Hels Eight review Stark Holborn space western Ten sequel book novel Hel's Eight

Hel’s Eight Is a Hard-Nosed Firefly That’s as Good as It Sounds – Review

Star Wars (and Zack Snyder’s upcoming Rebel Moon) might be flying the flag for the space western on screen, but Stark Holborn is definitely a genre frontrunner in the book scene. Their latest novel is Hel’s Eight, but don’t be put off by the fact it’s a sequel to the earlier Ten Low. Sure, some baggage is inevitable, but Hel’s Eight is, for the most part, a standalone thrill ride — and what baggage it does bring doesn’t weigh it down.

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Much more than Star Wars, the book is very explicit about its western heritage. In that respect, it’s more like Firefly, except even more hard-nosed. It’s shanty towns and shootouts. It’s motley, mechanical transports called mules and oxen and drays. It’s vicious gangs with names like the Sand Vipers and the Metaldogs. It’s a world where chance is at once everything and nothing. It’s amplification of Western trappings — endless deserts contrasted against glittering cities, a pitiless scrabble for survival against the elements and the promise of a better life just beyond reach. It’s a hostile frontier moon called Factus, where ordinary folk are trying to eke out the most basic of existences, while the powerful try to crush them under jackboots and seize complete control over the moon.

The “why” behind that class conflict is one of the more intriguing elements of Hel’s Eight. It takes the story beyond the familiar, flirting at the fringes of slipstream fiction through the presence of fantastical horrors, known as the “Ifs” and more commonly referred to only as them. They feed on chance and live in the Void, a vast, uncharted area on Factus that is death for almost anyone who dares to enter.

In Ten Low, the eponymous character was one of few to ever survive venturing into the Void — but she was irrevocably changed by the experience. Hel’s Eight picks up five years later. In the interim, Ten has been living alone in the desert, atoning for her tally. This self-imposed hermitude comes to an abrupt end through two events. First, when a figure from her past steps out of the dust, and second, when she gets caught up in a firefight and draws on her arcane skills to support and protect those around her.

It’s a powerful one-two punch of circumstances that will draw in both veterans and newbies of Ten’s adventures. Holborn wastes no time in the setup, and what follows is an equally breathless and frequently breathtaking journey to challenge the forces that are enabling these raids and discover the reasoning behind their desire to control Factus.

There are relatively few new characters, with Rouf being the clear star of the debutants thanks to their capriciousness; they’re an uncomfortable bedfellow, and you can never quite be certain of where their allegiances lay. Of the returning characters, child-soldier-turned-rebel Gabi is again a highlight. She doesn’t get as much page space this time around, but her presence is always electric and you get a real feel for just how deeply Ten cares about her.

However, the real surprise comes in the form of Peccable Esterházy. Interspersed between Ten’s story are diary entries from Pec’s past, explaining how she came to Factus as one of the first colonists, with this history and what’s happening in the present having powerful crossovers. Even discounting its clear relevance to Ten’s adventure, Pec’s story is fascinating, offering an entirely different lens to survival and truth on Factus.

Characters like Pec, Gabi, and Malady Falco, alongside the question marks of the Ifs and the even bigger questions around exactly who — or what — Ten is, make up that baggage I mentioned at the start. However, Holborn doesn’t trot them out as memberberries. Instead, their reintroductions are built into the story in such a way that familiarity isn’t necessary. Ten knows them, and a light smattering of characterization and backstory is all that’s needed to give them an identity. And Holborn doesn’t linger on any of it; the story is constantly pushing to explore new ideas and tread new ground — I would go so far as to suggest it’s entirely possible to work backwards, starting with Hel’s Eight and then fleshing out certain elements by reading Ten Low.

In some ways, Hel’s Eight feels very specific in its overt space western vibe. And yet, it also has immense crossover appeal thanks to elements of the anachronistic western, weird fiction, horror, fantasy, and distinctly literary concerns. It’s a book that’s not afraid to bend genre to the breaking point, which combines with strong characters and breakneck pacing to make it a surefire hit.

And if none of that convinces you, Holborn is also lead writer on the upcoming Shadows of Doubt, and you can get a free taste of both their games writing and the world of Factus in an interactive story on itch.io.

A review copy of Hel’s Eight was provided by the publisher.

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Damien Lawardorn
Editor and Contributor of The Escapist: Damien Lawardorn has been writing about video games since 2010, including a 1.5 year period as Editor-in-Chief of Only Single Player. He’s also an emerging fiction writer, with a Bachelor of Arts with Media & Writing and English majors. His coverage ranges from news to feature interviews to analysis of video games, literature, and sometimes wider industry trends and other media. His particular interest lies in narrative, so it should come as little surprise that his favorite genres include adventures and RPGs, though he’ll readily dabble in anything that sounds interesting.