The Dark Path
by Walter H. Hunt
Tor, 2003, ISBN 0-765-30606-9
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
The Dark Path follows Hunt's previous book, The Dark Wing, almost a century later. For those (including myself) who haven't read that book, the essential background facts are these: The humans and the bird-like zor encountered each other and fought a long, bloody war, which ended when Admiral Marais overwhelmed the zor and horrified his fellow humans by wiping out all zor life on several of their colony worlds. The zor concluded that Marais was a great warrior, the humans concluded that Marais was a great war criminal, and Marais and some of his friends, subordinates, and followers were welcomed into the zor polity (empire isn't quite right) and honored with high positions.
It's now almost a century later, and humans and zor have been allies since the end of the war. Their territories interpenetrate, since the species prefer slightly different kinds of planets. There's lots of trade, and there are zor serving in the human Imperial Navy, and humans serving in the navy of the zor High Nest. Admiral Marais is long dead, but the last survivor of his closest friends, Sergei Torrijos, is still the Gyaryu'har, the holder of the gyaryu, the Sacred Talon, the official sword of state of the High Nest. The High Nest has, apparently, sent this very old man of very high rank to accompany an inspection tour by Admiral Horace Tolliver of an Imperial Navy border post, Cicero, on the outer edge of human and zor space, where two Imperial Navy ships have recently vanished in unexplained circumstances. It's on Cicero that we meet the real protagonist of the story, Commodore Jackie Laperriere, and her zor friend and second in command, Commander Ch'k'te.
Bit by bit, we learn that the zor believe there is a demonic force in the universe that seeks to act directly in this plane of existence to conquer or subvert the zor and others on the side of, basically, good. They began the disastrous war with the humans because they had mistaken them for servants of this dark force. For reasons that aren't clear until later in the book, Marais' actions proved to them that they were wrong. However, they still believe that force is out there, and that the disappearance of the two ships signals a return of its interest in humans and zor. When Tolliver, dissatisfied with Laperriere's handling of the problem of the vanished ships, takes several ships out to investigate the system where they were last known to be and returns without most of the ships and apparently without his own sanity or that of most of the survivors, evidence for the zor belief starts to mount up. Jackie Laperriere and Ch'k'te find themselves battling mind-controlling aliens who can make themselves appear to be anyone, including Jackie and Ch'k'te. Taking back Cicero Base is only the beginning of their troubles; after that , their lives get complicated and exciting. Jackie Laperriere, who has always found human Sensitives rather repellent, finds herself forced to develop her own Sensitive skills in a zor context that seems irrational and pointlessly confusing to her, while getting a crash course in little-known aspects of zor culture, as a necessary part of a suicide mission to recover the gyaryu, the zor sacred sword that was captured by the aliens when they captured Cicero Base and the Gyaryu'har.
This is fast-paced, exciting military sf, with a reasonably intelligent, if sometimes pig-headed, hero. I particularly like the fact that the humans and the zor find each other about equally confusing, in both major and minor ways. The human attitude towards the psionically talented seems immature compared to the zor attitude; on the other hand, I shudder to think of being so "mature" that we could shrug off mass murder, as the zor do with Admiral Marais. On a more ordinary level, the zor representative to the imperial court complies with, without understanding, the human preference that the emperor not be addressed by his name (as their own High Lord is) or touched (as is zor courtesy with everyone.) After an emotionally stressful incident, Ch'k'te attempts to comfort Jackie, and then they have a mutually confusing exchange in which Ch'k'te is worrying that he might have inadvertantly violated human custom. It's all fairly neatly done, and neither species comes off looking smarter, wiser, or more sensible, overall, than the other.
I do have a few complaints. One thing that bothers me is that both the humans and the zor are ruled by hereditary aristocracies headed by royal houses. If there are any democratic elements at all, there's no mention of them in this book. In a work otherwise lacks lazy use of ill-fitting standard elements, this is a disappointment. David Weber may populate Honor Harrington's universe with cardboard cutouts whose thought processes and behavior are stereotypical to the point of idiocy, but he has thought about why Manticore and Grayson are monarchies, and how that would work with educated, mobile, and technically adept populations. I shouldn't be too hard on Mr. Hunt about this; star empires with hereditary power structures of various kinds are distressingly common in sf, and I nearly overlooked the lack of justification for it here, interpolating in my own explanation relying on information not being able to move faster than ships. In fact, this explanation is nowhere on the pages of the book, though it may we ll be in Mr. Hunt's mind.
My second complaint about the story itself is that it ends in mid-story. There's no warning that this is the case in the cover matter, although someone who went through book reading all the included pieces of the zor epic poem tha t figures so prominently, and then reading all the section titles, could work it out. Based on the amount of story left to tell, there's at least one more volume of at least this length to come. Blame for this should probably go more to Tor than to Walter Hunt; he wrote it, but they packaged it, and they could have warned the reader.
My final complaint falls entirely on whoever at Tor decided on the decorative typeface used for both the title header on the right-hand pages, and the first few words of new sections. It's an acceptable, though not wonderful, typeface when used as a title header in all caps. In mixed case at the starts of sections, it becomes harder to read. And on page 238, the combination of the decorative typeface and a zor name produces something that's completely unreadable. The use of this typeface this way is a mistake that should not be repeated.
Now that I'm finished with my complaints, I want to say again that this is a fun book, entertaining military sf with some good characters and an interesting alien culture. Good light entertainment.