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The Man Who Never Missed by Steve Perry1.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsPopular military SF writer Steve Perry began his prolific career with this short (under 200 pages) and unpretentious book about a lone rebel stealthily taking on the powerful military of the Galactic Confederation on a tropical colony world. The Man Who Never Missed — the first of his Matador series — reveals Perry as an efficient wordsmith who prefers taut, fast-paced, laconic prose in constructing a narrative for maximum readability. What it does not — yet — reveal him to be is a particularly advanced storyteller. The book doesn’t so much spin an exciting yarn as it simply describes the rise of Emile Khadaji, a deserter from the Confederation army who turns on his former masters in Splinter Cell fashion. No surprise that Perry, later in his career, went on to write several installments of the thriller series Tom Clancy’s Net Force.

The book may be a mildly adequate timekiller, if all you want is something to do in an afternoon when no one’s around to play Battlefield. But, perhaps due to Perry’s inexperience as a debut writer plus editorial limitations of the time (back in the mid-’80s, publishers weren’t so eager to indulge first-time novelists with doorstopper epics), his plotting here misses far too many opportunities, preferring to move down a checklist of clichés until there are none left to check off, at which time it ends. Characters are stock players with virtually nonexistent depth or development.

While mowing down literally thousands of rioting unarmed civilians one day, Confederation soldier Khadaji has an epiphany in which he realizes This Is Wrong. He deserts then and there. The formula requires Khadaji now to gain a Mentor, and so he makes his way to some random town, where one, a hooded fellow named Pen, just walks right up to him. Khadaji spends several years undergoing martial arts and weapons training and learning Wisdom, plus how to be an amazing bartender. Pen, the formula now no longer requiring him, exits stage left, and Khadaji learns more life lessons, including some from a Hooker With a Heart of Gold. He realizes he needs formal education, and pursues one, from which his most important takeaway is that you can’t get rich making a honest living. In order to raise the funds needed to Fight the Man, he goes into business as a smuggler. After a few years, with little to no effort at all, he is rich beyond belief, and is now ready to implement his glorious solo revolution. This involves waylaying soldiers with knockout darts, because killing people is a moral line he no longer can bear to cross. He is so successful at this that the Confeds, who must be goddamned idiots, are convinced they are facing some invisible underground army hundreds if not thousands strong.

That’s pretty much it. Perry simply catalogs the course of Khadaji’s life, every deed of which is crowned with nothing less than total success. For a military SF novel about a rebellion, it’s rather boggling that the book is so thoroughly bereft of suspense or dramatic conflict. Perry has no interest in exploring authoritarian oppression from a moral, humanist perspective in anything but the shallowest way, framing Khadaji’s rebellion simply as the vehicle by which he gets to be a legendary badass. Literally nothing stands in Khadaji’s way. There is nothing hyperbolic in the book’s title. He experiences not only no failures, but never even the slightest threat of failure. He’s a protagonist with no antagonist. Yes, the Confederation are his enemies, and his targets. But they’re such bumbling fools that it’s hard to believe they ever became the brutal, oppressive, conquering force that Perry wants us to believe they are. How do you expect to sell me the concept of an evil militaristic hegemony when it’s clear that even Dennis the Menace with his slingshot could make short work of them?

How could this simple-minded book have really taken off, and risen to its ambitions? Where do we start? How about presenting Khadaji with some actual challenges? The way things are now, he’s like a gamer playing on the easiest difficulty setting who’s activated God Mode anyway. How about this instead: when Khadaji makes the decision to raise money smuggling, he runs afoul of an established crime syndicate who doesn’t like a freelancer on their turf? Perry mentions Khadaji has a concern about this risk. Hello? That concern you’re blithely tossing off in a sentence or two? That’s a whole plotline you’re not bothering with. Or how about Khadaji finding out, just as it looks like all of his plans are going exactly the way he’s hoped, that a clever intel officer of the Confederation has been onto him all along, and he stumbles into a trap?

See? There are any number of ways in which this story could have been transformed into a real story, simply by introducing some element of conflict, anything to trigger suspense and to make us feel like there is really something major at stake here. But there is nothing like that, at any point. While Perry would go on in later Matador volumes to expand and improve upon the concepts he's introduced here, in The Man Who Never Missed, all he gives us is an invincible superhero. And frankly, those are dull. How am I supposed to feel any tension or anxiety about what becomes of Khadaji and his rebellion? I mean, the guy never misses.

Followed by Matadora.