Melchior's Fire
by Jack L. Chalker
Review by James Walton

In Melchior's Fire we return to the universe of The Three Kings which began with the book Balshazzar's Serpent. As before, Earth, the center of all human development and economics, has gone missing. The near-Earth transfer gates which allowed star ships to flitter around the galaxy no longer function. The remaining transfer gates will not connect to earth. Since all industrial facilities for mankind was located as close to Earth as possible what is left of humanity must get by with a minimal and rapidly deteriorating manufacturing structure.

To help keep things going, machinery and materials are recycled as much as possible. Lost and forgotten colonies find themselves the target for crews of salvage experts who search for anything that can be sold at a profit. Fire concerns the exploits of one such group of salvagers.

Calling them salvage experts is being too kind. They are scavengers at the best and space pirates the rest of the times. If the equipment they want is in use the pirates will use any means necessary to get it, that includes murder.

The pirates find an abandoned facility on an almost forgotten planet and make plans to dismantle the equipment for transport back to civilization. But why was the colony abandoned? Why is the equipment and structural damage so odd? The answer comes in the guise of a heretofore unknown alien lifeform, a lifeform which is obviously quite intelligent and quite deadly.

The pirates barely escape with their lives and of course lose money and equipment in the process. The crew returns home in failure to await their creditors. When a very rich but eccentric businessman offers them a mysterious contract the crew is more than willing to listen.

More than seventy years after Woodward expedition disappeared information on the location of The Three Kings resurfaced. The Three Kings are three impossibly rich planets in impossible orbits around an impossible star. No one who has gone searching for them has been known to return. Our space pirates hesitate only slightly before agreeing to the contract.

The characters in Melchior's Fire aren't as vivid or memorable as those of Balshazzar's Serpent. All the pirates have names and backgrounds but except for the physical descriptions they are all semi-interchangable. We know immediately that some of the crew are "Orcs" and will disappear soon. Others are "Ring Bearers" but the ring is important, not them. It's as if Chalker deliberately didn't want us to become "friends" with his pirates.

Fire has the feel of an intermediate book. Chalker wants to keep us interested but does not want to give away too much. Ultimately we learn little new about the mystery of The Three Kings. Which is probably the reason Chalker gave us such a good space adventure in the beginning of the book. I found myself feeling cheated when Chalker turned his attention from the alien lifeform and back to the subject of the Three Kings. Think he's going to finish that one?

Let's hope Chalker gives us the Big Finish in the next book and doesn't stretch it out to four or more volumes.

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