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Posts Tagged ‘Young Legionary’

One of the subtle pleasures of adulthood that they don’t tell you about as a youngling is the opportunity to revisit things from your childhood many years later and see how they match up to your fond recollections. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t – c’est la vie, as we say in the language classroom. The modern world being what it is, you don’t even have to spend hours and months trawling through second-hand bookshops in order to track down some half-remembered volume from your youth: chances are it’s already available for Kindle download. So it proved when some half-formed impulse made me return to Douglas Hill’s The Last Legionary books, nearly 35 years after I first encountered them.

At the time I didn’t get to the library that often, so my long-suffering mother would trundle off there every couple of weeks and return with a pile of sci-fi and fantasy books selected almost at random from the municipal library’s impressive collection. Most of these were pretty unmemorable and I remember labouring through a lot of them quite joylessly; I seem to recall (though, caveat lector, this was 35 years ago) that Monica Hughes’ The Keeper of the Isis Light was a particular ordeal (in the interests of balance I should probably have another look at that, too). Douglas Hill’s books were different, however: they were snappily written and easy to read, an absolute pleasure at the time.

The story concerns the adventures of Keill Randor, the last surviving inhabitant of the planet Moros (not surprisingly, Keill’s isolation does mean he tends to be quite morose, ha ha). This being pulp SF, he is an exceptional member of a planet of superb warriors, the greatest fighters in the Inhabited Galaxy (who, needless to say, only hire out their services to the virtuous and deserving). Evil forces are at work behind the galactic scenes, however, and as the first book in the main series (Galactic Warlord) opens, Moros has been cleansed of all life by a devastating radiation weapon. By a fluke, Keill Randor was not killed along with everyone else, but left with a progressive, eventually fatal dose of radiation, and he is doing his considerable best to find whoever killed his planet before he succumbs to his condition.

Well, it doesn’t quite work out that way, as Keill is gathered up by a secret cabal of benevolent geniuses who have determined the existence of a malevolent being attempting to plunge the galaxy into conflict and bloodshed; this individual they have christened the Warlord, though they have no idea who or where he is. Their plan is for Keill Randor to act as their agent in the galaxy, and he is initially reluctant, even after they have cured his terminal condition (by replacing his irradiated bones with a synthetic alloy, naturally).

By the end of the first volume Keill has come to accept the existence of the Warlord and his role in slaughtering the Legions of Moros; he has also discovered the existence of the Warlord’s elite cadre of followers, the Deathwing, and sorted one of them out (with extreme prejudice). The next two books in the series, Deathwing over Veynaa and Day of the Starwind, move the story along in unflashy style – while investigating a planetary rebellion, Keill encounters the man directly responsible for the death of his people, and then later discovers a plan to breed legions of clone warriors in the Warlord’s service, happening on a planet with the worst weather in the galaxy.

Everything comes to an appropriately rousing conclusion in Planet of the Warlord, in which Randor discovers the true nature of his opponent, is briefly brainwashed by him into becoming one of his agents, and then recovers his identity so a final reckoning with the Warlord can take place.

The series also contains a further prequel volume, Young Legionary, which is basically a series of very loosely linked short stories concerning the teenage years of Keill Randor on Moros. I would advise reading these ahead of the main series, not least because they do flesh out the society and culture of Moros – well, a bit at least – making it seem like an actual place, rather than the vague piece of backstory from the other books.

So how does this series stand up to the harsh light of 2018? Well, you can’t really get away from the fact that these are juvenile pulp SF books, aimed at an audience of (most likely) pre-adolescent boys. Characterisation is minimal, the plots are pretty simplistic, and the emphasis is very much on non-stop action and adventure – the books have subheadings like ‘Betrayal in Space’ and ‘Asteroid Apocalypse’. They were written between 1979 and 1982, so very much qualify as being part of the post-stellar conflict boom in this sort of thing. Some people have suggested they are basically a simplified version of the same sort of story as in the Lensman series; I wouldn’t know about that (my to-read list keeps getting longer), but the books enthusiastically make use of all sorts of Golden Age SF tropes – needle guns, vibro-knives, mutant telepaths, cloning, and so on.

Keill himself is a protagonist in the classic mould, with his secret special power (his unbreakable bones usually save him at least once a book), and his alpha-male peak human strength, stamina, reflexes, and unarmed combat skills (‘a cybernetic Bruce Lee’ in the words of one not-wholly-impressed reviewer at the time). He’s a man on a mission with no time for soppy stuff like feelings or romance – just as well, because there’s only one major female character in the whole sequence, and that’s Keill’s alien sidekick Glr, a sort of psychic pterodactyl. Keill Randor doesn’t muck about: he’s an action man.

The books are regularly punctuated by sequences of Randor leaping into action against one or many opponents, and reading the whole series back-to-back one inevitably becomes a little fatigued by all the references to ‘flashing chops’, ‘crushing elbow smashes’, and so on. The level of violence is much greater than I recalled back at the time – fight scenes invariably conclude with someone having a crushed larynx or an impacted cranium, described in so many words. All good clean fun for the kiddies, I suppose.

One inevitably finds oneself wondering if Hill is attempting to insert any particular subtext into these books. There certainly appears to be an implicit message about self-discipline, self-reliance and rugged individualism. The notion of a superior warrior elite isn’t necessarily a political one in the usual sense of the word, but the opening sequence of Young Legionary in particular inevitably recalls the start of 300, as a pre-teen Keill is left in the wilderness by his people and required to make a hazardous journey, alone and unequipped, in order to qualify to begin his training as a full legionary. The Legions of Moros do seem very similar to the Spartans of antiquity, and – again thanks to 300 – the Spartans are now almost synonymous with a certain kind of muscular right-wing ideology. The tendency for Keill’s featured opponents to be mutants of various kinds – departures from the human norm of which he is such an exemplar – also feels slightly suspect.

It comes as a bit of a surprise, therefore, to learn that Hill was the literary editor of the left-wing newspaper Tribune throughout the period he was writing the Legionary books. I suppose this may just prove that if you move far enough away from the political centre ground, you eventually find yourself approaching it again from the other side. On the other hand, Hill is always at pains to point out that the Legions were not truly acquisitive, not imperialistic, not aggressors: the people of Moros are explicitly identified as collectivists. Even so, it is curious that the final movement of this series reveals it to be a story concerning an individual locked in a death struggle with a truly collectivist entity, a being with the power to consume identity and individualism. Or maybe it isn’t: Hill was apparently a socialist, not a raving communist.

None of the above occurred to me when I was first reading the Legionary books (you may not be greatly surprised to hear), and I’m not sure any of it is really important now. The values of these stories are traditional and – it seems to me – wholly commendable ones: loyalty, honour, restraint, responsibility. You can perhaps take exception to the fact they are so obviously books for boys, and to some of the subject matter (specifically the lovingly-detailed violence), but that’s about all. Looking at them again now, they remain as pacy, diverting and entertaining as they were back in the early eighties. I suppose I should call them a guilty pleasure, but to be honest I’m really struggling to feel at all guilty.

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