Tuesday, 2 December 2003

The Life Eaters

David Brin and Scott Hampton
Wildstorm/DC Comics
ISBN: 1-4012-0098-2

In our world the SS of Hitler’s Third Reich were rumoured to have revived the mysticism of the old world, attempting to practise magic and believing themselves the heirs to a curious blend of knighly traditions, from Charlemagne to Arthur. In the world of ‘The Life Eaters’, the allies are in trouble – the magic worked and the troops wading ashore during D-day are met not only by tanks and gunfire but also by the living avatars of the Norse gods! As the allied forces fall back and further back and the Nazis prepare to invade North America, a small group of soldiers head into the heart of the enemy in a desperate attempt to destroy the Aesir and level the playing field…

A generation later and half the world lies under the rule of the Norse pantheon, the Nazis who summoned them no longer the masters but obeying the Aesir’s every wish. The war has expanded, pushing into every corner of the globe, but others have summoned gods of their own and now the supernatural entities duke it out on the battlefield, annihilating whole battalions. Meanwhile, a small contingent or rebels, what remains of the United Nations, struggle to banish all of the gods from Earth and return it to human rule, while in the Middle East the devoted of all religions gather, old feuds forgotten in the face of false ‘gods’.

The idea of the gods taking a hand in the Second World War is an interesting one with lots of potential, but splitting the book to cover two separate stories hampers any great depth of plot. The first third details the allied commando attack on the Aesir in WWII and despite the fact that it sets the scene and provides motivation and inspiration for the irritatingly unnamed hero it seems fairly irrelevant to the main body of the tale – a few short pages would have sufficed.

The main storyline deals with events in what is roughly the present day, as the war spirals out of control, and focuses on not the super-powered characters but on the normal everyday humans, examining the nature of heroism and arguing that it is the nobility of normal people that makes a true hero; not superhuman abilities but strength of will and determination to succeed regardless of the odds. The final showdown is dramatic and exciting, yet emphasises the story’s theme of humans as the true heroes. While characterisation throughout is skimpy at best, in a way this reinforces the idea of humanity as a whole, working to preserve their way of life and man’s place at the top of the hierarchy. Similarly, the namelessness of the main hero only serves to build on this idea of selflessness, working for something greater than one man.

There is a clever blend of science and fantasy, from the equatorial gods burning toe oilfields to speed up the greenhouse effect and fry their icy northern rivals to Ragnarok and Loki’s chosen climbing Yggdrasil to escape the dying world, although ‘The Life Eaters’ reads a little like a list of all the disparate elements David Brin took a liking to. Nazis… check. Gods and ritual magic… check. Rocket packs and mecha… check. If it were just a blend of fantasy and modern-day reality it would have worked, but the strange futuristic technology feels out of place and no explanation is ever given as to how tech in Brin’s world advanced so much faster than ours following the Second World War – realism is sacrificed on the altar of Big Shiny Robots. A shame, as apart from that the world is a realistic one, with the effect of the gods on this century’s events portrayed in a plausible and thought-provoking manner.

Scott Hampton’s art is excellent, being both detailed and realistic. There is nothing of the abstract in his work, each frame showing what is there and nothing else but doing so in vivid, intricate detail. In particular those frames showing locations and immobile objects are superb, giving each place and item an individuality and life of its own. The only place Hampton’s art fails to satisfy is in effectively giving the impression of movement, but that is a minor complaint only.

All in all this is a thoughtful and well-drawn blend of fantasy and realism, one which wins bonus points for having one of those cute ribbon bookmarks built in. Though the epilogue leaves things open for a second book, I feel there’s little that could be added and Brin’s messages of co-operation and the power of normal people have been hammered home effectively. Insightful and indifferent, ‘The Life Eaters’ will find a welcome place on my ‘Everyman Heroes’ shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com