The Dark Wing, Walter F. Hunt

Tor, 2001, 468 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34069-0

[January 2007: I wrote the following while cranky. This is one of those reviews that tell you more about the reviewer than the work being discussed. While I stand behind my disappointment with the novel, I acknowledge that the sarcastic riffs below are unfair to the author.]

Now here’s an interesting achievement: A military Science Fiction novel that isn’t, and a book with plenty of annoyances that somehow kept my interest until its increasingly dull ending. I still wonder how that happened.

At first glance, Walter F. Hunt’s The Dark Wing is straight-up military SF with all the obvious clichés of the sub-genre: Bad aliens, imperial government, military heroes, big space navies and so on. Comparisons with the Honor Harrington series are too obvious: It took an entire sub-genre to raise this novel, and at first there isn’t much to distinguish it from countless other run-of-the-mill SF adventures.

The imperial system of government is particularly grating, especially given how it seems to accompany every single “space navy” series: To heck with representative democracy! One yearns for Victorian England all over again as the good old macho way of fighting wars. But that’s also lazy wordbuilding: Why bother with the complex accountability mechanisms build into our modern governance systems when it’s much, much easier to set up an emperor thanks to some nebulous historical event, and give that emperor a big shiny navy to play with? No one will be surprised to learn that right-wing politics are also featured as a necessary plot point: As The Dark Wing begins, those pesky unreasonable aliens have just invaded human space again, thanks to the wussy “peace agreements” signed by the cowardly hippie politicians, clearly showing that the only good alien is a dead alien. This is familiar to the point on contemptuousness, especially when an admiral is tasked with the final solution: complete xenocide to get rid of the problem. Hey, it’s the only way to be sure.

But The Dark Wing is a long book. A very long book. Eventually, most of the novel’s early assumptions are overturned. The human campaign of extermination against the aliens, for instance, is entirely too successful, leading the aliens to believe that a long-held prophecy is taking shape. (…sigh… what is it with those alien prophecies in SF? Heck, what is it with those nice square alien monolithic societies in which pretty much every single alien believes the same thing, without any differences in sub-culture, age or education?) Before you know it, the human characters have to play nice so that the entire alien race (no kidding: the entire alien race) don’t commit ritual suicide out of dishonoured spite.

More alien characters also mean more alien passages with nouns that seem randomly pecked on the keyboard. I often speed-read those passages and this habit didn’t do me any harm in The Dark Wing, where dozens of pages are wasted on things that could be summarized far more interestingly from the human point of view. (I call it the italics skip: If it’s longer than two or three lines and it’s in italics, chances are that it’s not useful material, probably duplicates the human-side information and can thus be skimmed with minimal loss of context.)

Of course, the more the aliens become familiar, the less the author will be willing to blast the living smithereens out of them. And in an unusual switch from my usual goody-goody yearnings, I ended up mourning this lack of xenocide. I’ve read enough stories in the past in which big bad aliens suddenly become our fuzzy friends that I’m in the market for a novel that promises and delivers a full, undiluted, even-the-alien-dogs-and-chickens massacre. If they’re so bad, let them stay bad and let’s indulge in our basest instinct of extermination. Worked against the Neanderthals, I believe: let’s try it again.

(Oh yes, I’m being inconsistent in the very same review. Try it; it’s pure joy.)

To heck with Ender’s guilt, to heck with my objections to standard military SF: Let’s kill some bugs. But then the novel has this wonderful moment in which part of the rug is pulled under our feet, and all we’re left wondering is What, what? What just happened here? How is that possible? Lighting-fast reflexes of deduction honed by years of reading SF quickly allow us to deduce that there’s a third player in this game, one pulling off a neat game of solitaire with humans and aliens as puppets. This is also the point where The Dark Wing switches gears from military to mystical –not a switch that I fully endorse (I use “mystical” as a reliable synonym for “gibberish”), but one that certainly realigns the novel in another direction.

But that direction is to be found in another novel, because for all of the book’s 450+ pages, its latter half grinds to an anticlimactic halt. It all becomes setup not just for another volume, but for three more books in a series that may or may not end there. At this point, I just don’t know if I’m tempted to go further. The story so far has too many twists and turns to dismiss out of hand. But the annoyances are real (if contradictory) and I doubt that they’ll smooth over in the course of a four book series. What little I’ve read about the other books doesn’t inspire confidence either. I suppose I’ll let the power of used book sales guide me in making a decision…

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