A blast – Stefan Vucak’s “In the Shadow of Death”

Description by the author / blurb

 A backwater system in the Deklan Oligarchy, the Four Suns hides a sinister plot to destabilize the Serrll Combine government. An Envoy is sent to uncover the scheme before the Serrll explodes into factional warfare. Having ‘volunteered’ as a military aide to the Envoy, Second Scout Terrllss-rr uncovers a link between slavery and local government’s plans to cede the Four Suns. That knowledge marks him for death. Fleeing, his survival blister crashes on Anar’on, the fabled world of the Wanderer nomads. Terr is found in the deep desert, lost, without memory, without a past. To restore himself, Terr undergoes training in the Discipline. Facing the god of Death, he receives more than he bargained for.

Review (a shortened version can be found here)

 All that really need be said about this novel is this: it’s simply gorgeous. There is no coveted goal in novel writing it doesn’t attain: an intriguing plot, well-drawn characters, atmospheric descriptions, pacing attuned to storytelling… Any one of these elements could be picked out and without exception the praise of its full implementation has to be sung for „In the Shadow of Death“. Thus, reviewing this work amounts to the awkward task of providing a critique for what shouldn’t reasonably be criticised. There is, however, no complete review without critique.
In consequence two aspects shall be highlighted and put to exalted scrutiny: descriptions and plot construction. 

 Descriptions tend to a certain density by the generous use of adjectives and adverbs: Thick mist raced low over the apron. A rolling rumble shook the ground. Slating walls of rain came in cold sullen sheets.“ Such density accrues the charge of the atmosphere and this is of particular benefit to the novel when the pace is set down a gear, when Terr, stranded with the desert nomads, initiates his training in the spiritual track of the Discipline. The desert landscape is vividly represented before the reader’s eye and its influence on Terr becomes palpable. But a few times throughout the whole of the book I felt that descriptions were compressed to the point of information-overload, like in the following sentence: „Fractal tendrils reached in jagged fingers from the southern polar cap to vanish in faded muddy patches of green and flashes of azure from the small shallow seas.“ For instance, here the reader has to process all at once several aspects about the patches: that they are faded, muddy and green, that the fractal tendrils vanish in them, that they are next to flashes of azure – and so for the other nouns. He may come to read the sentence twice before he gets the image the author wants to paint.

 As for the plot, it is a pure joy for anyone who cherishes a complex societal and political backdrop in sci-fi. The criss-crossing pathways of diplomatic manoeuvring are outspread in subtle conversations between characters playing daringly their double-handed game. Dialogues are further spiced by the dynamic of the change of perspectives. As rarely happens in unison, the development of the plot results both complex and thrilling.
But I think it is arguable whether the plot has not become a little lost in its own complexity.
To summarise the basic tenet: Kapel Pen rules a planet to which a lucrative mining colony is attached. She is member of the traditional ruling matriarchy, which has to respond to the overarching rule of the Deklans. The Karkans can be seen as a competitor state to the Deklans. As already the blurb reveals, Kapel Pen plans to „cede the Four Suns“ system, of which her own planet forms a part. That is, she wants to cede it to the Karkans. While the blurb makes this known to the reader from the start, it is supposed to be unknown to the principal players of the Serrll Combine, a sort of super-government including both the Deklans and the Karkans. But to me it rather appeared that sometimes Kapel’s plan was already anticipated by the characters, while they inexplicably showed ignorance about it at other times.

 It is hard to understand why the final divulging of Kapel Pen’s plan appears such a surprise to the officials of the Serrll Combine. Indeed, they themselves spell it out from the beginning, only with a lesser reach than it finally assumes. It is Anabb Karr, Commander Deklan Operation of the Serrll Scout Fleet, who assigns Terr as a military aide to the Envoy. At the same time he gives him a fill-in on the political situation and makes clear that „[i]f they [the matriarchy ruling the Four Suns] had a choice, they would revert to the Karkans“. And he also points out that Kapel Pen „ … hasn’t given up her plan to see the Four Suns independent of Deklan rule“.
Shortly after that we learn from Thalia, Kapel’s sister and chief collaborator in her scheme, that „Enllss-rr [Serrll Combine official] smells collusion between the Four Suns and the Karkan Federation“ and that for this very reason the Envoy was sent to investigate. And when they first met, the Envoy discloses to Terr that „the real reason for [his] being here is to find out the extent of Kapel’s involvement with the Karkans“. Furthermore, in his first related discussion with Sill – another official – Enllss contemplates the idea that the Karkans strive to increase their political pull in the Serrll Combine by way of territorial acquisition”. Sill turns down with disbelief the possibility that „the Karkan Federation wants to invade“ the Four Suns system, but Enllss remarks that his friend should shift his „focus to Kapel Pen and the other three Controllers“ of the Four Suns System. He says, „I need to know what Kapel and the Karkans are plotting“, implying a concerted action, not a one-sided invasion by the Karkans.
However, later on, the Envoy becomes apparently quite forgetful about what he told Terr to be the real reason for his diplomatic mission, because he challenges Terr „what in perdition“ can make him think that „Kapel is involved with the Karkans“. And by the same token he chides as „[a] grand leap of imagination“ Terr’s idea that Kapel Pen is conditioning the public for an insurrection against the Deklan rule. „[I]f you’re suggesting that Kapel has struck some sort of bargain with the Karkans to help her drive out the Deklans“, then, the Envoy teaches his military aide, you are not aware of the “political reality” involved.
However, when Kapel’s plan becomes known in explicit form to Enllss and Sill, the latter is „shocked“ and Enllss exclaims that „[w]e’ve been pounding our brains worrying about market monopolies“ while Kapel’s dealings with the Karkans really were aiming for territorial acquisition. But this is no news at all. As can be seen above, Enllss had already calculated that possibility. „The whole system!“ Enllss thunders in exasperation, and this might be the only novelty, but the principle he himself has envisaged before, despite what he incomprehensibly professes now.

 At the end, the Envoy will ask his military aide: „How did you happen to piece it all together?“ Because without Terr’s „corroborating evidence“ the Serrll Combine government wouldn’t have held sufficient ground to intervene.
Now, the truth is, for all the reader knows: there is no corroborating evidence. There only is Terr’s suspicion of the beginning, that Kapel is working on some sort of territorial understanding with the Karkans. Thus his ‘corroborative evidence’ only amounts to having voiced that suspicion again, and only having widened its scope – from the mining colony and Kapel’s planet to the whole Four Suns System. Rayon already rejected his first suspicion about territorial reassigning by ways of insurrection as imaginatively bold, now why should he suddenly see the truth in this suspicion, when its scope has become even bolder? Nothing else has changed, except for a communication of one of Kapel’s sisters, Tamara, revealing the Controller’s plan. Rayon doesn’t think much of Tamara’s communication and only Terr’s message, containing the ‘corroborative evidence’, makes him swerve. But this is very surprising, since Terr’s message cannot contain more than he learned himself from Tamara, as she is his only source. To the question ‘how he managed to piece it all together’ he only replies: I didn’t, it was Tamara who gave me the hints.
Confusion further augments by the author’s refusal to let the reader see for himself what Terr’s „corroborating evidence“ consisted of in verbatim. Likewise, the reader won’t get to see Tamara’s message to Terr, which provided him „with all the clues“, but which, as Terr strangely enough adds, „didn’t amount to much“ – Kapel herself, who intercepted the message, says as much.
Therefore, ultimately, nothing has changed. The ‘evidence’ is Terr’s suspicion, backed by Tamara’s claims. The Envoy rejected this at a first, but suddenly jumps at it as the truth of the matter when the suspicion, again only backed by Tamara’s insight, turns even more daring.

 Thus, I would be inclined to see an inconsistency here. But it is of pivotal importance to clarify that this doesn’t undermine the quality of the plot construction. To the contrary, I’m ready to admit that my above critique is somewhat sophisticated and might only be conceived by the exaggerated attention a reviewer imparts on a novel. That I could have formulated this critique at all has only been possible because of the complexity and finery that the construction of the plot carries. Therefore, what might appear as a point against the novel really is a strong point in its favour. Ambiguity in details can only show up in a story development that is remarkable for its richly layered and craftily detailed outlay.   

 Beyond any sophistication: the book just makes for a marvellous sci-fi experience. What’s the more, it is not for an isolated story that the author has expended so much creative wit in the representation of characters and socio-political background. They are further fleshed out in six consecutive novels that, judging by the quality of this one, must sum up to an enthralling saga about the rise and fall of gods and empires. At the same time a focus will be held on personality growth as Terr advances in the way of the Discipline. „In the Shadow of Death“ calls for a resounding recommendation.

 Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Link to Amazon US (paperback, Kindle also available)
Link to Amazon Germany