Bookshelf (Starburst Reviews) Bookshelf compiled by David Howe
• part of Starburst's monthly Reviews section
selected from Starburst #263

Selected this month:Chris Bunch’s latest epic Fantasy novel The Empire Stone and an SF classic from Gollancz, Wasp

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Wasp by Eric Frank Russell
Published by Gollancz • 175pp, paperback

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‘What separates Mowry from the alien herd and regular folks is what distinguishes all the great heroes; a higher sense of morality...’

Remember those yellow and purple dust-jackets on SF books in libraries? Well they’re back. Among the first batch of Victor Gollancz’ new line of Collector’s Editions is this slim 1957 novel by Eric Frank Russell, and it’s a corker.

Earth’s secret weapon in the war against the Sirians is a number of highly trained individuals chosen for their predisposition towards practical jokes, quick thinking, confidence and belligerence. James Mowry is one such. Dropped far behind enemy lines on the colony planet Jaimec, he is charged with the task of disrupting the Sirian war effort using such unorthodox methods as antigovernment propaganda, spreading rumour and encouraging dissent, impersonation of various officials, opportunist assassination and a postal campaign.

Mowry is James Bond, TV’s The Equalizer, Jim Phelps’ Mission: Impossible team, and The Dirty Dozen all rolled into one. The Sirians are clearly modelled on the Soviets, with Mowry’s chief enemies cloned from the surly Gestapo stock of numerous Hollywood movies.

The terrorism aspect of this story, including letter bombs and random murder, may seem a little more shocking and callous today than it did when written, yet it is to Russell’s credit that unlikely war hero Mowry emerges as a sympathetic character. We are on his side even when he’s wreaking havoc and mayhem like Bruce Willis’ younger, smarter brother. Of course, what separates Mowry from the alien herd and regular folks is what distinguishes all the great heroes; a higher sense of morality than those he opposes. It’s no surprise, then, that the Sirians are defeated not simply by the actions of a single metaphorical wasp (stinging the sleeping giant) but their rulers’ paranoid mistrust of its own people.

Other titles in the new Gollancz series include Robert Silverberg’s Tower of Glass, Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity and Michael Bishop’s No Enemy but Time.

Starburst rating: 9 / 10
Tony Lee

The Empire Stone by Chris Bunch
Published by Orbit • 359pp, trade paperback

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'Scheming women, pirates, tentacled monsters, slavery, demons, and religious fanatics are just some of the hazards...'

The quest in Chris Bunch’s latest epic Fantasy novel The Empire Stone takes its engaging and resilient protagonist to all corners of the mandatory map.

Peirol of the Moorlands is not your typical hero – he may be blond, and have a face and ‘six pack’ to die for, but he’s also bow-legged and under 5 foot tall. What ‘the dwarf’ lacks in height, however, he makes up for in other areas. He’s courageous, quick-witted, and a skilled gemcutter. He also has a weakness for the opposite sex.

Peirol agrees to retrieve the Empire Stone – a legendary jewel that has fascinated him since he was a boy – for magician Abbas and his beautiful (what else?) daughter. Scheming women, pirates, tentacled monsters, slavery, demons, and religious fanatics are just some of the hazards he faces over the next three years. And when he finally locates the stone, it has terrible consequences and he is faced with a dilemma.

Bunch tells his story at a brisk pace in workmanlike prose. He’s clearly researched gem cutting in some detail and has an artilleryman’s knowledge of cannons and culverins, but for the most part he allows the information to serve his plot rather than vice-versa. Through the likeable hero’s eyes, we see at first hand the barbarity of warfare and the haphazard nature of victory. Bunch also has a sly sense of humour. Peirol isn’t averse to using psychological warfare when it suits him – witness the supposedly cursed phallus he sends to one of his paramour’s husbands!

I was also amused by the citizens of Isfahan, who, while awaiting their Redeemer, have been forbidden by their prophet Makonnen to trade and so quote selectively from his sayings and exchange ‘gifts’ instead. The Empire Stone is an undemanding and enjoyable read.

Starburst rating: 7 / 10
Barbara Davies

Reviews © Visual Imagination 2000. Not for reproduction