Hell Ship by Philip Palmer

Orbit, July 2011          
Trade Paperback,445 Pages    


A planet-sized ship crosses galaxies and universes, subjugating planetary inhabitants into near extinction save for the one or two beings this Hell Ship brings aboard for undisclosed reasons. Life on the ship is harsh, almost post-apocalyptic in the barrenness of the landscape and harshness of the beings living on it. The story begins as the Hell Ship conquers its latest planet and brings aboard Sharrock, the sole survivor or a warrior people.  During the attack, Sharrock seemingly died via lava-drowning though we soon find that he wakes fully healed. We see Sharrock’s story from his Point-of-View, providing one of three first person narrative perspectives in the novel. The second POV is that of Sai-ias, an almost Lovecraftian alien resembling a flying squid. The third POV is that of Jak a trader whose sentience has merged with that of the AI on his ship. It’s a clever trick of storytelling and one that works very well to convey the story of the novel.

In a lot of ways, this novel can be seen as a chase/quest adventure.  Sharrock is placed at the center of much of the story as he continually attempts to bring down the, Ka’un, the monstrous aliens who have been ravaging the galaxies and subjugating the lone survivors of each speacies. He battles other alien inhabitants of the Hell Ship, his ideologies continually clash with that of Sai-ias, and through it all, his uncompromising drive for revenge is a powerful thing that cannot be ignored.  The ideologies of Sai-ias (acceptance of bad situation and trying to make the best of it) vs Sharrock (fighting against your oppressors) fuels much of the novel and proves a pleasingly introspective element compared against the intimate violence in which Sharrock participates and the external violence between the Hell Ship and the former pirate now half-AI Jak.

If that premise is somewhat familiar (strange beings coming back to life in a strange setting) to seasoned genre readers then I suppose Palmer’s intention was to take a little bit of Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go mashed up with the late-great and lamented TV show FarScape, a dash of some of Roger Zelazny’s Eye of the Cat, and a smidgen of Silver Age Superman (think his the crazy alien zoo in his Fortress of Solitude) and Pirates (IN SPACE!) though with a less pleasant moral tone than any of those elements. In sum, these elements add up to a solid gestalt story premise. Palmer supports that mish-mash premise with the characters possessing their eminently engaging and convincing voices.  From their own points of view, Sharrock, Sai-ias, and Jak are completely believable and sympathetic in their plights.  When Sharrock is telling the readers of his frustrations regarding Sai-ias, and vice versa, their urgings and convictions made me share those same frustrations. Palmer did a great job of putting me in the characters heads. I found myself questioning what I would do in their respective situations.

The story moves along at an extremely digestible pace, the pages were almost fanning my face as I read the novel.  Though this may come across as a contradiction, Palmer brought about the end to the novel very abruptly, almost jarringly.  He drew out the tension over the course of the novel in perfect bits and tastes then as the novel came to an end, it felt almost as if he pulled the plate away from the dinner table with not nearly enough warning and preamble.

As a whole, despite the jarring ending Hell Ship was a very good read – Palmer created great characters through which to view the story, the story had resonance with other SF I’ve enjoyed, Palmer plotted the novel very pleasingly, and he included a slam-bang set of action pieces.

Recommended as an entertaining and introspective Space Opera.

© 2011 Rob H. Bedford

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