This short story collection set in the Freehold Universe has an interesting twist. It follows the wanderings of a sword from prehistoric times to the far future, as she passes from owner to owner, sometimes by chance, sometimes by design. We also get to visit with Kendra Pacelli of Freehold and Ken Chinran of The Weapon and Rogue, taking up their stories years after the events in the original books. Neat.
The stories, some by Mr. Williamson himself, but by other authors, are all of high quality, with one glaring exception. The connecting device of the sentient sword, fleshed out with brief interludes by Mr. Williamson, works really well in connecting the stories and making the collection feel like whole.
Angie Kaneshiro is a Freehold-born high tech vagabond. She crews on commercial vessels trading between the various polities in Williamson’s Freehold Universe. She likes to dance, have sex and see new places. Then the Freehold War breaks out and things turn ugly fast. After barely escaping a major accident on a space habitat, she volunteers with the Freehold covert forces, acting as a guide for a group of elite special forces on covert missions.
Angie’s secret war is terrifying and gut-wrenching. She repeatedly puts her life at risk, is tortured, loses friends and has to kill innocents to protect herself and her team. As the novel progresses, it transforms from the chronicle of a fun-loving, easy going but streetwise woman to a much darker place as Angie sees her grip on sanity crumble away until there is only the mission first, and survival second. This transformation echoes the descent of the war for the Freehold from resistance to an unjustified aggressor to resorting to mass murder in order to survive.
Like The Weapon and Freehold, this book depicts the horrific effects of war on those who fight it without diminishing their heroism and bravery. The personal cost of killing innocents is very high, and in the end it all seems so wasteful.
Side note: There’s a lot of rather graphic sex in this book. In my view, it was not put there to titillate the reader, but because Williamson wanted to show that Freehold society is very matter-of-fact about such things, and more importantly because a female character can love sex without having to be a slut.
In the third installment of the Ripple Creek series, the crack team of Ripple Creek bodyguards is tasked to protect a government official and election candidate while she tours a backwater planet riddled with factional violence.
While a solid entry in the series, I found this one to be slower moving than the others, at least for the first two thirds before the crap hits the fan. Williamson competently moves the action forward with plenty of battlescenes, weaponry details and tactical minutiae. The more interesting parts of the novel are about handling a distasteful protectee who detests her detail, and of the personal struggles of one team member. Unfortunately, the rest of the team are by now far too polished and perfect, leaving the ending not very much in doubt.
Set in the same universe as Freehold but preceding it chronologically, this novel follows a group of bodyguards tasked with protecting the president of a nation wracked by civil war. The setting is very much inspired by present day Afghanistan and Iraq. Clan warfare and a lacking sense of national identity make the task of unification and pacification very difficult. To make it worse, the bureaucrats and military organizations of the UN (now a world and multiplanetary government) don’t care one way or another. They simply want their own agendas pushed. When it all hits the fan, the bureaucrats choose to simply “remove” the president, but the bodyguards have other ideas.
From the excellent action scenes to the realistic character studies, Williamson displays his impressive knowledge of military matters. The plot is a bit slow and perhaps even unfocused in the first half, but then picks up speed to end in a huge climax. If you are a fan of Williamson’s other work, you’ll like this one, but it is only really for the hardcore military fiction buff. That’s right, I didn’t say science fiction. In fact, this book could have been set in the present day Middle East with very few changes.
The sequel to the outstanding The Weapon takes places a decade and a half later. Kenneth Chinran has assumed a new identity and is living peacefully with his now teenage daughter. However, he is found by the Freehold special forces and asked to do one more mission. Kimbo Randall, a member of his team that Ken thought had died during the attack on Earth, has resurfaced as an assassin for hire. We follow Ken and his new associate Silver as they chase down Randall across several planets.
The action takes place on Grainne, Mtali, Caledonia, Novaja Rossia and even Earth. It is interesting to revisit the places that were featured in The Weapon, especially Williamson’s over the top oppressive Earth. The action is constant and excellent, with Chinran’s first arrogant person voice a sardonic guide.
Ken Chinran is a tortured soul. He is reviled on Earth as the biggest killer in history, and feels personally responsible for the death of billions during the war. His daughter gives him a reason to live. Williamson very skillfully explores Chinran’s soul and his bleak outlook without sliding into corniness. This story is a journey of redemption, of sorts, and the last few dozen pages surprised me greatly. Almost to the end, I thought it was just a very good chase novel, but the ending raised it to another level.
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.
Not since I first read “On Basilisk Station” have I been quite so captured by a Military SciFi novel. Williamson’s first Science Fiction book is in many ways controversial in it’s views (for the record, the author does claim they are not really “his” views in his comments on Amazon.com) and will no doubt disturb some with its sexual content. Some part will probably shock you at one point or another, but it remains a great adventure story.
Kendra Pacelli is in the UN Military. Earth and a few colonies are ruled by a deeply socialistic UN (evolved into a nation) in which incompetence and mediocrity are the norm. Crime is so common that women have learned accept rape and muggings as just another part of life. Accused of a crime she did not commit, she is forced to seek asylum at the Freehold of Grainne. Unprepared and dropped in at the deep end, Kendra has to adapt fast to her new home. The Freehold is an example of almost pure capitalism/libertarianism (and thus basically the antichrist in the eyes of the UN). The government consists of a small police force, the military, the courts and nothing else. The tiny taxation is optional but does carry some benefits. “Rulers” (and they are not really) have to give up personal wealth in order to ensure they do not have ulterior motives. Without big government there is no pork barreling or corruption. Residents tend to carry weapons. Crime is very low and standard of living is very high. Kendra is very confused by such things as the fact that no one will molest women who wear racy clothing (or even walk around in the buff). Of course, these women will typically carry guns or knives, an illegal thing on Earth.
As a thought exercise, the society is very interesting. I don’t know if it would work, but many aspects are appealing. It is my experience that big government typically fosters incompetence, inefficiency, meddling where it is not needed, high taxation levels and mediocre services. I don’t know if I would go quite so far as the Freehold, but as I said, it definitely has appeal. Before you start flaming my inbox, however, I would point out that the system does have many rather obvious flaws which I will not bother to enumerate here.
While the novel is part social commentary, it should not be seen as any sort of manifesto. It is a bit slow (but quite enjoyable) in the first half, and then becomes action-packed (and even more enjoyable) in the second half. Williamson shows that he can really describe military training and combat. Kendra joins the Freehold military and the story follows her through training, a grueling guerilla campaign, a big climactic battle and finally the hell of urban combat. All this without any dressing up or glorification of combat itself. The “good guys” torture and kill out of necessity, often rage, sometimes even pleasure. The aftermath of battle and war, so often glossed over in this kind of story, is explored in gory detail. While we may seek to (and indeed should) glorify valor and bravery in defense of comrades and homes, Williamson also reminds us of the deep personal and social toll that war enacts. For this alone, he should be commended.
The evolution of Kendra kept me turning the pages. Her personal odyssey through initial rejection, dejection, disillusionment and the furnace of both partisan and line combat is what elevates this novel from a mere adventure story to a minor Military SciFi classic.
If you like Military SciFi, do yourself a favor and pick this one up. Just ensure you have tissues handy for Chapters 11 and 54, and clear your calendar for the next days or two. It is very hard to put down.
In the sequel to Better to Beg Forgiveness, Williamson revisits his team of six elite bodyguards. This time around, they’re not only a well oiled machine, but an experienced and perfectly meshed well oiled machine. They are tasked with protecting the twenty-something year old daughter of the richest man in the world(s). The action starts in Wales but soon moves to a gargantuan mining operation at the heart of the customer’s business empire. Not completely unexpectedly, there are multiple threats.
Just like the first book, this one ramps up slowly and spends a lot of time focusing on technical skills. Williamson takes what is often a very tedious and mind-numbing routine and makes it sound interesting. He is also very good at describing characters who do not act entirely rationally, who act out, who think they are doing good while in fact completely misguided. By the end, the book is a total page turner, moving the reader deftly through some rather amazing and well-crafted locales. If I have one big gripe, it is that the team itself is perhaps a bit too perfect. Fascinating to read about, but do such superhumans really exist? Or more properly, can disbelief be suspended? I certainly found mine cracking at times.
Set in the “Freehold” universe, this novel is about first contact with a planetbound race that has almost no metals. They turn out to be quite advanced in ceramics, steam and other sciences, all developed without metals. Humanity, in the form of a joint Freehold/UN mission, makes efforts not to expose the race to metals. This inevitably causes tension.
While not as action packed as other Williamson novels, I found this highly enjoyable. The plot is both smart, entertaining and clever. The characters are perhaps somewhat unoriginal, but do the job adequately. I did have a hard time keeping track of some of the secondary characters. A dramatis personae would have been great. Williamson is at his best when describing the effects of weapons and other technology. Many other authors would have turned this book into a boring scholarly piece, but Williamson manages to keep the technology discussions both entertaining and fascinating. The story has many interesting twists to keep it going.