Galactic Warlord

April 18, 2014

My daughter and I recently read Douglas Hill’s novel Galactic Warlord, the first installment of his Last Legionary series. When I was a youth, these books and the Tripods novels were probably my two favorite series of science fiction books for children. I had forgotten enough of the plot details that I could enjoy some surprises when I reread Galactic Warlord, and I enjoyed it quite a bit this time through.

The full text of the first book is available here. I suggest you read it. It won’t take long; I finished the whole thing in a couple hours, and my ten-year-old took only slightly longer. (The OCR in this online version is reasonable but not perfect; the one consistent problem is a failure to italicize most of the psychic dialogue from the alien sidekick/female lead Glr.) I would buy copies of all four* volumes if they could be had in reasonable condition from Powell’s. However, since the books don’t appear to be in print any more, reading an online PDF at least doesn’t take any money from the author’s heirs.

The story is quite violent, but it’s not military science fiction, because for most of the book, there is just a single hero. Kiell Randor is a military man, incredibly tough both physically and mentally, and much of the story concerns him fighting his way through various obstacles. There is a certain amount of hand-to-hand combat, but most of the people who die are taken out with advanced technological weapons. The climactic battle between Kiell and Lord Thr’un of Irruq-hoa is completed without weapons, but this is thematically important, because Kiell only gets the chance to face Thr’un in melee because the latter is so arrogant that he thinks he cannot lose.

The violence in the novel includes a genocide committed against the entire planet of Moros, leaving the protagonist as the only survivor. However, from the very start of the story, it’s made clear that Kiell Randor is dying. I remember, when I first read the book in elementary school, that the thought of Kiell slowly dying from within really affected me. The descriptions of the constant pain in his bones were eerie and frightening.

It’s interesting that the author, Douglas Hill, was a committed Canadian-British leftist. Kiell Randor is the most famous character he created, and he came from a completely militarized society; it is explicitly mentioned in Galactic Warlord that the military forces of the planet Moros include, in principle, every adult inhabitant of the planet. However, they also have a dedicatedly communalist society. Moros seems almost like a planet-wide kibbutz, except without the farming. The planet’s original subsistence agriculture was replaced with an essentially all-military economy, based around sending Legionaries to work as interstellar mercenaries. While Moros was at one point completely self-sufficient (and self-sufficiency was an important part of the Legionary ethos), by Kiell’s time they were importing food. And it was in a shipment of food that the sources of radiation that annihilated the planet were hidden. The story does not dwell on this point, but I thought it was interesting—although I don’t think I ever noticed the irony when I read and reread the book as a child.

I did notice that Hill’s books are rather unorthodox children’s stories, in terms of the way that they treat revenge. I am used to books (and other media) aimed at kids emphasizing the danger of focusing one’s entire life on vengeance, and there is often quite a bit of moralizing about forgiveness. Galactic Warlord has none of that. At the outset, as Kiell is dying, he strives on only to complete his best friend’s charge from beyond the grave: “Avenge us Kiell. Avenge the murder of Moros.” The ultimate villain of the series is totally, unredeemably evil, as are most or all of his Deathwing minions. This means there is no moral ambiguity about Kiell and Glr destroying these foes, but it is still interesting to see the goal of revenge extolled this way in a story for kids.

The one thing I never really thought worked in the story was Kiell’s incredulity when he learns from the Overseers about the Warlord’s existence. The problem was not that Kiell’s disbelief was illogical or out of character. The problem was that it was too obvious to me, as a reader, that the outline of the story Talis was telling had to be true. Too much narrative time was spent on the exposition about the Warlord; a short book like this one would not have space for such a massive red herring. Moreover, the book is actually named after the putative Warlord, which would be awfully strange if the Warlord turned out to be a figment of Talis’s paranoid imagination.

I too wondered a lot about the Warlord after first reading this book. When I first encountered the Last Legionary novels, there was a gap of several years between when I read book 3, Day of the Starwind, and book 4, Planet of the Warlord. During that time, I had to wonder whether Hill would be able to provide a truly convincing climax to the series. I was afraid that when the true identity of the Warlord was revealed, it would be a letdown. It’s not so difficult to build up a shadowy villain, incredibly powerful but working in secret, but it’s harder when you actually have to show the villain—present in the flesh. There needs to be a concrete reason why this Warlord is truly a compelling threat to the whole galaxy. I thought that maybe, the actual identity of the Warlord might never be shown—that Kiell might destroy his enemy without them ever interacting directly. That might have been preferable to a little tyrant in a chair. However, I can report that, while the climax of the series is not perfect, the revelation of the Warlord itself lives up to the hype.

In some ways, the books are pretty conventional space opera. Although intended for a “teen” audience (whatever age range that is actually supposed to indicate), the prose is probably not much easier than the writing of classic pulp SF authors. The hero is incomparably tough. His natural abilities made him the best young officer in the galaxy’s greatest military force; these are augmented by the Overseers, who give him unbreakable bones and a psychic alien sidekick. Glr is quite a wonderful character, I think. She (and Kiell takes pains to remind himself—and hence the reader—to think of her as “she”) is frequently amused by human foibles, yet she is also extremely effective partner for Kiell. And as the series progresses, she definitely becomes more of a partner than a subordinate, to the point that, by the end of the series, the pair seem to acknowledge that they have reached a sort of platonic marriage. Glr is a strong and distinctly female character, who, because of her alien nature, is never sexualized or reduced to being a damsel in distress.

*There are, in principle, five books in the series, but the last one published, Young Legionary, is a much weaker prequel. It has no connection to the main plot of the series and includes some annoying retcons. It’s almost like self-fan-fiction. The existence of a lower-quality prequel written after all the others is something else the Tripods and Last Legionary series have in common.


3 Responses to “Galactic Warlord”

  1. Diapadion Says:

    I disagree. I did not find the revelation of the warlord to be convincing. Intellectually, I liked what Hill did, but in the context of the plot, and how he presented it to the reader, I wasn’t impressed.

    The form of the warlord was interesting, but to the modern reader, hardly novel. This is almost certainly an inconvenience caused by the cyberpunk revolution, plus stuff like The Matrix and X-Men. A bigger issue, beyond this, is where the warlord originated. The idea of it is interesting, but by its nature, it calls for a broader explanation, which Hill never gives.

    For me, Day of the Starwind was the high point of the series. Planet of the Warlord just didn’t do much for me.

    • Buzz Says:

      I agree that Day of the Starwind is a significantly better book. The plot of Planet of the Warlord is rather trite; neither Kiell’s time as a prisoner of the Deathwing, nor his final raid on the asteroid are that compelling. I do think that the series is very well structured, however, including the fourth book. The four-book sequence has Kiell progressively: (1) learn of the Warlord’s existence and defeat some some of his minor minions, (2) foil one of the Warlord’s plots to foment a war, (3) destroy the foundation for the army the Warlord is building, and (4) confront and destroy the Warlord. When it’s down to the final confrontation, and Kiell has killed almost all the leaders of the Deathwing, so only the One and the Warlord are left, there’s another flashback to Oni’s dying message, which frames the final confrontation as the culmination of Kiell’s quest for revenge.

      While the plot was not great in that last book, I thought it was adequately explained where the Warlord came from. The origin of the Warlord actually reminds my of the origin of the Mara in the Doctor Who story “Snakedance.” I am not particularly fond of that serial, but the explanation the Doctor gives for how the Mara originated was definitely effective. The leaders of the Manussan Empire had developed the power to produce matter through pure thought, but when they used their ability to create a powerful living being, the imperfections in their hearts made the thing they produced an evil super-being. I saw the Warlord as rather similar. There was a meeting of the minds of the planet Golvic’s most brilliant individuals, and the result was a disastrous subjugation.

  2. […] I was reading The Last Legionary novels,* something occurred to me. I actually had an even more compelling version of the same experience […]

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