Tide of Battle – Michael Z. Williamson

Short story and essay collection. The fiction runs the gamut from entries in the author’s Freehold Universe, to Victorian fantasy, and a rather interesting novella set in an alternate Bronze Age, pitting sentient humanoid felines against mind-controlling dinosaur-like reptiles. The essays contain some amusing musings on rifle technology, as well as very inappropriate, and often hilarious, cocktail recipes.

While I don’t always agree with Mr. Williamson’s political views, even in his fiction, he offers insightful political and social commentary with a great deal of thought and research behind it. There is a short passage about how his views have developed in the two decades since he published Freehold. This passage provides tantalising glimpse of an interesting mind which does not deny the impact of new data.

Forged in Blood (Freehold) – Michael Z. Williamson (ed.)

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.

Angeleyes – Michael Z. Williamson

angeleyes-9781476781860_hrAngie 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.

5Rosbochs

 

A Long Time Until Now (Temporal Dispacement #1) – Michael Z. Williamson

TemporalDisplacement1ALongTimeUntilNowWhile in a convoy in Afghanistan, ten soldiers are suddenly transported back in time around 15000 years to the Paleolithic Era. All they have is two vehicles, their weapons and gear. They must survive, ensure their own security and plan for the future. Meanwhile, other groups have been transported back in time, including a tribe from the Neolithic Era and a contingent of Roman soldiers.

As with most books by Michael Z. Williamson, this one is rather longer than other entries in the genre, almost reaching 700 pages. Much of this length is taken up by detailed descriptions of technological things, for example the construction of a forge or a palisade. For anyone interested in technology, it is a fun read. Williamson’s premise of a very small modern unit being stuck with a lack of resources in a hostile environment ensures our heroes cannot just brute force things with more manpower. They must use their skills as force multipliers. It is also interesting that even with all their modern technology, they are often at a disadvantage compared to more primitive peoples when it comes to hunting, forging and primitive construction. These skills are simply lost.

Style-wise, the prose flows easily, and I found this to be a page-turner. However, the shifting strict point of view between characters could be confusing, and it often took me half a page or so before I realized whose eyes I was “seeing” through. A more explicit introduction to each point of view change, ideally with the character’s name as a title, would have made things more clear.

While the story does have a definite conclusion, there are many loose ends. This seems to be the first of a series, and a look forward to any future installments.

4Rosbochs

When Diplomacy Fails… (Ripple Creek III) – Michael Z. Williamson

RippleCreek3WhenDiplomacyFailsIn 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.

3½Rosbochs

 

Better to Beg Forgiveness (Ripple Creek I) – Michael Z. Williamson

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.

Confirmed Kill (Target: Terror III) – Michael Z. Williamson

The second sequel to The Scope of Justice finds our two snipers, Monroe and Wade, dropped into the jungles of Indonesia, where they become involved in a power struggle between diverse anti-government factions, consisting both of terrorists and Indonesian Army. In a clever twist to the story, their new commanding officer, a born and bred bureaucrat Colonel, comes with them. Our heroes are Sergeants, but they have vastly superior skills and experience. This poses many challenges as the team attempts to complete its mission in a shifting local political environment.

I was afraid that this third book would be a mere re-hash or the first two in a new locale, but Williamson has managed to make it unique. The overall structure of a covert mission remains in all three books, but the missions themselves vary widely. Williamson also captures well, especially in this last installment, the good and the bad of the military. How some personnel is helpful, how some is annoyingly by the book, how some goes above and beyond. Most military fiction does not go very deeply into these interesting subjects. Overall, a satisfying read.

Targets of Opportunity (Target: Terror II) – Michael Z. Williamson

In the sequel to The Scope of Justice, the two snipers Monroe and Wade, have a new mission: Take out terrorists smuggling explosives through Romania for use in Western Europe. Once in place, they find themselves doing a lot of straight spy work, typically with little or no backup. To further complicate things, they are in place clandestinely, and must also hide from Romanian authorities.

The second book in the series is an improvement over the first. The prose is less stilted and the story flows better overall. The two main action scenes are very good. Williamson describes well how it feels to be a stranger in a strange land, needing to blend in but having a hard time doing so. I found myself caring more for the protagonists as Williamson explored their motivations in more depth. The technical parts about sniping are detailed and fascinating (at least to this reader). An enjoyable read if you have some interest in the subject matter.

The Scope of Justice (Target: Terror I) – Michael Z. Williamson

This rather short novel follows a US sniper and spotter team on an assassination mission in Afghanistan. It is set after the Afghan war of 2001 and the target is a terrorist leader. Needless to say, the initial attempt goes to hell in more ways than one. The two Americans then have to use their own ingenuity and local resources to both survive and to complete their mission.

This is competent but not great military fiction. A rather straightforward story, exciting but without any really unexpected wrinkles. Interesting reading if you want to learn something about modern snipers and how they operate. The dialogue is pretty awful at times though.

The Hero – John Ringo & Michael Z. Williamson

This story is set about a thousand years after the events in the Posleen War series. The titular hero is a Darhel. The Darhel are known as being the puppetmasters of humanity a millennium earlier, and also for being incapable of killing. He is assigned to a Deep Reconnaissance Commando team due to his psychic ability to sense living beings. The rest of the team is made up of humans. They are sent on a scouting missions to a planet held by the “Blobs”, a mysterious enemy. While there, they find an Aldenata artifact, and the team sniper betrays the team, killing almost all of the members in a bid to secure the valuable artifact for himself. The Darhel now has to evade the sniper and eliminate him as a threat, despite his racial inability to kill.

This book is a very tight knit drama of a few individuals. The psychological aspects are very interesting, delving into motivations and character. The story itself was unfortunately somewhat weak. The first half is basically a set up for the chase in the second half. The chase, though interesting, felt a bit long-winded. If you are interested in special forces and sniper operations, it is a decent read, but despite its exposition on Darhel physiology and psychology, it does not add very much to the Legacy of the Aldenata universe.

Rogue – Michael Z. Williamson

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.

The Weapon – Michael Z. Williamson

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.

Freehold – Michael Z. Williamson

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.

Do Unto Others (Ripple Creek II) – Michael Z. Williamson

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.

Contact with Chaos – Michael Z. Williamson

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.