Friday, 1 July 2005

Shadow Warrior

Chris Bunch
Orbit Books
ISBN: 1-84149-332-5

In the years following the Al’ar war Joshua Wolfe has done pretty well for himself. His friends in the Federation military have proved a useful network for a bounty hunter to have and work is steady. Life is as good as it’s been for a long time, better than it was in the Al’ar prison camps, yet things spiral swiftly out of control when a contract to bring back a thief and his swag reveals something suspicious. Someone is collecting Lumini, the strange gemstones used by the Al’ar to focus their mental abilities, and they’re none too fussy about how they get hold of them.

Joshua’s life becomes even more complicated when Federation Intelligence call him in on a contract of their own. Out near the Al’ar homeworlds, long abandoned since that strange race mysteriously vanished in the face of their utter defeat, something is moving. Perhaps the Al’ar are not as gone as they seemed? Or perhaps some faction within the government itself seeks to turn the aliens’ powers to their own use? Joshua Wolfe doesn’t know, but people are trying to kill him. That’s one good reason to find out. Along the way, maybe he can come to better understand his own close relationship with the Al’ar – the respect that led them to name him, unique among humans, as one of their own. To name him as the Shadow Warrior.

This compilation consists of the three books in the ‘Shadow Warrior’ trilogy and a short story based on the earlier wartime exploits of the hero, Joshua Wolfe. It’s just as well the trilogy came packaged together, because they tell one seamless story and would be impossible to read as separate and individual novels. The tale itself is a dark one, steeped in casual violence and pointless tragedy, yet possessed of a certain grim humour. The pace is unrelentingly fast and, despite the occasional side-tracking as Wolfe abandons the plot in order to pay off his commitments, absorbing enough that the pages keep turning. Chris Bunch has a great talent for describing action scenes, Wolfe’s sudden and inevitably bloody acts of violence painted with flair and clarity.

The only problem with such a plethora of combat is that the reader never feels Wolfe is in any particular danger. Throughout the series he comes across as indestructible and instantly deadly, capable of taking down whole legions of unnamed goons without breaking into a sweat. Even those characters presented as serious opponents simply can’t compete with the aura of utter lethality Wolfe exudes, and one can’t help but feel the author has fallen into the trap of enjoying his protagonist’s all-conquering might a little too much. Yet when the plot requires that Wolfe fail he fails, and Bunch has made the job of presenting his failure realistically a difficult one. How is Wolfe captured in this situation, when an earlier and equivalent state of affairs proved such little challenge? Such inevitable victories leech much of the drama from ‘Shadow Warrior’s otherwise excellent battles. Only the presence of secondary characters fighting at Wolfe’s side provides any tension.

These characters, however, are few and far between. The fearless Joshua Wolfe works alone, probably because he doesn’t need the backup, and while he does pick up the occasional stray they generally don’t stick around long enough for the reader to get attached to them. The exceptions to the rule are excellently created slices of character, although they do have a certain ‘Bond girl’ feel to them. Indeed, Wolfe himself does bear an uncanny resemblance to Fleming’s superspy, from the serial womanising and gambling addiction to the always-requested tipple of choice. The casual violence and over-educated posturing are just the icing on the cake and they would make much of ‘Shadow Warrior’ a joy to read, were it not for one small thing.

In the first book in the trilogy, ‘The Wind after Time’, Wolfe is very different. He’s still the brutal killing machine we’ve learned to love, but a lot of the Bond-esque personality traits are yet to develop. Instead the reader sees a rather bland stereotype with some anger-management problems – never a good first impression, and ‘The Wind…’ suffers for it. Only after the cliffhanger ending does Wolfe loosen up – so much so, in fact, that he seems a totally different person. Perhaps there was a long break between the writing of the first book and the second, but despite making the protagonist more interesting this sort of inconsistency dents any possible suspension of disbelief. The plot is simple and sensible while still holding enough surprises to keep the reader hooked, yet the jarring transition between first book and second makes it difficult to become as fully immersed in the storyline as the novel deserves.

Despite this flaw, the narrative progresses smoothly towards the inevitable climax. By the time it comes around, though, there are still too many loose ends left trailing and the last hundred words feel far too rushed as the author hurries to tie them all off. The big finale is suitably dramatic and exciting, making the reader feel that the preceding chapters were worth reading just for this – effective build-up at work. Then comes the epilogue, and all of that good work is undone. In just a couple of pages Chris Bunch manages to literally wreck his novel and his character, providing no explanation or even rationalisation of an event which simply makes no sense.

Even the well-written and entertaining short story that follows, providing much insight into Wolfe’s background, is tainted by the foreknowledge of this pointless end to the saga. Perhaps in the author’s mind there were good reasons for things turning out the way they did, but in his apparent hurry to finish he neglected to put them down on paper. It is a real shame that an engaging, above average novel should be pulled down after a good run, and so with sadness I grant ‘Shadow Warrior’ a spot on the shelf marked ‘Fallen at the last hurdle’.

This review was originally written for