This novel is set in the same universe and time period as “Freehold“. It is the story of Kenneth Chinran, the man who led the attacks on Earth during the Freehold War. It is a long novel divided into three parts. In the first, Ken enlists and is trained as an “Operative”, meaning an elite black ops soldier. The second part deals with a deployment to Mtali, a planet locked in faction warfare. It is here that first learns of the atrocity or war. The third part deals with the training for, and actual covert attack on Earth, in which billions of civilians die as a result of his team’s action.
The story is told in the first person. We see the world through Ken’s eyes. The transformation that he undergoes makes for an unusual bildungsroman. From innocent youth to trained killer, to disillusioned soldier, and finally on to mass murderer to some and possibly faceless hero to others. The frightening message of this book is that he is well justified in doing what he does. His nation of Freehold has been attacked for the crime of merely existing. Freehold believes in libertarianism to the extreme. There aren’t any elections because there simply isn’t very much government. Everyone is free to do whatever he or she wants, but on the other hand there is no safety net. Freeholders tend to be self-reliant and independent. This is contrasted with Earthlings, who are passive inhabitants of a corrupt system where egalitarianism and “fairness” have been taken to absurd extremes. Ken Chinran contemptously refers to them as “sheeple” who wait for “someone to do something” in a crisis instead of standing up and improving their lot. Williamson’s characterization is extreme, but these are clear jabs at many present day societies, where people wait for handouts and are happy to give government more power over them as long as they are given food and entertainment (“bread and circuses” is of course an ancient concept). While the book can get a bit preachy at times, the fact that Ken is telling the story makes it very direct. This is one person who comes into contact with things that disgust him, and how he reacts to them. It is easy to see his point of view, especially in these times where supposedly democratic and free countries have seizures without trial and a myriad pointless laws.
The development of Ken himself is as frightening as the story. His training is designed to make him a killer. He and his fellow Operatives take pride in their skills, taunting their enemies as they themselves take insane risks. In the end, though, his conscience catches up with him. He hates himself, he hates his commanding officer for ordering him to do what he has done. Nevertheless, he knows that it was necessary. He knows that what he did, the mass killings and the destruction of society on Earth, were necessary things in order not only for Freehold, but for free people to survive. It is interesting, and Williamson touches on this several times, how Ken survives his suicide mission, but finds out that giving his life would have been easier. He has given more than his life. He has sacrificed his soul.