A Year in Books – October

A Year in Books October

The Seventh – Richard Stark
Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein
The Dragon in the Sword – Michael Moorcock
The Warriors – Sol Yurick
Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual – Philip Matyszak

The Seventh – Richard Stark

Also published under the title of The Split, The Seventh is, appropriately enough, the seventh of Richard Stark’s novels featuring professional thief and uber anti-hero, Parker.

Following a successful and smooth heist, Parker and his cohorts find that their loot has been stolen by person or persons unknown and that Parker’s latest moll (to use an old-fashioned term) has been murdered.

Suspicion, naturally enough, falls on Parker who not only has to prove his innocence but also find the money and bring the thief to (rough) justice.

Sharply written, ultra-violent and as hard-boiled as they come, The Seventh is a real return to the series’ roots after the relatively low-key, almost Parker-lite novel, The Jugger. Here, Parker moves through events like a shark, smooth, relentless and cold-blooded with sudden, often shocking violence.

Like the previously mentioned novel The Jugger, The Seventh sees Parker in the role of reluctant detective, but here to much more telling effect, and boasts an excellent supporting cast including the psychopathic Dave Negli and a character only known as The Amateur who, in many ways represents a sort of anti-Parker, sloppy and careless, passionate and foolish, rather than calculating and cool.

In The Seventh, Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) turns the heist-gone-wrong formula on its ear with the aftermath of the robbery as bloody as anything seen on screen in a Tarantino or John Woo movie.

Filmed in the late 1960s under the title of The Split and starring Jim Brown as McClain rather than Parker (Westlake steadfastly refused to sell the rights to his main character and it was only recently that the Parker name was used on screen) the film concerns itself more with the robbery than the aftermath and discards much of the novel’s narrative, even recasting the psychotic ‘little man’ Dave Negli in the tall and gangling form of Donald Sutherland. Though hardly a classic, The Split boasts the cinematic talents of not only Sutherland and Brown but also Ernest Borgnine, Jack Klugman, Dianne Caroll and the always excellent Warren Oates. Worth checking out for its all-star cast, but not a patch on the novel.

I’ve mentioned my love of the Parker novels many times before, The Seventh has only made me love them more.

Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein

I don’t know if I should admit this, but this is my first time reading Heinlein’s award-winning novel, long regarded by many as a classic of the military sf genre. Truth to tell, it’s only the second Heinlein novel I’ve read (the other being The Puppet Masters) .

First published in 1959, Starship Troopers is perhaps the epitome of military sf, documenting the training and battle experiences of Jonnie Rico, a soldier in the Mobile Infantry in Earth’s war against the alien Arachnids (or Bugs) and their allies.

Told in the first person, with frequent flashbacks, Starship Troopers is a loosely plotted novel interspersed with lengthy discourses espousing Heinlein’s viewpoints on morality, duty and the rights and responsibilities of ‘citizens’ – discourses which have often led to Heinlein being labelled somewhat right wing in his views.

For a military novel, Starship Troopers is light on the combat scenes – which are largely confined to the beginning and end of the story – but heavy on the philosophy of combat, why we fight, the nature of duty and, ultimately, if it is right to go to war.

Enormously influential, both in the number of novels that have tried to emulate it, those which have tried to address its moral standpoint and in those novels and films which have taken the more superficial aspects of Heinlein’s future world (the grunts in Alien spring to mind and, of course, Paul Verhoven’s black comedy version of the novel) Starship Troopers remains as controversial now as when it was first published.

If you’re looking for slam-bang shoot-the-aliens, rescue the girl type sf then Starship Troopers is not the novel for you, but as a meditation on right-wing philosophy it’s a fascinating read. Ultimately, the future that Heinlein paints is not one that I particularly care for but he does it with conviction and verve.

A classic certainly, if only for spawning an entire sub-genre of sf, but an uncomfortable read at times.

The Dragon in the Sword – Michael Moorcock

The concept of the Eternal Champion central to much of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy and science fiction. A warrior destined (or cursed) to fight in a multitude of different incarnations across a multitude of different realities, he has manifested himself variously as Elric, Hawkmoon, Corum, Erekose et al, but only as John Daker is he aware of who and what he is.

The Dragon in the Sword is the third of the Eternal Champion novels (the other two being The Eternal Champion and Phoenix in Obsidian aka The Silver Warriors) and sees Daker reborn once again, this time in the guise of Prince Flamadin, struggling to prevent the Six Realms falling to the forces of Chaos, a struggle that will ultimately lead him to 20th century earth and the dark heart of the Nazi empire.

I’ve long been a fan of Michael Moorcock, a writer who’s wit, verve and sheer imagination are unmatched, and The Dragon in the Sword shows him at the top of his game, casually throwing in and throwing away concepts, characters and situations that lesser writers would weave entire trilogies around (or bloated series given the modern propensity for book after book).

Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

The Warriors – Sol Yurick

The basis for Walter Hill’s 1979 cult classic, Sol Yurick’s novel is a very different beast from the movie. Where Hill takes the very basic story and weaves a chase and pursuit narrative filled with colourful comic-book violence and, often, a larger-than-life supporting cast (the Baseball Furies, anyone?) Yurick’s novel is a meditation on belonging, on the street gang as Family, on notions of honour and loyalty as defined by the gangs themselves.

When Ismael Rivera, leader of the Delancey Thrones, calls a meeting of all the gangs of New York, he has a plan to take over the city, using the gangs as an army (reasoning that there are over 100,000 ‘troops’ ready to fight). But the meeting dissolves into inter-gang fighting, Rivera is killed and the already fragile peace shatters leaving the Coney Island Dominators trapped in ‘enemy territory’ and miles from home.

What follows is their attempt to return to Coney Island, threatened by rival gangs, by the police and what they see as the Other in society.

Based loosely on Xenophon’s Anabasis where 10,000 Greek mercenaries had to fight their way from the battle of Cunaxa to the ocean and safety (a fact underscored in the novel by one of the characters, The Junior, reading a comic book version of the story) The Warriors is an often brutal and nihilistic novel, and one which dives into the underbelly of American society in the 1960s and finds it wanting.

The most recent edition also includes a lengthy essay by Yurick on the genesis of the novel and his dissatisfaction with the subsequent film version.

Brilliant and unsettling.

Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual – Philip Matyszak

Light-hearted but informative, Legionary does just what it says on the cover, a guide to the life of a Roman soldier in the early years of the Empire. Covering such topics as recruitment, training, life in camp and on the march, battle, sieges and retirement, Philip Matyszak’s book is good historically accurate fun.

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