The Imperial Guard: Death World/Better the Devil (Steve Lyons)
Death World is the second novel contained within the Imperial Guard omnibus, and it makes a distinctly different impression than the first. Completely different in theme, pacing, and quality, Death World is an immensely superior story due to the interesting setting, well paced action, and intriguing central character. Short story Better the Devil serves as a prologue to the novel, and further sweetens the pot.
Better the Devil is set prior to the events of Death World, and does several important things. The tale of main character Lorenzo's induction into the Catachan Jungle Fighters, Better the Devil is a brutal trek through Lorenzo's native world. This story characterizes Lorenzo as a resourceful warrior- something that will be nicely expanded upon later, while providing a taut, fast paced romp through the jungle. Introducing the hostile flora and fauna of his home world while proving Lorenzo's skills as a survivor and fighter, this segment instantly proves the mettle of the Catachan fighters and helps to explain their aptitude in the original novel.
The main story is a fairly simple one, though it is more about the journey than the destination. Lorenzo and his comrades are assigned to assassinate an unusually intelligent Ork warboss in the jungles of Rogar III, a planet recently classified as a death world. Complicating things is the fact that their commander for this mission won't be their beloved Greiss, but a commissar from the entrenched Validians. Much of the tension comes from the relationship between the two groups, and the various life forms that spring up to try to stop our heroes. The Orks play a role towards the end of the story, but the main antagonist here is unquestionably the planet itself, evolving its defenses in unexpected and exciting ways to thwart Lorenzo and company.
I really appreciated the detail and creativity involved in bringing the dangerous life forms of Rogar III to life. The Orks don't make much of an impression, being portrayed as suffering just as much as the humans due to the machinations of the jungle, and generally being dispatched quite efficiently by the Catachans. This makes the varied and deadly creatures even more impressive as they give the skilled, experienced fighters a run for their money. The ever changing planet throws zombies, poisonous lizards, rivers of acid, quicksand, and plant based doppelgangers at the team, steadily stacking the odds against them. The plot is simple and somewhat unrealistic, but the intriguing journey, rife with discovery and conflict, that forms the heart of this novel more than makes up for any deficiencies in the actual premise.
Characterization isn't a great success here, but our main character and one other character do manage to distinguish themselves. Lorenzo is quite the contrast to the Imperial Guardsmen featured in the last book I read, Fifteen Hours. He is seeking glory and the approval of his comrades, willing to embrace death to achieve a lasting legacy. Much of this can be attributed to the culture that surrounds him. The other warriors in the squad have nicknames and war stories to share with future generations, yet he doesn't. He is frustrated by this and spends much of the novel trying to do something memorable to earn his name. It is a compelling sub plot and quite refreshing compared to the annoyingly naive, unskilled soldier from Fifteen Hours. However, perhaps as a result of the culturally driven characterization, the supporting cast seem like variants of Lorenzo, just at different stages of their life. Greiss can be seen as an older, wizened version of Lorenzo, as can the myriad of squad mates introduced, all with interesting nicknames but little personality. The only thing distinguishing the characters of the Catachan Devils are the roles they play within the squad; outside of their combat roles, they are frustratingly similar.
Luckily, we have the Validian duo to give us a bit of a contrast. Commissar MacKenzie provides a needed bit of dynamic tension for the otherwise well oiled group, quickly creating a rift between the two groups and establishing himself as an antagonist in his own right. His adjutant, Braxton, is a more layered, relatable character. Stuck in a bad situation, with a brutally demanding commanding officer as his only connection to the world he knows, surrounded by foreign and bloodthirsty warriors, he definitely seems more sympathetic than MacKenzie. He also does a great job of proving himself as a capable warrior and establishing a connection between the two elements of the Imperial Guard which are at each other's throats from the onset.
Author Steve Lyons does a good job for the most part, pacing the book so that very little time goes without an encounter with a new threat, and crafting these sequences in creative ways that do wonders for the world building in this novel. Unfortunately, some careless errors do pop up to pull readers out of the otherwise immersive experience. I counted at least three typos, including the hilarious "He didn't want to poke his head around the curtains, thokiujiu5xcugh:" which rates as the most bizarre typo I've ever encountered. There are also some strange uses of tense and at least one occasion where the rule of parallelism is ignored. Outside of these mistakes there isn't much wrong with the writing style in Death World. The action is interesting enough to keep the pages turning, and the dialogue is simple and inoffensive. Lorenzo's thoughts do get to be a bit repetitive, and the fight with the Orks is almost too easy, but overall this is a skillfully paced, enjoyably written novel.
Death World is a great, action packed novel. The premise is hardly unique, and the characters are a bit dry in places, but the fast paced writing style, excellent descriptions, and interesting antagonists provide an entertaining experience. The lead in short story is a must read, as it gives some perspective on Lorenzo and his Catachan comrades, while also being a riveting read in its own right. Fans of the Imperial Guard will enjoy Death World.