Champion of Mars by Guy Haley – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews Guy Haley’s latest, a novel that spans time and delves into the mysteries of the Red Planet.
“One of the most compelling novels of the year, Champion of Mars is a fine example of Guy Haley’s quirky and other-worldly narrative style that was the hallmark of his Richards and Klein novels.” ~The Founding Fields
After I finished reading the novel a few days ago and had a few moments to think, I finally hit upon the reason why I’ve liked Guy Haley’s works so far, including Champion of Mars: his overall style and the feel of his narrative reminds me very strongly of Ben Counter’s various for Black Library. Ben’s Grey Knights novels are some of my favourites, as are some of his other works such as the short story Sacrifice and two of his Soul Drinkers novels: Crimson Tears and the more recent Phalanx. Ben’s work is extremely quirky and otherworldly, especially when he is writing about the Chaos Powers that lord over the Warp, an alternate dimension in the Warhammer 40,000 universe which is used for interstellar travel, is the source for all psychic powers/sorcery and is the realm of souls. And it is that style that Guy echoes in his own way when he is writing his novels, be it the Richards and Klein novels or Champion of Mars.
So in a way, it is quite fitting and immensely exciting for me personally that Guy is going to be writing stories set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe in the coming years. Surprised? So was I!
Champion of Mars is set in the same alternate near future as Guy’s Richards and Klein novels and in a way, it is tangentially both a prequel and sequel to those two novels. Setting it in the same “world” has given Guy the liberty to make use of existing concepts and characters and theories while still maintaining that originality in the novel. New readers to Guy’s work need not worry because a knowledge of what happens in the Richards and Klein novels is not necessary to understand Champion of Mars because any references to events therein are kept to a bare minimum. Yet, for those who have read them, there are ample references to put a big grin on your face with all the tantalising hints. For me, it made the novel very complete and I enjoyed comparing my understanding of those references with Guy himself.
The novel is divided into two concurrent narratives: divided between two different eras with different characters. The first half of the narrative is from the perspective of the titular hero thousands of years into the future: the Champion of Mars known as Yoechakanon Val Mora and his love interest Kaibeli. The second half is from the perspective of a scientist less than a century from now: Dr. Holland who is visiting Mars for the first time as part of a colonisation effort and the Androd Cybele he has to work with. This approach to the novel really aided in the immersion process but at times it did come across as a little weird because initially I was under the impression that Yoechakanon’s (Yoe) tale is set in Mars’ past rather than its future. Other than that though, Guy really pulled it off and we get two really contrasting images of the Red Planet and I have to say that both visions of Mars are equally breathtaking and evocative.
In terms of characterisation, I really liked Yoe and Kaibeli for the simple reason that Guy really went to town with the two of them. Yoe is the disillusioned champion turned gladiator while Kaibeli is his, I hesitate a little to say, digital lover, in so much as that for most of the novel she is a formless entity who can transfer between “systems”. Their relationship isn’t as it initially sounds because in Mars’ future, its inhabitants have mastered the technology of transferring minds from one life to the next, in a sort of The Island way (starring Scarlett Johannson and Ewan McGregor), but infinitely more complex. So don’t be turned off by that fact because really, their relationship is one of the best things about the novel. You really have to read the novel to appreciate that properly and that would be my recommendation.
With Dr. Holland and Cybele, the former is that classical scientist from Earth arriving on the frontiers of knowledge who invariably ends up confronting some of his most deep-seated biases and his fears (he doesn’t really like AIs as it turns out), while the latter is that friendly, neighbourhood, super-smart android who wants to imitate human emotions and mannerisms as much as she can. Much as I enjoyed reading about Yoe and Kaibeli as they challenge their culture to bring about a less oppressive and more ideal state of existence, it was Holland and Cybele that I loved reading about so much more. They were both classic SF characters, with a little variation of course, that I’ve grown up reading about and have enjoyed becoming “friends” with. Plainclothesman Elijah Bailey and Robot Daneel Olivaw would certainly be fitting examples here, and as Champion of Mars went on, I found that wasn’t the only connection between it and Asimov’s various novels, especially the ones dealing with Daneel.
There are some other standout characters as well, almost all of them from Holland and Cybele’s own time. It would be an effort to go and name them all, so I’ll just say that all of Holland’s fellow scientists and co-workers at Ascraeus Base were nicely rendered by Guy. Each had something to offer to the narrative and to the reader and I connected with each and everyone of them. With regards to Yoe and Kaibeli’s time, I really liked how Guy characterised the AI entities of Yoe’s armour and his starfighter. They both evoked Warhammer 40,000 for me, because the similarities between these two AI entities and the machine-spirits that inhabit every piece of Imperial technology within the setting are very strong. If you read my review of the Architect of Fate anthology and scroll down to the bit with Ben Counter’s novella Endeavour of Will, you will know exactly what I am talking about. So once again, Guy has strong thematic and stylistic links to one of my favourite Black Library authors!
Guy’s world-building, as I touched upon earlier, was also great. He really makes Mars of the so, so distant future come alive with his depiction of a planet-wide war and gladiatorial combat and an empire on the decline, while Mars of the very near future evokes everything that we have seen of it in other media and are more familiar with. A classic depiction of the Red Planet hand in hand with a fairly unique take on it thousands of years from now. Plus the fact that the novel ties into his Richards and Klein novels adds to it an extra layer of realism and credulity.
The overall pacing of the novel is also quite good for it keeps building upon itself, especially the scenes with Dr. Holland and Cybele. Yoe and Kaibeli’s narrative does suffer a bit in certain parts while Guy builds events up and prepares to move his characters through a meatgrinder of a time, but they are still fairly fast-paced. The contrast between the two timelines certainly helps to break up any monotony because action is always just around the corner, especially when you least expect it.
There are a fair few action scenes in the novel and they are all diverse and quite varied. We have the gladiatorial scenes with Yoe and Kaibeli looks on. We have a starfighter combat scene, near Jupiter IIRC, that is very, very compelling and immersive, and there are some scenes involving good, old personal combat. Yoe is certainly a lethal and brutal warrior and his action scenes build on that. With Holland, the action scenes have to do with people going… crazy, to put it mildly. They were all enjoyable and kept me turning the pages as fast as I could.
Ultimately, the novel has a brilliant ending. Champion of Mars has strong thematic links to a variety of novels and universes, such as the John Carter novels, Asimov’s Foundation and Robot novels, Arthur C. Clarke’s Odyssey novels, with Warhammer 40,000 and quite a few others. What Guy has done here is take some neat concepts from a variety of sources, put them all together, add in a touch of his own Richards and Klein material, and end up with a final product that is as good as any of them. The only downside of the novel is that sometimes Guy tends to get lost in his own creation; Yoe and Kaibeli’s scenes sometimes are very, very quirky and otherworldly and therefore they can be a tad slow read, especially when compared to any of the scenes with Holland and Cybele.
Still, I highly recommend the novel because it took me back to my adolescent years and reminded me of some of the best novels I’ve ever read, while at the same time it looks to the future and promises a really alien world that is still very familiar and compelling.
So, I rate the novel at a comfortable 9/10 and recommend that people get it as soon as they can. You are missing out on a great reading experience.