Vendetta, MS Murdock (1987)
Review by Ian Sales
There are some who believe women writing science fiction is a recent phenomenon – indeed, it is that misconception which prompted the creation of SF Mistressworks. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after the cyberpunk-led backlash against feminist sf, when women’s contributions to the genre were seemingly forgotten – other than a handful of big names, of course – but women continued to write science fiction and be published. True, MS Murdock’s Vendetta from 1987 is perhaps a bad example to pick, given the use of non-gender-specific initials (for Melinda Seabrooke); and that Murdock’s first novel, identified on the front cover of Vendetta, was unmistakeably a Star Trek book, Web of the Romulans. Sadly, Vendetta proves a poor example for yet another reason: it’s not very good.
Ran Corbin is Fleet Seneschal of the Kingdom of Dynt, effectively rules it like a tyrant, and plans to have the ageing king name himself as heir. But when he has Senator Foxxe and his family killed for treason – because they’d been helping slaves escape – it sets in motion a chain of events which might well bring about Corbin’s downfall. For a start, his massacre of the Foxxes is not complete: five-year-old Coryelle, and the slave, Marc, who is accompanying her, manage to escape. They smuggle themselves offworld, with the help of a retired retainer, hoping to track down Eban Foxxe, brother of the senator and implacable enemy of Corbin. But their “aerfoil” (souped-up so it can travel in space) crashes on the forest world of Adyton, and Coryelle and Marc are rescued by the old witch, Bricole. Meanwhile, Corbin launches a strike on Adyton’s floating city and destroys it, killing everyone… but Foxxe has already left. Foxxe sets up base on another world, and begins to build a hidden fleet to challenge Corbin, helped by his protegé Lar, and the beautiful-waif-fallen-on-hard-times Stella. Meanwhile, Bricole has her old friend Gisarme teach Marc the martial art (sort of) of auctorite.
Corbin, however, still wants Coryelle found, and so engages the mysterious bounty hunter Blazon to track her down. Years pass. Eban Foxxe is finally ready to make his move. Marc is now a self-assured young man and skilled in auctorite. Coryelle is, er, thirteen. Marc joins Foxxe’s rebel fleet and proves to a leader of men. Blazon finally tracks down Coryelle… and reveals he is her long-lost brother. And then news of Corbin’s latest plan, “dynterminate”, reaches the rebels: Corbin intends to exterminate everyone in the outer colonies. Foxxe is forced into action, leading to a pitched space battle at Chor…
There’s so much wrong with Vendetta, it’s hard to know where to begin. Throughout, the book is written as if it were fantasy, and presents a fantasy-type world; but then there are other worlds and pieces of high technology such as interplanetary communications, space travel, androids and blasters. Senator Foxxe is killed because he is anti-slavery, yet his brother, the rebel leader, keeps a personal slave and shows no indication of emancipating him. And there’s the whole concept of slavery itself. There’s no reason or justification for its existence in the world-building – not that there’s any indication of an industrial or economic base capable of sustaining an interplanetary, or interstellar, kingdom, never mind the technology in evidence throughout the story. Slavery is not “background colour”, and does not belong in any work of fiction as such.
The science fiction trappings of Vendetta strike a wrong note right from the start. The capital of Dynt appears to be a small mediaeval city – it even has a wall and gates, and guards to oversee who enters and leaves – and it’s only the phrase “… possibly even leave the planet” on page 11 which signals the story is not actually high fantasy. Or rather, it would have done, had not the book’s cover art and blurb made it plain that Vendetta was science fiction. From that point on, sf tropes are dropped willy-nilly into the narrative: the aforementioned “aerfoil”, electronic locks, computers, a city which uses anti-gravity to float above a forest, an android (which attaches itself to Stella, and then Marc, but seems to serve no real purpose in the story)…
Even the climactic battle is hugely unconvincing as science fiction. For a start, it takes place in the “narrow channel” between Chor and its moon, which, if the Earth-Moon system is any indication, is likely several hundred thousand kilometres in width… The entire novel reads as if Murdock had no real idea of the scale of her universe. She describes Chor Harbour, the world’s starport, as “stretched out over the face of the planet” (p 245), and yet an earlier description mentioned only some tens of hangars. The city of Dynt is the only place identified on the planet which shares its name, although the roads leading from its gates – on which people use horses and carts – must lead somewhere. The flight from Dynt by Marc and Coryelle takes only days, yet the world of Adyton is later identified as one of the “outer colonies”. Everything feels small, like it would in a medieval kingdom that can be crossed in a handful of days, and those outer colonies no more than villages on the borders.
As if that weren’t enough, Corbin is the worst kind of pantomime villain, who thinks nothing of wiping out a whole city because his enemy might be there. His title is Fleet Seneschal, but for much of the book the only military mentioned are the Garde – an elite city milita, although since no other armed force is named it’s hard to see how they qualify as “elite”. Then there’s the age of the female love interests. Stella is only fifteen when she joins Eban Foxxe’s retinue, but the narrative sexualises her. At thirteen, Coryelle is a “young woman” and plainly positioned as the mate of Marc, who is ten years her senior. Murdock may have considered the young ages a better “fit” with the presentation of the book’s universe as ersatz mediaeval, but I disagree. Even for a 1987 novel, it feels like a mis-step
Vendetta reads like a fantasy novel onto which a handful of science fiction trappings have been clumsily stapled. It also doesn’t help that the plot is driven by a romantic triangle, Corbin and Eban Foxxe and the lost Princess Tenebrae, all of which is back-story. Throw in slavery as little more than a form of conspicuous consumption for the wealthy, and young teenage female love interests… and the end result is a science fiction novel that’s best avoided.