The Crucible of Empire (Jao II) – Eric Flint & K.D. Wentworth

This direct sequel to The Course of Empire takes up the story two years after the events of the previous book. The nascent Terra taif consisting of both Jao and humans finds clues that the Lleix, a race practically exterminated by the Jao during their time as an Ekhat slave race, may have survived, but is in imminent danger from the Ekhat. Terra taif’s newest ship, the gargantuan Lexington, is dispatched to the system in question.

It is a rare sequel that is as good as the original, but Flint and Wentworth have managed to pull it off. The inclusion of the fascinating Lleix and the telling of sections from their point of view is excellently done and brings a necessary new wrinkle to the story. Flint is a master at telling a story from various points of view and really getting into the psychology of various people and races. While, of course, neither the Jao nor the Lleix are truly alien, they are different enough to make the contrasts and interactions interesting, especially when written with a good measure of humor as here. There is even a passage written from the point of view of the Ekhat, as frightening as they are powerful and utterly mad. A real page turner, this.

The Course Of Empire (Jao I) – Eric Flint & K.D. Wentworth

This is truly an undiscovered gem of a novel. Almost discreetly thrown out there, it will unfortunately be missed by many readers thinking it just one more of Baen’s (admittedly mostly excellent) military scifi offerings. It is much much more than that.

The story draws closely on the history of the English occupation of India. The Jao conquered Earth twenty years ago in their struggle to hold ground against the powerful and enigmatic Ekhat. Since then, Earth has suffered under an abusive Jao viceroy. Humans still do not understand the Jao and their complex society. Most Jao see humans as lesser beings to be used up in the war against the Ekhat. But things change as a new Jao commander of ground forces arrives with fresh ideas. Meanwhile, the Ekhat are closing in and the mysterious Jao faction known as The Bond of Ebezon watches closely, ready to intervene.

The book is a page turner with plenty of action, but I did struggle with the alien Jao in the beginning. They are not written to be easily understandable. Flint and Wentworth have made them complex and truly alien without succumbing to the temptation of explaining their quirks and affectations in human terms. It’s a bit of a hump but well worth conquering. The Jao are fascinating creatures that misunderstand humans as much as humans misunderstand them. Not since Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye have I encountered aliens that are truly alien and not just humans looking different.

Flint & Wentworth masterfully take the reader from simple beginnings and purposeful confusion to understanding and enlightenment. This journey parallels that of the main protagonists, both Jao and human. Excellent!

The Raj Whitehall Series (I-VIII) – David Drake, S.M. Stirling & Eric Flint

The human galactic federation is in ruins, and the worlds have devolved to various levels of barbarism. On the planet Bellevue, which is at about the early nineteenth century in development, a young officer named Raj Whitehall and his friend venture into the catacombs under the capital. There, they find an ancient battle computer named Center. With Center’s help, Raj must unite the planet and enable humanity to retake the stars. The story is at least somewhat based on that of the Byzantine general Belisarius.

The first seven novels are written by Drake and Stirling. The last one by Drake and Flint. David Drake writes very detailed outlines, while his collaborators write the actual text.

The first five novels are a set and deal with the conquest/unification of Bellevue. They are nowadays published in two volumes, known as Warlord and Conqueror:

  • The Forge
  • The Hammer
  • The Anvil
  • The Steel
  • The Sword

After finishing the conquest of Bellevue, the personalities of Center and Raj are imbued in computers that are sent to other worlds with launched asteroids. This scenario has infinite permutations as human worlds at various levels of development can be written about. The first of these follow-up novels is:

  • The Chosen

It is a great singleton set on a world with early twentieth century technology. Finally there is the two volume story consisting of:

  • The Reformer
  • The Tyrant

Here, we take a serious step “back in time”, as the planet Hafardine is at about Roman Empire level in it’s technology. The Tyrant is rather different in style from the others due to being penned by Flint. However, his trademark dry humor meshes well with the overall thrust of the series.

This is great military SciFi, with excellent battlescenes and great characters, not to mention a dose of dry humor. Very highly recommended.

Threshold (Boundary II) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

Our friends from Boundary are back in a pretty direct sequel to the first book. The race is on to find more Bemmie bases. The Ares Project, despite having managed to get a foothold on Mars, is strapped for cash and resources. With some clever maneuvering they manage to get both, and set off towards first Ceres, then Enceladus.

The first book was nicely crafted, with excellent character development. This second one feels much more forced, especially the first half. I really enjoyed going back and seeing what the gang was doing after the previous story ended, but was a bit disappointed at the lack of a strong story. This series will never be “heavy” but it needed a bit more than this effort. That being said, it harkens back to adventure science fiction from an earlier time, before all the dark and broody bits that are so in vogue nowadays. And so I still liked this book more than it perhaps deserves. The ending wasn’t quite a cliffhanger but certainly lacked resolution, leaving the door wide open for a sequel. Yes please.