Listen up varmints, the old lady got something to tell ya.
There are times in a reviewer’s life when she reads a book and all she can think of to say is, “dear goddess, I wish I’d written that.” But you know that you could not have done because you are nowhere near that good. Cat Valente does that to me most of the time, of course. I got the same feeling from the latest novel by Stark Holborn.
I should note that this book is unlikely to appeal to the people who came to my table at Eastercon asking for books that are hopeful and uplifting. Westerns, and that includes Space Westerns, are by their very nature gritty and hopeless. You know from the outset that lots of people are going to die, many of them senselessly. But maybe gaining some measure of success against hopeless odds is what the world really needs to be looking for right now.
Hel’s Eight is pretty much a direct sequel to Ten Low. Some years have passed, but little has changed on the outback moon called Factus. Low has spent most of the intervening time far out in the barrens. She’s still working as a medic when people are desperate enough to come find her, but mostly she is saving lives by staying away from other people. Death has a habit of following her.
Recently, however, the fragile balance of life on Factus has been upset my a massive influx of a resource that is in desperately short supply there: money. A wealthy businessman called Lutho Xoon has taken an interest in Factus and is prepared to pay whatever it takes to gain control of large parts of the moon. Naturally this is bad news for independent “business” people like Malady Falco. It isn’t easy being a notorious smuggler when some off-world jerk with deep pockets can just fly in any goods that people want, and give them away in return for obedience.
Thus it is that Gabi Ortiz, former child general and now Falco’s chief enforcer, turns up at Low’s residence looking for help. Help from whom, you may wonder? What can one old lady doctor possibly have that will turn the tide of affairs?
The thing is that everyone knows there is nothing on Factus that could possibly warrant the money that Xoon is pouring into it. The moon barely has enough resources to sustain the meagre population at subsistence levels. The only thing that Xoon could possibly want is them. The Ifs. The strange, inhuman creatures that inhabit the least hospitable parts of Factus, and who appear to feed off human suffering and death. The thing about the Ifs is that they are attracted by risk, by games of chance. They may, in some ineffable way, be able to see the branching timelines ahead of them and act to choose which will come to pass.
The ability to see, and influence, the future is a prospect that holds enormous fascination for the very wealthy. And the person on Factus who has most connection to them, who might even be able to persuade them to take a side is a war, is Ten Low.
It hasn’t always been that way. In the previous book, Low made contact with them via their servants, the Seekers, and via the old brothelkeeper, Ma Esterházy, who may have been the leader of said Seekers, a person known as Hel the Converter.
The main plot of the book is interspersed with Esterházy’s backstory: how she came to Factus, how she first encountered the Ifs, and why Xoon’s company is so interested in the moon.
We, as readers, know that Esterházy died in the previous book. What has happened since then is unclear. Has Low become the new Hel? Is Low somehow possessed by Esterházy’s ghost? Or, as Esterházy was fond of saying, are we all Hel? Whatever the truth is, the future of Factus probably depends on it.
Whilst I lay no claim to the sorts of powers wielded by the Ifs, I can occasionally see something of the future. I am confident that Holborn has plans for another book in the series. I for one am very heartened by that prospect. Holborn has gone all in on the Western style in these books, but she knew what she had in her hand, and she’s won big.
Title: Hel's Eight
By: Stark Holborn
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