Earl Dumarest. Space-wanderer, gladiator-for-hire, seeker for Man’s forgotten home.
Dumarest’s search begins in the ghost-world of Gath, where he becomes unwilling champion of the Matriarch of Kund, and must undergo a fight-to-the-death at stormtime.
Victory could give Dumarest his first clue to the whereabouts of the planet he fled from as a child—an obscure world scarred by ancient wars which lies countless light years from the thickly populated centre of the galaxy; a world no-one else in the inhabited universe believes exists:
Earth, birthplace of Man.
Is the cover to this book the best ever? I love it so much. Skull mountains! Terry “Hulk” Hogan! A half-dressed lady who looks extremely bored! Is it just me, or does it look like she’s checking her watch?
This is part of the stack that Joachim Boaz sent me about a year ago. It seems like every time I feel like I’ve picked out all the good ones, I notice yet another that deserves a good read. I’m not sure how this one escaped me for so long. The cover is amazing. Part of it could be that I’ve read two E.C. Tubb novels already and I wasn’t sure when would be a good time to bring in a third. I’m glad I decided that now was that good time, because this book was great.
The back of the book was misleading, as you might have expected. The second sentence, the one about being an unwilling champion, is pure baloney. He does at one point fight a guy and that earns him the right to hang around with the Matriarch of Kund…’s beautiful heiress, Seena. There’s no fight-to-the-death at stormtime, though. Well, not exactly. There’s a lot of fighting come stormtime, and a lot of people die, but really this synopsis makes it sound like he’s got a big fight scheduled on pay-per-view coming up and that’s not at all what happened.
And then there’s the fact that Dumarest is looking for Earth, birthplace of Man. This much is true. He was born there and there’s a great bit where somebody is quizzing him about his past. They’re like “What planet are you from?” and he’s like “Earth” and the quizzer is like “Everybody calls the ground on their planet ‘earth.’ That’s not an answer” and he’s all smug and then they go “What’s your sun called” and he goes “The Sun” and they’re like “GODDAMMIT.”
But the statement that winning this nonexistent fight will lead him to an important clue is also bogus. Dumarest isn’t so much questing to find his long-lost birthplace as he is just trying to survive and hoping that sometimes clues will fall into his lap. I guess sometimes they do, but that doesn’t happen in this book, whether Dumarest wins his fight or not.
The planet Gath is pretty great, though. Dumarest shows up there after “riding low” on a spaceship. I like this element. “Riding low” is the cheapest method of interstellar travel. It means they freeze you until you get there. Lots of fiction likes to treat that as the better option, since the traveller doesn’t have to worry about being bored or aging or any of that. That’s not the case here. “Riding high” is first-class. It’s luxury all the way. “Riding middle” is like taking coach, I guess. Dumarest took the low option, which means while he got to skip all the boring parts, there was a chance he wouldn’t wake up again.
Dumarest is a swell guy. I’m not sure why people call him “Earl.” That could be either a name or a title. Nothing ever suggests that it’s actually a title, so I guess we have a protagonist in a far future space drama who is named Earl. That’s okay. Earl’s a perfectly fine name.
Ugh, now I’m just picturing the guy driving down I-40 on a lawnmower. This isn’t working. I will never think of this hero as a guy named Earl. It’s impossible.
Other odd names in this book include a guy named Megan and another guy named Sime. Honestly, the weirder one is the guy named Megan. I’ve never once heard of Megan being used as a man’s name. I’ve never heard of Sime being used as a name, either, but this is science fiction, so it’s more normal for somebody to have a fake name than a wrong one.
Anyway, Gath. Gath is neat. It’s tidally locked with its star, so there’s one side that’s always super hot and another side that’s freezing cold. Everybody there lives on the thin strip of perpetual twilight. Gath is also a major tourist hub for the galaxy, because of its mountains and storms.
Something I liked about this book was the fact that the storms were never explained and barely even commented upon. They were taken for granted. The most we ever hear about them before one actually happens is along the lines of “I want to get this tent up before the storm.” Stuff like that. I had to wheedle out clues based on context, and the best I could get is that the storms are a regular phenomenon on this planet, occurring once every four months, and they cause crazy things to happen.
One of the crazy things that happens regards some mountains. I’m not sure if the mountains were named or described in all that much detail, either. Still, they’re the major landmark on Gath, the reason most people come to it in the first place. I’ll come back to that.
Dumarest shows up on this planet against his will. He’d booked passage on this ship bound for somewhere, but then after he’d been put to sleep the ship got re-hired by the Matriarch of Kund and her retinue, among whom is Seena, her heiress, and a Cyclan advisor, Cyber Dyne.
The Cyclan are a group of people who have had their emotions removed so that they can exist in a state of pure logic. In a way they’re like Mentats in Dune, but as it turns out they’ve got insidious plans of their own.
Later a guy named the Prince of Emmened shows up for similar reasons to the Matriarch of Kund. They’re both here to check out the awesome stuff that happens when the storm hits. A big difference is that the Prince of Emmened is a dick. He likes to show off his own retinue of gladiators, one of which Dumarest kills in a great battle scene. Dumarest squares off against the guy and then just kicks his knees into a bloody pulp before killing him. This is supposed to earn him a way off the planet, but instead gets him the attention of Seena, who gets turned on by that kind of thing.
The bulk of the book actually deals with Seena, who is under constant threat of assassination. Lots of people are suspected—rivals to the Matriarchy, the Prince, other galactic powers—but the true assassin isn’t revealed until nearly the end of the book. It turns out to be Cyber Dyne and everybody is surprised.
Everything comes to a head when the storm hits. This part is fantastic. There’s nothing mystical going on, although lots of people seem to think it is. All that happens is that the mountains and the storm interact with one another. The mountains sort of reverberate and echo the noise of the storm. Leading to a
Sound which contained within itself the sum total of every noise that had been made or could be made in the lifetime of the universe.
Cyber Dyne tells us that on page 142. What happens is that anybody hearing that sound will begin to remember things and, in many cases, hallucinate. Since “every possible sound” is brought out by the storm, people hear most vividly the sounds that trigger memories. The voices of relatives long gone, accusations from people once wronged, guilts and fears and bittersweet memories.
Dumarest is able to fight off the effects. Others are not as lucky. The Prince of Emmened is driven insane, for one. He kidnaps Seena and intends to marry her.
I mentioned a guy named Sime a while back and he comes to the forefront here. For the whole book he’s been carrying a coffin. Anybody who asks is informed that his dead wife is in there, and that Sime, driven mad by grief, seems to think that the storm will bring her back to life. It’s a good cover for what’s really going on. After the storm, Dumarest gets hold of the coffin and notices that it’s not as heavy as it should be. There’s a hidden compartment in there that is now empty. Through a leap of logic, he figures out what’s going on.
Sime was carrying a clone of Seena. Or a twin. Or something. Either way, this clone/twin is hanging around with the Matriarch, ready to do bad things. Dumarest figures this out. Cyber Dyne steps in to kill the clone/twin. At first everybody thinks “Oh, good, he’s on our side” but then he lets everybody know that no, he killed the fake Seena so that it wouldn’t be able to tell anybody about its true nature as a Cyclan agent. He blackmails the Matriarch with the knowledge that Seena is actually her own granddaughter or something—Matriarchs of Kund aren’t supposed to have children—and it works for a while.
This is all after Dumarest has set off to rescue the real Seena, so he doesn’t know anything about it. It turns out that she and the Prince are pretty far away. There’s no way anybody could reach them in time to save her, presumably before the Prince leaves the planet or something. I actually forget what the timer was ticking down to. Either way, Dumarest comes up with a plan as great as it is dangerous.
There’s this drug in the Dumarestiverse called slow-time. It’s a metabolism-booster. With it, Dumarest is able to set off after the Prince and Seena, on foot, at well over a hundred miles an hour. This is dangerous because a) the drug was meant for people to relax with, so he’s burning out his body at a fantastic rate, and b) if he hits something it will probably kill him. At one point he does trip and fall while under the effects and leaves a huge gouge on the ground, just so we know that this is fo’ real.
While under the effects of slow-time, Dumarest finds Seena and the Prince. This is my favorite part of the book. Dumarest pulls his hand back to punch the Prince and then manages to stop himself just in time, knowing that if he had connected he likely would have broken his own arm off. Instead he picks up a small rock and throws it at the Prince’s head, which literally explodes.
Dumarest and Seena head back to the Matriarch’s camp, where Cyber Dyne tries to kill him. We learn that the Cyclan are also searching for Earth, a fact that buys Dumarest just enough time to kill Cyber Dyne too. The book ends with Dumarest thinking that maybe his quest will be a little easier now that he has some powerful allies to help him on it.
You know what’s crazy? At first I thought there would be two, maybe three sequels to this book, but then I looked it up, and there are thirty-three. Holy cow.
This book was some rollicking adventure from start to finish. It didn’t have anything noteworthy to say, no lessons or keen observations of human nature, but it was highly entertaining.
Plus it had some pretty neat worldbuilding! One thing I really liked is that, as far as I can remember, all of the technobabble and crazy devices and whatnot actually factored into the plot, but not always at that moment. Slow-time, for one example, was mentioned early in the book and then came back to save the day. While there were also some mentions of things that served only for flavor, they were fewer and farther between than the stuff that actually came up and mattered.
And while the book was far from hard science fiction, it was a lot harder than I would have expected from this kind of adventure story. While the idea that the mountain/storm combination sets up a sound that is the totality of all other sounds is a bit goofy, I’m glad it wasn’t something like psychic crystals or ghost mummies. There was a bit of psi-talk in the book but not much. I feel like that will get more prominent as the series goes on.
The damsel-in-distress angle is a bit off-putting. I’m not sure that Seena ever does anything to help her own situation throughout this book. Other women are painted as powerful and intelligent, such as the Matriarch and a few members of her retinue, but I’m not sure that any of the female characters had any agency at all. This is, of course, hardly surprising, but still, it’s a valid sticking point.
All-in-all, I’m only really disappointed at one thing. Last night as I finished up the book I thought to myself that it would have been fun if I could have said “Dumarest is the dumberest” at one point in this review and meant it. As it is, I can’t. For epic space adventure, this book was both pretty smart and extremely fun.