the book. Amarson has all these chants and things that he does while he’s flying and they do seem to have some effect. There’s one to get him combat ready, another to calm him down afterward, one to hone his reflexes as he passes the thermocline, and so on.
The very first part of the book was obviously a short story, and in that form it was probably a pretty good one. It just tells the story of Amarson fighting some Draks and then trying to get back home, hoping that he has enough fuel to make it. If he comes short, he’ll land in this big mud sea and die. He makes it. We don’t get much info on him or his people here, just a quick tale of bravery and danger. I liked it.
After that things start to bog down. In one section Amarson is presented with a new weapon for the airplanes. It’s a sort of machine gun, run on pneumatics, and it has an astounding fire rate that takes down Draks like butter. Amarson and his fellow pilots (which he calls his cubs) fight some Draks and kick some butt.
Theiu, the Riverman inventor who helps Amarson out a lot, later presents him with yet another device. Actually, two. One’s a new kind of flier, a broad-winged thing that looks unwieldy in combat but serves well as a bomber. On top of that, he gets a poison that he can spray all over the some Drak-infested areas, dooming them to sterility. Amarson flies the mission and all goes well.
Somewhere along those lines he meets Ameera, a female March Person. They fall in love. At first I was all “Ugh they fall in love immediately and she pledges herself to him after, like, one combat situation” but as I thought about it it didn’t bother me too much. It’s really dumb and juvenile when it happens to characters that are humans, but since these folks aren’t humans I’m willing to cut them some slack. They’ve got different ways from us, and it just so happens that those different ways are similar to poorly-written romance subplots with human protagonists.
We cut to something like five years in the future. The Draks are no longer threatening anyone. Somewhere in there Amarson got made a baron, which is funny to me because my concept of barons is that they’re always the most evil class of nobility. Baron Amarson feels a bit restless since, after all, his entire life has been pledged to killing these things. He’s on a hunting trip with Ameera when they suddenly see a single Drak. He sets out, on foot this time, to kill it, but when he finds the thing it seems to have a family and is protecting it. Amarson lets them live.
The last little story features some more Draks, since it seems that hosing them down didn’t take care of all of them. There’s an air battle but some strange planes are involved. They’re more like gliders and they shoot rockets instead of machine guns. They fight as valiantly as Amarson and his crew, earning his respect. One of them goes down and Amarson goes to retrieve the body and give it a proper funeral.
The body is strange, shorter than a March Person and even furrier. They seemed like bears to me, but again, there wasn’t that much physical description. The thing’s flight log (written in the minutes before the pilot died) tells Amarson that the thing is named Bryn and that his people are similar to Amarson’s in terms of religion, suggesting a common heritage.
One of the really neat things about this world is that it was a double star system and a lot of the religious elements tie into that. There’s the Elder Sun and the Younger Sun. The Elder Sun is a huge red giant that spans the horizon. The Younger Sun is a smaller one, maybe a white dwarf or something, that circles the Elder Sun, so there’s all this religious significance to the fact that the Younger Sun rises, stops rising, and then goes back the way it came. Orreries depicting the movement of the suns and the planet have a lot of ritual significance. Bryn has one such orrery in his cockpit with him, as do Amarson and his fighters, hammering home the mutual ancestry, at least on a religious level.
Amarson reads Bryn’s log and we get this whole huge thing, another short story really, that is mostly battle scenes. Like most of the battle scenes in the book, it was well written, with a lot of action and good storytelling. These scenes really were the strongest part of the book, and it’s eminently clear how familiar with aircraft the author was. It’s just that between the air battles there’s not much to go on.
The book ends with Amarson giving Bryn a funeral and then using his flight log to trace where he came from so that he can deliver the body to his people. Amarson also has high hopes that in this post-Drak society he’ll be able to set up a trading network with these people. Apart from the occasional thoughts in that direction Amarson doesn’t have much of a goal in life, which does make a bit of sense, although it’s not really fun to read the story of a general whose war is over and so he wanders around complaining about it. Maybe someone somewhere has made that work, but S. Kye Boult didn’t.
Amarson meets with the other pilot people, finds out that they can sort of understand each other, and the book ends with high hopes.
Even if there wasn’t much story in this book I liked large swaths of it. Amarson’s culture wasn’t boldly original to me in general, but there were some good details that made for interesting reading. I actually liked learning about all the little sayings and chants that his people had for different situations, notably their for-all-purposes proverb “Blood only stains the hands” (that phrase might appear on nearly every page, and its meaning seems to flux with context). The author made it clear that this is an honorable fighting people and based a pretty decent culture around that.
I was particularly interested in some of the choices the author made in terms of word usage. For one, all mountains seem to be referred to as “alps.” That shook me and made me wonder if this actually took place on another planet at all. That little fact made me wonder if it might have taken place on a far-future, post-human Earth. I feel like it could make some sense, with the Sun blowing up to a red giant some millions of years in the future. The Younger Sun could be anything. Maybe an ignited Jupiter? Something else entirely? Maybe I’m way off?
There’s also the fact that the giant bat creatures are called Draks. Could that be anything but a reference to Dracula? On one hand it might just be the author playing around a bit, but it could refer to something deeper in the narrative. I’m running with that.
The Draks are weird, though, because they’re not a villainous race of evil monsters out to enslave anybody or take over the world. They’re barely sapient and are probably just acting on instinct. They kill people, yes, but it seems they do it for food. The Rivermen are especially tasty, apparently. This serves to make Amarson a bit less of a monster, I suppose. He’s not committing genocide against an entire people, he’s wiping out dangerous vermin. It was interesting, however, to see him face up to the fact that the Draks apparently have families and can be protective of them, just like a person would. Sadly, that touch of understanding doesn’t seem to come up again.
So all told this was a pretty fun action novel without a lot of deep meaning to it. In a way that would have been hard to do—without any humans in the narrative it’s hard to tie it to human issues without coming across as telling an Aesop’s fable in space or a Jataka tale in the far future. Instead it’s got a neat idea about possibly-cat people fighting bat-people in biplanes they got from possibly-dolphin people and then they meet some possibly-bear people.
It really did get hard to read near the end, though. It tapered off without much holding it together. If you decide to give this one a go, see if you can find the short stories and read those, or else treat the book as a collection of those stories. Don’t expect too much in terms of a cohesive long-term plot and you’ll be okay.