Is that an extravagant claim to make for Douglas Hill’s books about Keill Randor? Now that the third novel, Day of the Starwind, has maintained the standard of the first two, Steve Bowles certainly thinks it’s justified.
Keill Randor is the only survivor of the Legions, the people of Moros who lived by selling their fighting skills to nations needing their help. They were destroyed by a surprise attack with a weapon which made their planet’s atmosphere fatally radioactive. Returning late from a mission, Keill escapes alive but dying slowly from his brush with the radiation. His hope is to avenge his people before he dies. The search for the enemy is interrupted when he’s kidnapped by a ‘strange, secretive group of brilliant elderly scientists’, the Overseers, who cure him by completely replacing his diseased bones with a new, unbreakable alloy. Keill is highly sceptical of their story about a mysterious ‘Warlord’ making a grab for galactic domination but in tracking down and killing some men masquerading as Legionaries, he learns that it’s true. With Glr, a winged telepathic alien who has sided with the Overseers, he sets out to destroy the Warlord and his underlings.
Stylistic difficulties arise from the vocabulary of technology, descriptions of terrain and the need to work in essential background detail. Some potential readers will inevitably be lost but Douglas Hill always seems aware of the problem and does a great deal to minimize it. Galactic Warlord, for example, starts with Keill extracting information from some thugs who are foolish enough to try mugging him. The destruction of Moros is a flashback and the slowish section with the Overseers is only reached once the story has you gripped. Though each novel is a self-contained adventure, those who’ve enjoyed Galactic Warlord will undoubtedly want to get Deathwing and Starwind as soon as possible and they’re unlikely to be disappointed in them. These build more gradually into the main drama but the narrative never goes flat and there are tasters of conflict to keep the least involved happy. Starwind, in particular, develops relentlessly once Keill makes contact with the Warlord’s men.
The regard they display for the chosen audience is perhaps the most impressive thing about Douglas Hill’s books. Adult fans of Andre Norton have for years tried to interest kids in her work but, beyond occasional fanatics, it’s been hard going. For me, there are distinct echoes of Norton in Keill Randor’s adventures, especially with regard to their convincing picture of a colonized universe. But the differences – relatively slim volumes, big doses of violent action – make them much more enticing to a general teenage readership. There have been compromises, it’s true. To adults, the books can seem over-written in places and some aspects push credulity too far. One must remember, though, that they’re not for widely-read aficionados alone. As a bridge to more sophisticated SF novels, they’re invaluable and virtually unique.
Gollancz, 0 575 02663 4, £3.50 Piccolo, 0 330 26186 X, 80p
Deathwing Over Veynaa,
Gollancz, 0 575 02779 7, £3.95
Day or the Starwind,
Gollancz, 0 575 02917 X, £4.50