Death's Head by David Gunn
Published by: Bantam Press May 2007
Death's Head is the debut novel of author David Gunn, both an apt name and title. First time authors can often fall into the trap of trying to make their work too encompassing in order to appeal to as many people as possible, David Gunn has cleverly avoided this problem. Death's Head is an unashamed, balls-to-the-wall science fiction/action book that makes no apologies for being violent, graphic and at times a little crazy.
The book’s unabashed journey, from a far flung corner of the galaxy to pivotal events at its very heart, is driven by protagonist Sven Tveskoeg. Sven is the classical anti-hero soldier whose dogged determination, willingness to kill anyone or thing and well-hidden intelligence make him prime cliché material. Thankfully, Sven also has charisma and likable qualities in the vein of John McClane, where they're simply the wrong guy in the wrong place who ends up making it out despite the odds.
The plot is character-driven and revolves around Sven, who we first encounter on a ‘worthless piece of rock’, a wild, dead-beat legionnaire on a nothing planet suffering for his dislike of authority. The introduction is brief and brutal, an encapsulation of the book in its entirety. What follows is a sequence of battles and struggles as Sven is co-opted into the titular Death’s Head, the obligatory special-forces group of heartbreakers and life-takers popular culture is filled with. Given a dire assignment that rapidly spirals out of control, Sven must form a disparate group of green recruits into a single fighting unit and do the one thing he hates most, take charge.
It is through this group of wet-behind-the-ears soldiers that Death’s Head comes into its own. After the establishment of Sven as protagonist and all-round tough nut, the author could quite easily have been satisfied with throwing this one-man wrecking crew into any number of dangerous situations alone. Instead Gunn wisely chooses to introduce a small group of grunts that Sven appropriates during a landing gone wrong on his first genuine mission. The conscripts serve the purpose of taking pressure off the narrative’s reliance on Sven, adding a touch of humour and broadening the storyline to show more of the world outside Sven’s bubble.
The conscripted group, consisting of brother-sister pairing Neen and Shil, Franc, a crazy female soldier and Haze, a fat male who isn’t what he seems, add some levity to the proceedings – their bickering and backgrounds round out what is, for the most part, an under-developed setting. The history between Haze and Franc, which I won’t spoil here, and the sibling sparring of Neen and Shil show brief sparks of what could have been a strong group dynamic, were it not for the book charging headlong down the barrel of Sven’s gun. Funnily enough, the gun is probably the most entertaining character in the book: an A.I-based weapon, not dissimilar to Judge Dredd’s Lawgiver, that not only fires multiple different types of bullet but keeps up a running commentary, including several silly one-liners that you can’t help but chuckle at.
Unfortunately Death’s Head main strength is also its biggest weakness, the book is something of a one trick pony. There are only so many times Sven and company can kill innumerable amounts of enemies before it becomes repetitive and the danger they face unthreatening. The invincible protagonist is such an oft-used character that it’s hard not to get frustrated and disappointed when yet another one appears, especially when there are superior examples out there for a reader to invest their time in.
Death’s Head is also graphic. Clearly marked with the tag-line ‘the violence is extreme, the death toll monumental and the sex dirty,’ the descriptions are blunt and detailed, the violence and sex dealt with regularly – from the difficulty of decapitation to the easiest means of achieving anal sex. At times, the unashamed revelry in its own use of these topics hinders the story, explaining every death when the body count comfortably reaches into hundreds is unnecessary and spoils the fast paced storyline. There is also no let-up from the all too familiar machismo that permeates a large percentage of war stories, this is a Man’s world – whether intentional or tongue-in-cheek – and the ‘tough’ dialogue occasionally detracts from interest in the group dynamic.
The ending is both set-up for what I assume will be more books and revelations about Sven’s character. It is a little bit of a let down, being too convenient in its sudden discovery of certain facts and going overboard with the nature of what Sven is. Belatedly it introduces the main underpinnings of Gunn’s universe, the Uplifted, OctoV and the U/Free but only the barest details of how they fit together. That said, as a first novel these flaws are understandable given the nature of the story and can be easily improved for the undoubted future tales of Sven Tveskoeg.
And that's what you get from Death's Head; it isn't subtle or particularly smart, many of the situations and ideas you meet along the way will be very familiar to any science fiction fan, but the book isn't trying to prove how clever it can be. Instead it's dedicated to being a fun ride, making a flimsy plot hang on an enjoyable central character placed in increasingly difficult situations.
Owen Jones © 2007
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