Guest Review: Sten by Chris Bunch & Allan Cole

Guest Review: Sten by Chris Bunch & Allan ColeSten by Allan Cole, Chris Bunch
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, science fiction, space opera
Series: Sten #1
Pages: 310
Published by Orbit on August 12th 1982
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This is the first book in the action-packed science fiction series, Sten. Vulcan is a factory planet, centuries old, company-run, ugly as sin, and unfeeling as death. Vulcan breeds just two types of native—complacent or tough. Sten is tough. When his family is killed in a mysterious accident, Sten rebels, harassing the Company from the metal world’s endless mazelike warrens. He could end up just another burnt-out Delinquent, but people like Sten never give up.

Guest review by Amy:

Karl Sten grew up on the industrial hellworld of Vulcan. His parents and siblings were all killed by the callous, uncaring machine-world they lived in, as a result of an industrial accident. Workers on Vulcan were on ironclad contracts that were rigged to give the Company the rest of a worker’s life. Until Sten rebelled. But escaping from Vulcan was only the first of his many adventures…

Escape Rating: A: Have you ever circled back to an old favorite from years ago, only to find out it’s not quite as good as you remember? I first read this book when I was in high school; it was originally published in 1982. The cover, back then, didn’t make it clear that this book was the first of the series, and I found it in a used bookstore, all by itself. I remember thinking, “wow, this is a great story–why don’t those guys write some more?” They did, of course, and the Sten series eventually spanned 8 books, all following Sten’s epic career after his departure from Vulcan. I didn’t find the others for a few years, but when I did, I hungrily devoured the whole series.

Now, when I say, “not quite as good as I remember,” I don’t mean to imply that Sten is a stinker–by no means! It’s a wonderful tale, fast-paced with lots of action and excitement, a cast of colorful characters, a villain that you can really love to despise, and enough hard sci-fi in there to keep geeks interested.

The Company’s boss, Baron Thoreson, is up to no good. He’s got a top-secret project that will, he hopes, let him control an even bigger chunk of the universe. He (rightly) understands that information is power – and once two people know something, it’s not a secret any more, it’s information. The Eternal Emperor is the sole holder of the secret of Anti-Matter Two, the molecule that powers…well, everything. It powers space ships, making interstellar travel possible, and can even be weaponized–the Imperial Guard’s primary weapon shoots tiny pellets of the stuff.

Sten, born on Vulcan and a teenager when our story starts, loses his family and takes up his father’s contract. He rapidly figures out just how rigged the system is, and he rebels, eventually escaping to lead a gang of juvenile criminals, the Delinqs. It’s there that the Emperor’s right-hand man Ian Mahoney finds Sten, while on an undercover mission to find out what the Baron is up to. Sten ends up leaving Vulcan, and joining the Imperial Guard. But Sten isn’t an infantry type – so after he washes out, Mahoney whisks him away to the top-secret Mercury Corps for deep intel work.

Sounds like a rollicking good adventure, right? Well, it is. There are fascinating people to meet at every phase of this story for Sten (and for us!), some great scenery, some cool tech, great battles…all the ingredients are here.

So what’s wrong with it? I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to figure that out. Sten moves really, really fast – and there’s the niggling thing that’s bothering me about it, and keeps it from being the great story I remember reading thirty-ish years ago. It moves too fast. In this first book, at least, we don’t really get into Sten’s head at all, though the bulk of the story centers on him. Things truck along, third-person with the camera pretty firmly pointed at Sten, and at the end, I’m wanting to dig deeper into this fascinating man.

So, I’ll take a minor point off for that. It’s possible that my familiarity with the book is part of what’s driving that odd feeling, so let’s not gig the book too badly. Others have called this a “hidden masterpiece” and an “underrated classic,” and I’ll buy that. For fans of hard military sci-fi, Sten is pure candy. Read and enjoy, then go see if you can find the rest of the series more quickly than I did!

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