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Underground Reading: The Last Legionary Quartet by Douglas Hill

Generally speaking, my field trips back to my childhood have not garnered especially favorable results. "That is not dead which can eternal lie" and, like Lovecraft's Cthulhu, many works of 1980s genre fiction should be left undisturbed. 

Galactic WarlordThus, it was with great trepidation (and a sharpening of knives) that I picked up a copy of Douglas Hill's The Last Legionary Quartet.

The series was originally published between 1980 and 1982, beginning with Galactic Warlord. Before now, the only one I'd actually read was Planet of the Warlord, the concluding volume. I'm not wholly sure when that was - it was a weird period in 1980s Kansas City when our local library branch had (for reasons still unknown to me) moved itself into a strip mall. The shelf space was fairly limited so my reading during that time - already eclectic - turned downright bizarre. I weirdly recall this being shelved with all the Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Planet of the Warlord - the entire Last Legionary Quartet, in fact - has a lot to offer imaginative, SF-obsessed kids. It isn't exactly an epic of astounding moral complexity, but it does have aliens, martial arts, exotic settings and more martial arts. Moreover, it is structured with a charming simplicity. 

Keill Randor is a legionary of the planet Moros, a world famed for its martial rigor and devotion to Good Causes. Returning from a scout mission, he finds that his homeworld has been completely wiped out through an evil radioactive bomb. As all the legionaries had been recalled to help with the crisis, they're all dead. Only Randor (thanks to some convenient engine trouble) was late enough to avoid the attack. However, since he's now been exposed to the world's poisonous aura, he only has a few months to live - and to get revenge.

How's that for a set-up?

At the start of Galactic Warlord, Randor is lurching around dodgy spaceports, looking desperately for any trace of his planet's murderers. His condition goes from awful to worse, but at the moment of complete meltdown, Randor is saved by a group of mysterious white-clad scientists known as 'the Overseers'. Their mysterious scientificating has come to the conclusion that there's an evil warlord (eh? eh?) out there somewhere, who is currently trying to collapse the inhabited galaxy into ruin. Randor is skeptical, but he's a little low on leads, so he'll take what he can. Moreover, the Overseers have cured his space-cancer by replacing his bones. Randor now has an 'unbreakable organic alloy' instead of a skeleton. (For the sake of convenience, we'll call it 'randamantium'). Combined with his mastery of all forms of space-fu, he's a one man killing machine.

Deathwing Over VeynaaThe Overseers also equip Randor with an alien sidekick - Glyr, a sort of telepathic pterodactyl. She's the perfect partner for the stoic Randor. Glyr flies ships, tells jokes, reads minds and generally acts as the sort of plot-bandage for all situations in which Randor can't just punchify something. 

In all four books, the adventures are ridiculously straightforward. Agents of the Warlord are scheming to start a war (or destroy a planet or kick a puppy or whatever). Randor and Glyr fly in, briefly disguise themselves as members of the local population, figure out what's what, and then serve out liberal helpings of punchings. Occasionally, for variety, Randor kicks stuff too. (He has this one move where he kicks the first dude and then smacks the other on the way down. It is the space-fu shiznit.)

Like any good video game, the level bosses get harder and harder. Initially, Randor beats up on various lieutenants in the Warlord's elite force, the "Deathwing". As the series progresses, he smacks his way up the ladder to the Warlord's top cyborg henchman, The One, and then, finally, Randor gets to punch the Warlord him/her/itself. The Warlord "reveal" isn't exactly ground-breaking, but it is surprising - the Big Bad is a creepy little concept. In the best sword and sorcery fashion, Randor is constantly embodying the triumph of the will (and/or the fist) versus the arcane complexities of "science" and the intellect. The bad guys have plans and machines, the good guys have finger fingers, a thumb and unassailable "cores of being" that keep them from falling victim to evil schemes.

Day of the StarwindMr. Hill imbues the series with, if not meaning, at least a sort of easily-digestible philosophy. Randor's Legion of Moros is about teamwork and moral rectitude, not to be mistaken for the Deathwing's oppressive fascism and dreams of domination. (One uses fists, the other electro-torture guns called 'Janglers'.Randor never particularly grows as a character, but importantly, unlike most other heroes in the genre, he makes mistakes. Randor gets into sticky situations not because he's momentarily overwhelmed by evil machines or seduced by cosmic temptresses - he just makes bad decisions. He guesses wrong and occasionally trusts the wrong person. Basic human flaws, yet not the sort of thing normally found in YA space soldiers. 

The stories are also so brutally streamlined that they avoid many of traditional failings of genre fiction simply through omission. The world-building, for example, is incredibly sparse, almost to the point of hilarity. Every planet in the galaxy seems to have a single city and one dominant geographic feature, making it easy to describe in less than one paragraph.

In glaring contrast to many of the series' 1980s peers, the book also avoids all race or gender related problems. Mr. Hill's future humanity is every shade of the rainbow - the lingering effects of the galactic diaspora. Race is simply a non-issue, made more so by the fact that the two protagonists are 1) never described (Randor) and 2) a psychic dinosaur (Glyr). When it comes to gender, the male and female characters are essentially identical; one could swap the genders of any two characters in the series and it wouldn't make a whit of difference. The Deathwing minions, the Overseers, The Warlord, The One... all either asexual or non-sexual.  

Of course, The Last Legionary Quartet isn't character-focused drama, but rather than rely on own-brand stereotypes, Mr. Hill wisely skirts the issues entirely. In a way, this feels a bit like praising a solid C average, but considering that many genre authors still haven't figured it out, Mr. Hill's actions are indeed praise-worthy. If the two options are regressive stereotyping or "nothing at all", silence is indeed golden. There's a third option out there somewhere, but, even in 2011, it seems to be keeping a low profile.

Planet of the WarlordMr. Hill's books are also a blast. Randor fist-punches, kick-punches and whacks things with his unbreakable randamantium femurs and, generally speaking, it is a hoot. There are several set-piece scenes (climbing a wind-swept tower in Day of the Starwind and battling in the arena in Planet of the Warlord) that are borderline timeless - enormously entertainingly and tightly choreographed action sequences. If the villains all monologue to the point of monotony and Glyr invariably shows up at exactly the right time, the formula is still a successful one. These are the sort of evocatively imagined adventures that prompt a young reader to start writing their own, further stories. (I admit nothing.) 

That's the beauty of The Last Legionary Quartet. Mr. Hill strips out everything except for the cosmic punch-up, but he makes sure that his punch-ups are really, really good. Without strong characters, intriguing worlds or even a particularly interesting story, each page of each book carries the drama, entertainment and the fun required to keep the reader engaged. As a result (and in contrast to many of Mr. Hill's peers), this series stands the test of time. Sometimes the simple answer really is the right one.


By Jared (@pornokitsch) who is glad his "Deathwing Strikes!" adventures are safely lost to time