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The Demon King
Chris Bunch
Warner Aspect, 509 pages

The Demon King
Chris Bunch
Chris Bunch is the co-author (with Allan Cole) of the Sten series and the Anteros trilogy from Del Rey. On his own, he is the author of the Shadow Warrior, another SF series from Del Rey. Both Ranger and airborne-qualified, Chris Bunch was part of the first troop commitment into Vietnam, a patrol commander and later a combat correspondent for Stars & Stripes. Later, he edited outlaw motorcycle magazines and wrote for such magazines as Look magazine and Rolling Stone. He even wrote for prime-time television.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Todd Richmond

In The Demon King, Chris Bunch once again shows his gift for telling tales of battle and intrigue. The main character of The Demon King is Damastes the Fair, Tribune to the Emperor Tenedos. He is a very capable soldier who has pledged eternal loyalty to the wizard Tenedos and helped him to conquer Numantia and unite its people into a single, peaceful country. Damastes, like the other main characters in Bunch's books, can be a cold-blooded killer. Yet he is an honorable man, and while brutal and uncaring at times, he is also capable of great compassion.

The book opens with Damastes traveling to Kallio, a province that has not yet shown obedience to the Emperor. Damastes' job is to bring order to the province. He is hampered in this task by the Emperor's inept brother, the prince regent of Kallio. He does his best to fulfill the Emperor's orders but is thwarted by a treacherous wizard, who leads an attack on the city and kills the Emperor's brother. Damastes and his men succeed in defeating the wizard and destroying his army but the Emperor is not satisfied. He commands Damastes to exact horrifying revenge on the citizens of Kallio. Damastes, however, is a man of honor, and refuses to carry out the Emperor's orders. As he puts it:

"I swore an oath to you, " I agreed. "My family's principle is 'We Hold True.' But your orders are evil, and come from the heart, not the head, and it's my duty to keep you from evil as best I can. You swore an oath of your own to rule wisely and well, and to never treat your subjects with cruelty. I placed the crown on your head when you said those words."
Furious, the Emperor relieves him of his command and orders him back to the capital.

His career is not over, however, and after a long period of waiting, the Emperor again summons him. Tenedos is convinced that war with Maisir, the great country to the south, is inevitable. So he places Damastes in charge of Numantia's army to prepare them for war. But later, Tenedos tells Damastes that he has cast a spell that shows that if they go to war with Maisir, they will be destroyed. So he sends Damastes as a peace emissary to the King of Maisir. Damastes negotiates a peace treaty, but is stunned when the Emperor betrays him and the Maisirians and attacks without warning.

Despite the betrayal, Damastes later returns to serve the Emperor and lead a senseless war against Maisir. He blindly follows his oath to serve the Emperor and keep his family's honor, 'We Hold True.' It is not until the very end of the book, after millions have died, that he finally takes action.

This is the main story that weaves through the book. There are other subplots and stories as well. Damastes' relationship with his wife Marán and the alluring Amiel (a fair warning, this book contains graphic sexual content). His struggle with the Tovieti, a killer cult who hates the Emperor and those who serve him. His conflicts with the aristocracy and rebels who would overthrow the Emperor, just as he and Tenedos had done less than a decade earlier. All of these elements are interwoven with the main story line.

I enjoyed this book, as I enjoy all of Chris Bunch's work, but I felt frustrated after I finished it. From the very first chapter, we know that something bad is going to happen.

"Would that I had forced the thought, forced myself to ponder. Perhaps I could have changed things. Perhaps I could have prevented the doom that was coming fast upon me, and all of Numantia."
There are many examples of such foreshadowing throughout the book. Even the title tells us that, once we are sure that the Demon King doesn't refer to the King of Maisir. It's even clear that Damastes sees it, very early on. But his solemn oath to serve the Emperor seems to prevent him from doing anything about it. It's a strange sense of honor, because though he is capable of disobeying the Emperor when he sees that the orders he is given are cruel and evil, he nonetheless refuses to stop the Emperor when he sees him allowing millions to die in the futile attacks on the Maisirians. Damastes suspects that the Emperor is committing great evil, yet does nothing to investigate, always finding other things to distract him. We are forced to wait the entire book for the action we know Damastes must take, being the good and just man that he is. And yet when he finally does take action, it is anticlimactic.

There will, of course, be a third book, one that promises that Damastes will take a more active role, but one can't help but feel that this entire book was just an introduction to the next one. But I guess that is the nature of trilogies. Still, I really enjoyed The Demon King and Bunch's storytelling. He knows how to write about war and battle, intrigue and betrayal, and this book highlights that. His depiction of the Numantian's "advance" against the Maisirians is both griping and horrifying. The senseless waste of lives and the horrible conditions are clearly illustrated, making you wonder how soldiers in a campaign like this could ever go on from day to day. It also clearly shows how a sense of duty and honor can sometimes be carried too far, something we have seen in our own history.

Copyright © 1998 by Todd Richmond

Todd is a plant molecular developmental biologist who has finally finished 23 years of formal education. He recently fled Madison, WI for the warmer but damper San Francisco Bay Area and likes bad movies, good science fiction, and role-playing games. He began reading science fiction at the age of eight, starting with Heinlein, Silverberg, and Tom Swift books, and has a great fondness for tongue-in-cheek fantasy àla Terry Pratchett, Craig Shaw Gardner and Robert Asprin.

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