Shockball, by S.L. Viehl (Roc, 2001)

Dr Cherijo Grey Veil Torin has had an eventful couple of years, ever since she escaped her tyrannical, overbearing father, the famed surgeon Joseph Grey Veil, and fled Earth once and for all. In that time, she’s served as doctor to dozens of alien species, and dealt with things even her father would have been hard-pressed to handle. She’s experienced war, plague, and slavery, been adopted by an alien Clan, found and lost love, and journeyed into uncharted territories. But nothing at all has prepared her for the adventures ahead, as Shockball, the fourth book in the Stardoc series, takes her back to the one place she never wanted to see again: home.

It was bad enough realizing the extent of Joseph Grey Veil’s diabolical manipulations and unethical genetic experimentation, which gave Cherijo her uncanny skills, her heightened abilities, and her enhanced healing factor. It was worse when she found out just what she truly was, and to what lengths Joseph would go in order to have her back. There was now war between the Galactic League and the alien Hsktskt, all because Joseph Grey Veil didn’t care who got hurt. But Cherijo and her new husband, Duncan Reever, were free at last from the Machiavellian mechinations of the good doctor, and on their way to new worlds. That is, until treachery and a surprise attack rip Cherijo and Duncan from safety, and deliver them back to Earth, and into Joseph’s clutches, for the next stage in a decades-old plan.

Rescued from Joseph’s fortress-like estate and given sanctuary among the Night Horse, a tribe of underground dwelling Najaho and alien-human hybrids, Cherijo and Duncan quickly discover the double-edged sword that makes the Night Horse just as dangerous as Joseph. Rico, their violent and unpredictable leader, forces Cherijo to become the tribe’s new healer, and Duncan to play as a member of the tribe’s “shockball” team, in a sport known for a high injury and mortality rate, but oh so popular nonetheless.

Now it’s up to Cherijo to play Rico off against Joseph, save the tribe from a mysterious and deadly disease, protect her husband from an untimely and nasty death, avoid the clutches of the Terran World government which wants her dead for her “father’s” sins, and still come out alive. In the process, she’ll discover her true purpose in existing, reveal long-hidden secrets about the family she’s never known, and utilize every inch of her capabilities. Because if she’s not quick or smart enough, Duncan will be the first of hundreds,
even thousands to die.

Shockball might be the fourth in the series, but it’s as open and accessible to new readers as any book really can be, catching everyone up to speed and laying out the complex and convoluted relationships without dropping into awkward expository or holding up the action. While it’s always nice to read a series in order, the casual reader won’t be lost if they start with this book. Dr. Cherijo Torin is capable, strong, and resourceful, but possesses enough vulnerability to make her victories the struggle they should be, and the stakes are personal enough that she can’t afford to lose, which makes her a thoroughly engaging protagonist and provides a compelling point of view. While the villains of the piece, Rico and Joseph, may strut around twisting their moustaches and declaiming their fiendish plans to a helpless heroine, rest assured that more lies beneath the surface, and closer examination makes everything fall into place by the end.

S.L. Viehl has once again delivered a fast-paced story with enough twists and turns to turn it into a roller coaster; once it hits that certain point, there’s no stopping the action. And while the main characters might survive to the next book, no one’s survival is written in stone, as she capably demonstrates throughout the series. Hopefully, the fifth book in the Stardoc series will clear up some of the lingering questions that have been raised and entertained, but overall, the gradual revelations have been perfectly placed along the way. Intelligent and sharp, this is a book worth checking out, especially for fans of James White’s Hospital Station series.

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