‘Helix Wars’ is the sequel to British SF author Eric Brown’s most popular novel ‘Helix’, published in 2007. Does it live up to its predecessor?
It is now two hundred years since the events recounted in ‘Helix’, when a colony ship brought four thousand humans five hundred light years across the galaxy from a dying Earth. The ship crash-landed on the Helix, an artificial construct comprising ten thousand barrel-shaped worlds separated by seas from each other and winding around their central star in a huge helical shape. The Helix was created by an advanced race of aliens, known as ‘the Builders’, as a repository for races in danger of snuffing themselves out on their home planets. One thousand of the human colonists died in the crash but three thousand survived. The book tells the story of their leaders’ quest to find a world on the Helix that they could call their own.
At the end of ‘Helix’, the Builders gave the survivors one of the several thousand unoccupied worlds to colonise. They were, however, also tasked by the Builders with taking over the role of Peacekeeper for the Helix. Generally, this is not an onerous job as most of the sentient species living on the Helix were only granted passage there on the understanding that they would give up armed conflict and would in future pursue entirely peaceful means of settling disputes, whether amongst themselves or with the occupants of the neighbouring worlds. Unfortunately, not every species is willing to keep this promise to the Builders.
As ‘Helix Wars’ starts, thirty-five year-old human space shuttle pilot Jeff Ellis is transporting a couple of Peacekeepers on a routine mission from their home world of New Earth to a world called D’rayni, seven worlds distant along the Helix. As Jeff’s shuttle flies over Phandra, a primitive world adjacent to D’rayni, they see advanced military vehicles attacking a small village. Concerned, they fly closer to investigate and are about to report this disturbing news to Peacekeeper HQ when the shuttle is hit by a missile. Despite Jeff’s best efforts, the shuttle crashes, killing both the Peacekeepers and injuring him.
As Jeff tries to drag himself away from the wreckage and to shelter, he is almost killed by a moving plant that resembles a huge venus flytrap. It manages to paralyse and ingest him, but before it can dissolve and digest his body, he is cut free by a team of the tiny local aliens, who farm the meat caught by these dangerous plants. The Phandrans are surprised to find Jeff alive and take him to a local religious retreat where his injuries are tended by a Healer called Calla.
Once Jeff is well again, Calla offers to lead him to the Phandran coast, intending to put him on a boat to the more industrialised neighbouring world of D’rayni, from where he should be able to get in touch with New Earth and arrange to be rescued. However, Calla also has disturbing news for Jeff. The burning village he saw before his shuttle was shot down is not a one-off. Large numbers of soldiers from Sporell, the world bordering Phandra on its other side from D’rayni, are advancing across Phandra, laying waste to it as they go. Their ultimate destination appears to be D’rayni, which they intend to conquer for its rich mineral deposits. The problem for Jeff is that the Sporelli don’t want him to alert the Peacekeepers back on New Earth as to their illegal invasion of Phandra. So they have mobilised their forces to find and kill him before escapes.
Luckily for Jeff, his shuttle crash was noticed by another advanced race on the Helix, the Makhan. The Builders made these intelligent and physically imposing aliens the official engineers for the whole Helix and they don’t miss a thing. One of the Makhan, called Kranda, has been a friend of Jeff’s, ever since he rescued her from a near-fatal spaceship accident some four years earlier. The rigid Makhanian sense of honour requires her to return the favour at the first available opportunity. Kranda therefore sets off for Phandra immediately, hoping to be able to rescue Jeff and repay her debt to him.
So, as Jeff tries to get home to New Earth, he is simultaneously sought by Sporelli soldiers who want to kill him and by his would-be rescuer Kranda. Who will reach him first?
There are several strong characters in this book, but the stand-out hero for me is Kranda. She is intelligent, resourceful, loyal and brave. Every time she appears on the page, she drives the story forwards at breakneck speed. Yet you cannot forget for a moment that she is an alien from a species with a very different outlook from humans. In Kranda, Brown has produced a fully-realised alien who steals the show.
Without giving anything away, the novel’s ending is spectacular and satisfying. It also sets things up for a further sequel. I, for one, would love to see Brown write it.
There was one aspect of the novel that I found less convincing. This was the character of the protagonist, Jeff Ellis. He initially comes across as a complex and contradictory person, which makes him seem entirely human. However, as the story progressed and the stakes got higher, I didn’t feel that Jeff stepped up to the mark. He appeared passive far too often, allowing others such as Kranda, to determine what should happen next. He also seemed entirely incapable of addressing himself to the moral quandaries that peacekeepers in war zones often have to face, when the only way to help the defenceless is sometimes to be prepared to attack and kill the aggressors. As such, he became an increasingly weak hero. Thankfully, that role was admirably filled by Kranda, as I’ve mentioned above, so the story as a whole did not suffer.
‘Helix Wars’ is a worthy successor to its 2007 forbear ‘Helix’. This is swashbuckling space opera at its best, taking the innovative setting of the earlier book and exploring it with verve and energy. I hope we see more stories set in and around the Helix in future from Eric Brown.
(pub: Solaris/Rebellion Publishing/HarperCollins. 383 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78108-047-3)
check out website: www.solarisbooks.com