Stormblood by Jeremy Szal (book review).

I met Jeremy Szal briefly at WorldCon in Dublin last year. That’s all there is to that story I’m afraid. ‘Stormblood’ is his debut novel, a 500-page military, crime, action, slightly gothic, space opera thriller of epic scale and gritty detail. The front cover presents a futuristic Gotham-Cityesque panorama with the brooding figure of Vakov Fukasawa facing it head on. The city in question is Compass, a colossal, hollowed out asteroid of hundreds of levels that is home to half a billion people in a stratified society that ranges from the height of luxury to the dregs of humanity.

Vakov Fukasawa is a Reaper, an ex-soldier injected with stormtech: alien DNA that made him a killing machine during the war but has left him and thousands of others in a state somewhere between recovering addict and ticking time bomb. Vakov fought for Harmony, an interstellar governmental organisation, against Harvest, a rival interplanetary hegemony of some kind that is never really explained. From Vakov’s point of view as a foot soldier, they are the enemy even though he doesn’t know much about them. He’s had enough of war and of both Harvest and Harmony but, when ex-soldiers start going on killing rampages and illegal stormtech floods the drugs market, Vakov feels obliged to sign up once more to help Harmony to clear up the mess on Compass. The final thing that convinces him is that his estranged brother seems to be working with one of the drugs cartels.

Thus begins a highly emotional, super-charged tale of redemption, regrets and violent turf wars as Vakov tries to save his brother, find out who is behind the tainted stormtech and get to the bottom of much deeper mysteries that start to emerge. The stormtech has given Vakov incredible strength and stamina and he spends much of the novel encased in battle armour. Despite this, he doesn’t act like some kind of invincible super-hero. His own doubts and nightmarish memories are enough to hobble him, but he is also still vulnerable. He doesn’t have well-worked out plans nor infallible senses. He gets hit, captured, beaten up, drugged and knocked out a surprising amount. The stormtech helps him to cope with a lot and mends his body quickly, but he still suffers along the way as he struggles his way through layer upon layer of drug dealers, crime lords and alien cultists. His humanity makes him much more relatable than similar characters in military SF books often are. It also makes you wince quite a lot.

The hollowed-out asteroid known as Compass is a fantastic creation. Vak is not a native, so much of the place is unfamiliar to him which allows us to discover it along with him. It’s a huge place and the scale only becomes apparent as the novel progresses. Full of numerous levels, some big enough to house entire ecosystems, and laced with endless miles of corridors and lost caverns. It offers endless hiding places and plenty of opportunity to get lost or hide an invasion. Jeremy Szal has come up with a brilliant setting for his book.

There’s a lot to like in this book, whether you like space opera, military Science Fiction or crime and adventure. It feels like a well-worn setting, a society and a civilisation with history. I enjoyed this breath-taking romp through an endless succession of highs and lows, thrills and confrontations. It’s billed as book 1 in a trilogy and I’m keen to see where Jeremy Szal takes us next

Gareth D Jones

June 2020

(pub: Gollancz, 2020. 531 page enlarged paperback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-473-22742-2)

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