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The Dark Ascent
Walter H. Hunt
Tor, 416 pages

The Dark Ascent
Walter H. Hunt
Walter H. Hunt is a native of Andover, Massachussets and a graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He is a former computer programmer and technical writer who is now a full-time writer.

Walter H. Hunt Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Charlene Brusso

Walter H. Hunt's unique military SF series (The Dark Wing, The Dark Path) has earned enthusiastic praise for its focus on the philosophical as well as the tactical and strategic sides of conflict. That shift in focus adds an intriguing depth to Hunt's work, allowing him to tell several interlocking stories simultaneously. It doesn't hurt that he's also taken the time to create alien cultures and characters that leave the Hollywood rubber suit and latex forehead crowd fairly well far behind.

The setting of the series is familiar enough: Humanity has gone to other stars, colonized new worlds, and met other intelligent life forms. It has also, thankfully, survived a mutually devastating war with the avian raptor-like zor, an ancient race whose culture and mental disciplines are steeped in mysticism, guided by wisdom gleaned from ancient legends and prophesies.

A zor prophecy foretold the coming of the "Dark Wing" -- human Admiral Marias -- who led the campaign of interstellar xenocide against the zor in the eponymous first book of the series. In The Dark Path, Hunt revealed a third alien power, the secretive and power-hungry Ór, the schemers responsible for manipulating the humans and zor into the war which nearly annihilated both. With their ability to shape-change and control more fragile minds, the Ór are a formidable and unpredictable enemy. Yet the zor believe they have found clues to a strategy to defeat the Ór within another ancient prophecy: the Legend of Qu'u, about a zor hero who braved great dangers in a quest to recover a lost artifact, the zor sword known as the Talon of State.

Seeking to take advantage of the Ór plot, the zor recreated the legend's initial conditions, allowing the sword to be stolen. Then the canny zor claimed defiant young human space commodore Jackie Laperriere is the current embodiment of Qu'u. Yanked away from her naval career, Jackie must now recover the sword -- but despite the guidance of her zor friend Ch' k' te and ghostly advisor Th' an' ya, her path is far from clear.

Legend, couched thickly in poetic metaphor, describes how Qu'u climbed the Perilous Stair, crossed the Winds of Despite, and entered the Fortress of Despite to face the Deceiver, the being who protects the sword. Once Jackie completes her own journey she must, like Qu'u, take up the weapon and experience the Dark Understanding -- whatever it may be. That's the trouble with prophetic metaphors; one never knows how seriously to take them.

One of the novel's real pleasures is the culture clash embodied in Jackie's taking up an alien quest. Unsurprisingly, she has a rather low opinion of Qu'u and his legendary sidekicks, who, she says, basically seem to have gone "bumbling around" until, time after time, divine guidance brought them to the next test of their courage and determination. For Jackie, the real challenge is to turn her concrete thinking and the instincts which tell her to prepare for physical attack to more abstract and spiritual paths. As her patient zor guides keep reminding her, "Once you have set your foot upon the Perilous Stair, there is no way to turn back."

In the meantime, of course, the Ór are sending agents to stop Jackie and orchestrating a complex military campaign against human and zor, beginning with the taking of a strategic starbase and escalating into outright mayhem on Earth. The Ór know the Qu'u prophecy; indeed, they're depending on the zor doing everything they can to see it played out. But what if the metaphors have been misinterpreted? What if this story isn't the entire -- or correct -- prophecy?

Although the ending of The Dark Ascent doesn't quite live up to all the build-up, Hunt still gives readers a thoughtful story with one of the most interesting settings in military SF in a long time, particularly for readers who prefer the large-scale intrigues and alien mysticism of Babylon 5 to simple BEM shoot-em-ups. Returning characters like Captain Barbara MacEwan, with her bagpipes and ever-ready bottle of scotch, add to the lively flavor and homey-ness of a series which gathers depth with each new addition.

Copyright © 2005 Charlene Brusso

Charlene's sixth grade teacher told her she would burn her eyes out before she was 30 if she kept reading and writing so much. Fortunately he was wrong. Her work has also appeared in Aboriginal SF, Amazing Stories, Dark Regions, MZB's Fantasy Magazine, and other genre magazines.

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