Long-time readers of Shiny Book Review are most likely aware of Michael Z. Williamson’s Freehold series, particularly because of Jason’s reviews of ROGUE, DO UNTO OTHERS and WHEN DIPLOMACY FAILS. But what about the novel that actually started this whole series in the first place, FREEHOLD? The one that’s spawned several sequels and prequels and has been wildly popular has never been reviewed at SBR . . .
You might be asking, “So, Barb. Why are you reviewing this instead of Jason?”
Well, it’s simple. I asked Jason if I could do it. He said, “Sure. Why not?” So here we are.
FREEHOLD is the story of Sergeant Kendra Pacelli, an honest soldier in the armed forces of the United Nations. But her higher-ups have implicated her in an embezzlement scheme, and it doesn’t seem like she’ll be able to prove her innocence to anyone.
As Kendra is no fool, she quickly decides that she’s not going to stick around to be framed for anything. After a few harrowing adventures, she decides to flee to the only place that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the UN — the Freehold of Grainne. And the way she gets the Freeholders’ attention is by forcing her way into their Embassy on Earth to ask for asylum.
Fortunately for her, the Freeholders appreciate good soldiers and decide to grant her request. But the Freehold of Grainne is much different from Earth, Kendra is warned; for one, she will have to start off life in the Freehold as an indentured servant of sorts as the Freehold does not grant free passage even to political refugees. (Perhaps especially not to political refugees.)
Over time, Kendra gets slowly acclimated to the Freehold and its culture. She pays off her debt and meets two interesting people, Rob McKay, a pilot and reserve officer in the Freehold Military Forces, and Marta Hernandez, a high-end escort (a respectable profession, in the Freehold) and also a reserve soldier, and forms a tripartite relationship with the pair of them. And eventually, she, too, becomes a soldier for the FMF . . . just in time for the war with Earth to break out.
Because of course there has to be a war with Earth, doesn’t there? Earth’s society, in Williamson’s conception, has gone so far toward socialism and its society overall has become so debased and corrupt that a war with the Freeholders — capitalists who believe in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and nothing else — must be inevitable.
Williamson skillfully renders all of the military planning that’s going on in the FMF to try to avoid the worst of it, then when those actions fail, the actions of the individual soldiers in the FMF to rally the countryside and fight an insurgency against the UN.
And Kendra, as an honest soldier for the FMF, is in the thick of the fighting every step of the way. Because she is in a unique position, the reader gets to see many different sides of this conflict. As an immigrant, she loves the Freehold and doesn’t want to give it up, but knows that there are many good soldiers fighting on behalf of the UN despite the stupidity and moral vapidity of the UN’s titular leadership (she should; she used to be one of them). But some of what she does while fighting for the FMF during the insurgency is deeply disturbing, including psychological warfare and worst of all, torture.
Kendra doesn’t like doing this, mind. It appalls her. But the Freehold has been invaded, and she has to do her part to throw the invaders — the UN — back out again. So she’ll do anything it takes, anything at all, to get rid of them.
I’ve deliberately skipped over much of the plot, partly because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading pleasure, partly because I’d rather talk about something else. Namely, the structure of this novel.
Most debut novels are not as well-structured as FREEHOLD. Everything Williamson does at the beginning is mirrored at the end, and there are references throughout that seem like throwaway lines that will reward the patient reader down the line.
That said, I also have one main criticism of FREEHOLD. I didn’t see anywhere near enough internal monologue from Kendra. Most of the time, I had no idea what she was feeling until I’d read the whole section, gone back to read it again several times, and then grasped that Williamson was showing Kendra’s reactions through other people (usually Rob or Marta). I’d much rather have seen a 60/40 mix of internal monologue/showing reactions through others as it would’ve strengthened the overall emotional impact.
Bottom line: FREEHOLD’s military action and “fish out of water” storyline with Kendra acclimatizing to the very different society of Grainne was enjoyable, and I appreciated the strength of Williamson’s world building and how he structured his novel. But I wanted much more of an emotional reaction from Kendra, and didn’t get it.
–reviewed by Barb