Posts Tagged military SF

Michael Z. Williamson’s “Freehold” — The Story that Started it All…

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 ROGUEDO 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 . . .

Until now.

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.

Grade: A-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Romance Saturday SF Special: Grant Hallman’s “Upfall” and “IronStar”

Sometimes here at Shiny Book Review, we’re fortunate enough to be able to review stories that the mainstream science fiction community may not have noticed. Such is the case with this week’s “2-for-1 special” featuring writer Grant Hallman’s novella UPFALL and novel IRONSTAR. They are both set in the same universe, but many years separate the two stories.

Product DetailsThe first, UPFALL, is set in the not-so-distant future. While Europe appears to be a bit more unified than they are at present, and the space program as a whole seems far better developed as well, we’re essentially dealing with a world we know.

The essential plotline of UPFALL is this — what would you do if the space elevator you were going up suddenly became untethered? Especially if you’d just met the woman of your dreams?

That’s the situation Matthew “Matt” Dunning finds himself in. He’s works for Skyhook Unlimited, and is escorting a science client to Topside Station, while the woman he meets, Ginny Piersall, is there to do a failure analysis study. And of course, the Skyhook space elevator should not have anything go wrong, being based on “next-generation nanowire” . . . but of course, it does.

There’s only a certain amount of air available on the Skyhook, too, while the G-forces are causing many previously unforeseen problems, and there’s no help coming from the surface of the Earth because this was completely unanticipated. (Not to mention that most forms of two-way communication are cut off for completely understandable reasons.)

So it’s up to Matt, Ginny, and the other scientists on the Skyhook (or already in space) to try to figure this whole mess out. Will they be able to do it, or won’t they?

While the drama at UPFALL‘s heart is both believable and compelling, it’s the sweet romance between two smart people — Matt Dunning and Ginny Piersall — that is completely captivating. He’s a clueless nerd of a certain age, and she’s a beautiful, brainy woman who’s mostly met a bunch of men who aren’t up to her intellectual weight . . . so as you might expect, many sparks fly between them while they try to figure out just how to keep everyone on the Skyhook from dying needlessly.

As I’m a sucker for sweet romances, especially between two smart people who must solve an incredibly challenging problem by pooling their resources, I enjoyed UPFALL very, very much.

IronStarApproximately 200 years later, the events of IRONSTAR take place. Lieutenant Kirrah Roehl of the Regnum Security Service is the navigator of the Arvida-Yee, a very small survey ship. She enjoys her job, especially when she and her shipmates discover “hablets” (that is, habitable worlds suitable for colonization). And she enjoys being part of such a small crew because it’s like a family.

However, when the Arvida-Yee discovers a habitable planet they weren’t expecting, they encounter hostile fire from aliens called the Kruss — who are traders, but who definitely aren’t kindly and don’t have thought processes most humans can understand. The only thing Kirrah’s Captain is able to do before the ship blows apart is to order all of his crew into their survival suits and get a “mail tube” off to inform his superiors that something hinky is going on.

When Kirrah regains consciousness, she realizes she’s on the surface of the planet. (Hallman deftly accounts for this by the survival suit having its own drop bubble with a gel interior. Apparently the technology is now so good, it was able to “go to ground” on its own, without any information from Kirrah herself.) And while the planet is beautiful to look at, everything seems poisonous . . . worse yet, she believes everyone on her ship except her died instantly.

Then she discovers a young boy wandering in the middle of the forest. (Or, as I thought of it, a “forest-swamp,” as it appeared to have characteristics of both.) The boy, Akaray, warns Kirrah of an imminent attack by some of the local wildlife, and rouses all of her latent maternal instincts.

She quickly realizes that something is badly wrong. Akaray is crying, and between her own knowledge and her suit’s translator (which isn’t perfect, but gets the gist of things fairly quickly), she figures out that he’s lost his parents and everyone he knows due to his village being destroyed.

You see, there’s a war going on between two factions on this planet — the more or less peaceful people (who don’t seem to have a clan name; they do follow a King, but he’s elected rather than hereditary) and the rather obnoxious Wrth. The peaceful people have priest-healers who use something akin to Reiki healing with perhaps a bit of touch-empathy or even low levels of touch-telepathy, and just want to be left alone, while the Wrth are raiders who don’t seem to either have the priest-healers at all, or at minimum do not value them.

And the Wrth have allied themselves somehow with the Kruss, even though they don’t fully understand this . . . but Kirrah, of course, figures it out fairly quickly. This is the primary reason she’s made Warmaster, and is chosen to lead the fight the Wrth.

Kirrah also finds love in a most unlikely place — with Ro’tachk Irshe, a senior enlisted man. Irshe is old enough to respect Kirrah’s intelligence while young enough to appreciate the pleasures of the flesh . . . and as the peaceful people Kirrah’s helping don’t seem to have the same hang-ups regarding sex that Regnum-trained humans do (perhaps because of the priest-healers and their Reiki-like skills), they become lovers.

Down the line, Kirrah will have to decide: Does she want to stay on this world with Irshe and his people, the ones she’s been leading in order to throw off the Kruss’s noxious influence? Or will she go back to the Regnum? (Further reviewer sayeth not.)

So there’s action-adventure here, in spades. There’s a more-or-less traditional romantic science fiction plotline as well, and a coming of age story for Kirrah, and there’s all that interesting stuff from the priests . . . not to mention some dreams and visions that may or may not have a psychic component to them. And the new world is compelling, the science makes sense (hallelujah!), the military acts in comprehensible ways, both in the Regnum and on this new world . . . all good.

But there is one teensy-weensy drawback here, and that’s how quickly Kirrah adapts to everything.

Look. IRONSTAR has a lot going for it. It’s intelligent and interesting, the characterization is good, I believed in the romance between Kirrah and Irshe, and even the “fish out of water” element was carried off with aplomb.

But Kirrah doesn’t have many weaknesses. She’s impetuous, sure. But she’s young. And she’s very smart, and she’s very adaptable, and she’s adopted a kid despite her youth . . . really, in some ways, Kirrah seems almost too good to be true, excepting that darkness within her that, as the priest-healers keep pointing out, makes her the exceptional military commander she is.

But that makes me wonder why Kirrah was on the Arvida-Yee at all. Is the Regnum so stocked with good military commanders that they were willing to turn Kirrah away? Or did they just flat miss the fact that Kirrah could be exceptionally good if she was pushed to her limits?

Regardless, Kirrah is here, the world is here, and what Kirrah does is worth reading about. I just wish she would’ve had some obvious personal weaknesses aside from being young and impetuous, that’s all. (Mostly because I wanted to give IRONSTAR an A-plus, but just can’t under the circumstances.)

Bottom line? I enjoyed UPFALL and IRONSTAR quite a bit. This is excellent fiction with some solid science and some good, believable romances in the bargain . . . and I look forward to seeing more of Hallman’s writing in the future.

Grades:

UPFALL – A-plus.

IRONSTAR – A.

— reviewed by Barb

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