‘At Empire’s Edge’ is a fun but negligible science fiction adventure

October 13, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 13, 2016

At Empire’s Edge, a 2009 novel by William C. Dietz, is an entertaining if low-rent science-fiction thriller set on a remote colony world in the far future.

The book’s main protagonist is Jak Cato, a “section leader” in a group of genetically engineered police officers whose psychic sensitivity enables them to identify a race of malevolent alien shape-shifters known as Sagathi. When a space battle forces his unit to set down on Dantha, the planet’s venal ruler, Uma Nalomy, arranges to have Cato’s fellow cops murdered in order to use their prisoner as an assassin.

This deadly scheme is prompted by the imminent arrival of a high-ranking official of the Uman (read: Human) Empire. Isulu Usurlus may be decadent, but he’s a relatively decent sort, and he’s outraged by Nalomy’s blatant corruption, oppression of her subjects and squandering of imperial resources. By replacing one of Usurlus’s trusted aides with the shape-shifter, who goes by the unfortunate name of Fiss Verafti, Nalomy hopes not just to tighten her grip on Dantha but to expand her influence on the galactic stage.

Usurlus and Cato spend much of the book matching brains — and frequently, in Cato’s case, brawn — with seemingly half the planet. In this scene, Usurlus and two sidekicks infiltrate an outlaw Danthan settlement inhabited by Lir, aliens who can fly:

The Kelf was up on the android’s shoulders by then, firing his pistols at the Lir who circled above, as a force of six warriors rushed out to block further progress. Two of the defenders went down immediately when Phelonious fired short three-round bursts at them, and the rest were torn apart as one of Cato’s grenades landed in the middle of the group, going off with a loud bang. The echoes of the explosion were still dying away as Cato pointed to the blocky building that sat atop the rest, and yelled, “That looks like the place we went. Get inside!”

Incoming energy beams stuttered past, and bullets pinged off stone pavers while the threesome dashed across an open area, making for what Cato believed to be the “roost” where Chieftain Hybor Iddyn and his family lived. The habitat wasn’t undefended, however, and when warriors spilled out through the front door, it was necessary to open up on them.

Sir bodies danced and jerked, and a steady stream of bright casings arced through the air, as Cato felt something hot nick his side. He’d been hit, he knew that, but there was no time in which to inspect the wound as one of the defenders fell back against the half-open door. That served to push the barrier open, which gave Cato an opportunity to throw a grenade into the space beyond. The otherwise-dark room was momentarily illuminated by a flash of light as the bomb went off, sending chunks of jagged metal in every direction.

The explosion had the desired effect, with Cato and Phelonious able to enter the structure and pull the door behind them. It was extremely thick and secured by a sturdy crossbar that was intended to keep attackers out.

I liked this book a little more than the other Dietz novel that I’ve read, 2005’s Runner (which also features a protagonist named Jak, and which seems to be set in a different period of the same fictional universe). Unfortunately, the characters are paper-thin. Matters aren’t helped much by the budding romance between Cato and a young Danthan slave girl, which seems mainly designed to fill up his page count.

I’ll probably try reading Dietz books in the future. But if these two volumes are representative, then his oeuvre is basically the equivalent of a cheap toy — fun and diverting for a few hours, but otherwise of little lasting value.

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