Review by Curtis Cole
I found myself at a loss for words with the third installment in Elliot Kay’s Poor Man’s Fight series. Though it was not a particularly bad loss for words, the fact that I could hardly muster some comments doesn’t exactly bode well for it either; I feel that this is because Dead Man’s Debts, though being the finale to the first stretch of protagonist Tanner Malone’s narrative arc, it nonetheless is setting up the oncoming narrative arcs, and in doing, so it loses its identity in the juggling act.
Debts winds up the action begun in Poor Man’s Fight, the severing of relations between the interstellar nation of Archangel and the three gigantic corporate entities, then accelerated in Rich Man’s War—the outbreak of war between Archangel and North-Star—and brings it to a satisfying conclusion. The fate of pirate extraordinaire Casey and do-gooder Malone find their zenith surprisingly well; for Casey, the reader will be unsurprised to know that his labors as a pirate-for-hire have been finally revealed, while for Tanner, he finally gets his chance to go off to university.
The narrative begins with the stalemate at Raphael: North-Star occupies the surface of the planet via controlling key metropolitan areas. Other member states of the galactic union hold a series of peace talks to try and rectify the situation, but little is accomplished; Archangel, meanwhile, decides to go on the covert offensive and rescue an imprisoned Prince Khalil from his wicked brother’s grasp.
Once saved, the Prince is instrumental in Archangel’s true goal—submitting a motion in the union assembly to re-categorize North-Star not as a corporation, but as a sovereign state. Through a series of politicking, Archangel secures the votes required and in a stunning turn of fate, Prince Khalil is recognized as his nation’s official head of state, deposing his brother’s recognition.
Such an entente creates a dramatic power shift and provides Archangel with enough breathing room to launch a daring military offensive: assault the de-facto capital of North-Star, smash their fleet, and secure their shareholders during an emergency corporate meeting. Naturally, Tanner Malone is on hand for such an offensive and proves vital in the success of the operation.
Though Anton Brekhov—the C.E.O of North-Star—escapes, Tanner manages a clever ploy to elect a new C.E.O who ‘plays ball’ and agrees to all of Archangel’s terms, thus ending the war. Turns out that North-Star’s anti-Malone propaganda efforts in labeling him a monster of unparalleled viciousness, backfired and gave his lying an air of honesty—after all, why would a damnable killer lie about North-Star needing to elect a new C.E.O?
So, North-Star enters a period of ‘adjustment’ as they reel from the losses of the war, and Tanner returns home to Archangel and the newly liberated territory to enjoy a well-deserved break. Or, at least he would if he wasn’t an overachiever. Apparently, Tanner believes that Archangel’s president Aguirre is up to no good with hiring out pirates for amnesty deals. So Tanner does what any enterprising newly discharged Master-at-Arms would do—break into a highly secure facility, infiltrate a secret ship, and confront the captain.
Naturally, things turn very violent very fast. Tanner and Casey’s struggle is soon joined by a ministry agent, some things get exploded, and an escape pod containing Casey and Tanner crash lands in front on the Hashem embassy, a state which is friendly to Tanner. Tanner is given sanctuary, Casey is arrested, and the crimes of president Aguirre is revealed to a scandalous public; an impeachment trial commences and Archangel winds up in a remarkable similar position as North-Star as the political process forces its own kind of ‘adjustment’ as new politicians step up to cover for the old. In short, a nice dialectical negation.
As a (soft) military sci-fi book, Kay’s writing is still enjoyable. He does not bog himself down in unnecessary details, he creates vivid action scenes and set pieces, while still remembering to give his characters something which many pieces of militarist trash literature forget—a personality.
Tanner, though still a fairly bland protagonist, at least feels real. He is not as empty as most protagonists in military works, who tend to be cynically wizened veterans whose only other practical skill—other than murder, that is—tends to be whining at the world and those upstart younglings. The reader never forgets that Tanner had hopes and dreams before entering the service and that though he is proficient at the art of killing, he does not want to spend his life, fighting. Tanner feels romantic loneliness, desire for companionship, and a longing to preserve friendships despite the distance in rank and space. While Tanner is a bit too of a morally upright cookie-jar, he manages to be a Populist Ender Wiggin (re Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game) while still being more than a tactical screen with legs.
Though Tanner’s nicely fleshed out moralism is a mild welcome in a genre heavy with gruff, honor and duty above all else types, kinds which usually subsume personal affectations under a rigid code of conduct, there is still much about the plot which remains a mystery.
Yes, much does happen over the course of the first three books in Kay’s series. But beyond the basics of why Aguirre hired out the pirate crews—to confront North-Star and regain some semblance of autonomy over the Archangel economy—we still do not know what was his end-game; after independence was achieved, what then? Was there no other way to gain this independence than throw the human economy in turmoil? Considering that Aguirre’s nature as a professional politician, and that he had allies in his subterfuge in the Archangel senate, what did he hope to ultimately gain? There is obviously a deeper game at play and the issue that I am taking is that very little has been spoken of it at this point.
Finally, we should speak about Kay’s willingness to present soldiers in a conflict who think more about their reality than the overriding need for final victory. Though Kay does an admirable job in presenting troopers who are humane reservoirs of killing-machines—people who think about the human cost and whether the effacement of debt was really worth all of the bloodshed—it is still but a tiny populist sentiment.
At the end of the day, the fact remains that Tanner and crew are either directly under the pay of bourgeois elements or directly within their orbit (see: Tanner’s relation with Admiral Yeoh). Kay clearly sets up the ending situation—the leaderships of both North-Star and Archangel collapsing—as being significant as they parallel each other perfectly. But the fact that one collapse comes from corporate technicalities, while the other comes from dubious treason charges, indicates a strong preference for reform; the fact that throughout the whole endeavor, the idea of a working class uprising is never proffered as a possibility, despite, clearly, there being the social-material reality necessary for such an uprising (literally, hundreds-of-billions of people virtually enslaved under a neo-feudalism), mares Kay’s writing with an eye-rolling level of sentimental idealism.
So, yes, Kay earns some brownie points for depicting characters with an actual shred of personality; plus some bonus clout for writing strong female characters, women who care less about man-serving and more about equality through action, without eventually falling prey to sexist notions. But still, the ideological underpinnings shine through and once all the glory of space battles, hostage taking, and liberalism fall through, what is left is a pile of well-written notions on the human condition in straining circumstance. Unfortunately, none of those notions leads to anything close to emancipation.
Dead Man’s Debts (Poor Man’s Fight Series Book 3)
502 pages. Published by Elliot Kay. $15.00 (Paperback), $3.99 (Kindle), $1.99 (Audible Audiobook). 2016.