Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Bernice Summerfield: The Gods of the Underworld

After Bernice Summerfield and the Doomsday Manuscript took us on an Adventure with a capital A, Stephen Cole introduces a much grittier, more visceral tale that is more akin to an action/horror movie like Rambo, than the petty highs and thrills of the Indiana Jones. Fortunately it features some characters just strong enough to stop this novel descending into an all out action fest.

Right off the start there’s some world building, with mentions of the Fifth Axis and the creation of the Earthlink Federation. As the opponents of what have already been revealed to be ‘brutal space Nazis’, surely these must be the good guys. Oh no, because in this book nobody is good. Very few people are even nice.

Fortunately Starl, who seems to be a generic Han Solo lookalike, instantly recognisable loveable rogue space pilot, is one of the few nice ones. And he occupies a lot of the novel, alternately teasing and praising Bernice between fantastic acts of derring do. Joining them are two Waskas, alien archaeology experts, and Shell, a fan of Bernice who has some pretty horrendous experiences.

There’s a lot of gore and violence in this book. Whereas the previous novel showed life struggling under an oppressive regime, here there is an impending extinction event. The cause turns out to be some terribly gory parasitic creatures who almost completely resemble something from ‘Alien’. There is a tribe of ignorant savages, angrily turning on anyone who comes near them, a space fleet orbiting the planet preparing to ‘contain’ the whole situation with a nuclear barrage, and a group of alien ‘heavies’ who sit halfway between the stars of ‘Predator’ and the ‘Godfather’.

As you may have noticed there are a lot of elements taken from other sources. What is impressive is the way everything knits together so well. Venedel honestly does feel like a living, breathing, troubled world and the characters are played so straight and honestly that the fact you’ve seen the equivalent thing happened before hardly matters.

Fortunately the Nishtubi make very effective ‘bad guys’, and despite being shown in hardly any detail definitely appear far more threatening than the fifth axis. The High Boor Bantagel is an oddly effective leader, unusual because characters incapable speaking any form of proper English usually come out looking stupid or silly, but here with the proper explanation it makes sense and seems all the more threatening for it.

I may be tainted from my experience reading this in a hospital bed but it’s not an easy novel to get through. There are pages after pages of violence and death, and it doesn’t have many highly original ideas, but it does what it does extremely well. The title is a clever pun on reader’s expectations and once you realise there’s hardly any archaeology or ancient curses to be revealed everything slowly starts to fall into place. It’s a shame then that when the Oracle of the Lost does briefly appear at the end, and references are made once again to the missing Jason, the situation feels like something of an anticlimax. I hope the Jason sub thread is going somewhere.

All in all the Gods of the Underworld is a fairly strong novel, with some very familiar and traditional science fiction archetypes crafted together to give a strong and gruelling mystery. Like its predecessor it doesn’t break any boundaries or tread far into new territory, but it does tell its own story in its own self assured way.

Recommended for those with a strong constitution.

7 / 10

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