Ghosthunt, Jo Clayton (1983)
Review by Ian Sales
Ghosthunt is the seventh book in Clayton’s nine-book Diadem series. The heroine of the series is Aleytys, an unsophisticated, and extremely beautiful, young woman from a low tech planet who becomes the inadvertent wearer of the Diadem, an alien device which contains the consciousnesses of three previous wearers. The Diadem also gives Aleytys psionic powers. After several books in which Aleytys was sold into, and then escaped from, sexual slavery, she now works for Hunters, Inc., who do exactly what their name implies – part-mercenary, part-private investigators, part-recovery agent, and very expensive. She also has a son, who is with his father on her home world. She knows the father hates her, and suspects her son will be raised to do the same. Except her son is not with his father…
Hunters, Inc. are contacted by the management of the Company resort world Cazarit. Several people have been kidnapped from it, and the world’s security has been unable to determine the perpetrator. Worse, they have an upcoming party of rulers from the Aghir, and they think the kidnapper will target one of them. Aleytys is reluctant to take the case, but thinks she detects the hand of an old friend in the kidnappings and so signs on, providing she gets to choose what happens to the perpetrator.
Meanwhile, Lilit, teenage daughter of one of the Aghir lords, is about to be married off to another lord. She hates her intended, her father, and pretty much everything about her world. It is a cruel place, in which the rulers live in luxury while those who mine the metals which have made the worlds wealthy live in poverty in a barely habitable alien ecosphere. Lilit is keeping a diary, and her writings in it explain her world and how she came to secretly join a rebellion against her father and the other lords.
Aleytys arrives on Cazarit, with her boss’s daughter as assistant, and immediately begins browbeating the local security staff into giving her full access to everything. They’re reluctant because their failure reflects badly on them, but she can’t figure out who the kidnapper is before he strikes unless she go where she needs and see what she wants. This turns into a guided tour of Cazarit, with its many islands, each of which is dedicated to a different type of entertainment – one for gambling, one for cruelty, one for drugs, etc.
The kidnapper is indeed Aleytys’s old friend Stavver, and he has her son with him and is teaching him the trade. Meanwhile, Lilit has decided to be a suicide bomber, and she will detonate the bomb hidden in her wedding finery at the celebration on Cazarit when she is presented to the lords of the Aghir and her new groom.
Aleytys quickly uncovers how the previous victims were kidnapped – the highly technological security team had looked for flaws in their system, and found none. The kidnapper pretty much climbed over a fence. They had not thought to look for such a low tech approach.
The plot takes its time getting to the climax, but when it does reach it everything goes pretty much as expected. Aleytys’s powers are dialled back in this novel, only making an appearance as and when required to help her do her job. Even her companions inside the Diadem – only two of them, as one has taken over another man’s body, as detailed in the previous book, The Nowhere Hunt – only pop up once or twice in the narrative. If Ghosthunt feels more like heartland science fiction than earlier books’ peplum space opera, there are plenty of flashbacks to remind the reader of Aleytys’s brutal past. And, of course, the worlds of the Aghir are equally brutal – I shall never understand the appeal of such societies in science fiction. Ghosthunt feels a more cosmopolitan novel than previous ones in the series, and the badinage between Aleytys and her assistant almost a faint tinge of Heinlein to it. Of course, she is still a super-special heroine with super-special powers, and they have a tendency to overwhelm the plot, which is likely why Clayton dialled them back in this novel.
Ghosthunt is one of the better entries in the Diadem series, though none of them can ever be called classic science fiction. It was followed by The Snares of Ibex and Questor’s Endgame.