Spoiler Disclaimer: The penultimate paragraph of this review makes explicit reference to a number of plot points in Hard Luck Hank: Screw the Galaxy. The book is worth a fresh read, so ignore that last bit if you haven't read the book yet.
I came across this book on my own while browsing Amazon, and read the Kindle version under a Kindle Unlimited subscription. I have no connection to the author.
The first Hard Luck Hank book is the novel I point to when I get the question as to what spurned me to go from musing scribbler to actually finishing a book. I first read Steven Campbell's debut novel all the way back in 2013 and I was struck by the funny, genre-laden, pulpy thing and sped through it in a day or so. It was a week or so later that I took a hard look at various drafts on my computer with file names like "Fantasy Mage Detective: Breadlust" and started excising bits and pulling together a story that would eventually become Chaos Trims My Beard.
I enjoyed the book so much on that first read through—and found my own motivation after reading it—because I'd finally found a project that was complete, successful, and engaging and had a few trappings of my own nascent work. Now, whenever my own possibly-funny, off-angle genre benders with a dense, grumpy protagonist are giving me troubles, I pick up a HLH book to remind myself how stuff like this can work. I've read through Screw the Galaxy (and its FIVE sequels) a time or two each over the years.
The story lives and dies on Hank's broad mutant shoulders. Hank is generally human-shaped, but it's established almost on the first page that he is incredibly hard to hurt to the point where a hail of bullets would probably just bounce off his eyeball, Man of Steel style. Having a six or seven book series based off a protagonist who only really has to worry about suffocating to death seems like a hard hook, but Hank is just so damn compelling to hang out with. We're in his head, and following along with his first-person grumbling and world-weary musings as he pops those bullets out of his tear ducts and goes about his day. Hank is a working man that lumbers along the fuzzy line of illegality on the space station where he's lived for centuries. He gets called in to deal with uppity gangsters and simpering bureaucrats and has somehow made it his actually compensated business to make sure that a bunch of dumb idiots don't kill each other too bad while they're ripping each other off.
It's something that sounds like it shouldn't work—the impervious protagonist, his generally placating angle, and the overall lack of stakes early in the story—so it speaks to Campbell's tight prose that kept me gleefully hanging around. Hank is funny in a forcibly sardonic way, and the supporting cast is built up like a flawed office/workplace family. Everyone's stuck out here at the ass-end of the galaxy with nothing better to do than make a few extra credits and deal with each other, and the interplay of these various flawed-bordering-on-dangerous (sociopathic, in the case of Hank's mad scientist friend) characters generally works.
The space station Belvaille feels like Space Los Angeles or some other sprawling metro, complete with massive civic towers, glitzy rows of casinos and nightclubs under the thumb of organized crime lords, and drug-addled slums. Some aliens have names that are an unpronounceable mess of consonants, and others are basically just wriggling piles of lavender spaghetti. Like all good sci-fi settings, it's one where any number of new creatures or pieces of tech could just pop up, but Campbell does a great job of every new thing feeling like it follows the laid-out rules. And if some new location or alien doesn't work, it's generally off-screen by the end of the chapter, and we're back to Hank grumbling. Or eating.
It would be an incomplete review to not mention that Hank would very much could eat his way through a George R. R. Martin novel's worth of feasts, though he mostly enjoys sandwiches.
The writing—first person and squarely locked somewhere between Hank's ears—is tight. I have a weakness as a reader where I get super grumpy—super quickly—if I'm slogging through loosely constructed prose or a passage after passage of repetitively built sentences that start with "The" or "I". Hard Luck Hank doesn't fall into that category, and descriptions of characters, aliens, and places are evocative enough to get the gist without getting into overly specific breakdowns. Granular detail isn't something Hank himself is necessarily big on, so we don't have to trudge through it. The action is similarly well-done, and Hank takes a massive amount of punishment, though the more gruesome details of his pain are held from us at arms length much in the way the character likely experiences them.
As a personal wiggle with the way I read first person narration, I'm not super fond of exclamation marks during internal dialog/narration. I understand it as a way to convey a character's surprise or a sudden revelation, but I can't ever seem to properly internalize what my own mind shouting at me would be like. When I hit one I usually find myself going back and seeing what was so damn shocking in the first place, but that's me as a reader. It's a testament to how easily the prose flows here that something minor and occasional like that ranks among my specific complaints.
STORY SPOILERS BELOW
If there's one spot where Screw the Galaxy shows itself off as a debut book for both the author and the series, it's in the plotting. Chapters are short, and there's 60 or 70 of them, and for much of the book these individual scenes feel episodic. As soon as we meet Hank and his supporting cast and find out what they're all about, we spend a fair bit of time just following Hank around. Eventually some assassin robots start causing trouble on the station, and we meet a blue-bunny-eared femme fatale with a drug-addict brother who is more or less a god. By the time a planet-sized spaceship shows up and threatens the station and we meet its eternal, crystal-bodied occupant, so many little plots have sprung up, gone dormant, circled around, and been somewhat resolved that it's hard to feel like that this is the ultimate narrative we'd set out to see through from the beginning. The book exists somewhere between a slice of life story, some kind of moderate conspiracy thriller, and a disaster movie (that never gets to the disaster). By the end of it, if you enjoy Hank, you've enjoyed your ride. And you might also see why he's just so damn tired of dealing with all the nonsense all the time. It's good nonsense to be sure, and Campbell does manage to make most everything feel tied in eventually, but it's just a bit meandering in the getting there.
Hard Luck Hank: Screw the Galaxy is something different while still standing on a solid, accessible genre foundation. It's witty and well-imagined, and I pick up every new book in the series within days of its release. I've enjoyed at least two read-throughs of each book in this (currently) six-book series, and I absolutely wish there was more like it out there.