Friday, October 16, 2020

Mamelukes, by Jerry Pournelle

Greetings and exuberant blessings to all my friends and neighbors out there in Internet Land! And to the family members who have stumbled across this post: to the best of my knowledge, today was the first day I actually MADE fried chicken for my morning meal. Had it cold for breakfast many times, of course, but never fired the deep fryer for that purpose. It’s rather nice!

The cover art, by Dominic Harman, and an Amazon Associates link. If you click on it, it will take you to Amazon; if you buy something while there, I get some coins.

Things that will only appear in this blog post. Feel free to skip this, or to go to Goodreads or Amazon for a review with no back story. 

This is likely going to be an EASY review to write. If not, it will be a PEBKAC error, and nothing else. That possibility DOES exist, for two reasons:

1. There was a period of time, starting somewhere in the 1970s, when I thought science fiction had abandoned me. It was dreadful! I think I found “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” when I was 10, in 1963, and suddenly, I had a refuge, safe from the world. But gradually, it seemed that refuge had vanished. Then I discovered Larry Niven in 1978 or 1979, and then Jerry Pournelle, and David Drake; and, eventually, Baen brought me treasures I could not have imagined.

Janissaries, the first volume in this series, was one of the books that kept me going. It was published in 1979, and somewhere in my baggage there is still an illustrated copy that I picked up at a used bookstore prior to 1986. So, I have MUCH affection for the series, and thus for this book.

2. I have a bit of a track record for not wanting to finish a series that I love. I have yet to watch the final episode of a Ricky Gervais series about a lovable autistic nursing home attendant. More recently, I didn’t watch the final episode of “The Mandalorian” until the previews for the new season went live. My rationale: as long as I don’t watch the last episode, the story isn’t over.

HOWEVER!!! I did NOT allow that to stop me in this case. I grabbed it, read it between meals and while waiting to see the doctor, and finished it last night, despite being dead tired. And thus: I think this will be an easy review to write, because love and stuff.

The book review begins. This is what will appear on Goodreads and Amazon, with, perhaps, minor edits.

The title page states that this is a book by Jerry Pournelle, with contributions by David Weber ( a long-time fan) and Phillip Pournelle (Jerry’s son). The Wikipedia entry on the book provides interesting information about the development of the text. I could only find ONE Weber-ism I was reliably certain of (a reference to BuShips); the story, and the text, are entirely consistent with Jerry’s earlier writing, and we may truly thank those involved in the revival process for that.

The story arc starts as Captain Rick Galloway waits for death, an expendable pawn in a proxy war in Angola. On his side are a platoon-strength body of men, all that survived out from a battalion, recruited and supported by the CIA. His command is scattered in hasty defense positions scraped out on a hill that was supposed to be an extraction point. But Headquarters just told him no evacuation is possible.

Coming up the road is a vastly superior Cuban-lead force, intent on their destruction.

How will they survive THIS? Well, they don’t, actually. Instead, a spaceship lands and rescues them. Sort of. As it turns out, the rescue has only two exits: exile to lifetime incarceration, or exile to supervise production of a particular harvest on a distant planet, containing various primitive cultures. They elect the farming-supervision choice.

Over the first three novels, which have since been combined into one volume in “Lord of Janissaries,” we follow the progress of Rick and his men as they emerge into the strange world of Tran. There never seems to be good stopping point to the story, because the life-and-death conflict never ends. First, there is the conflict that quickly forms among Galloway’s troops. Lead by the other surviving officer, some realize that their weapons are so superior to those of the indigenous people, that they can set themselves up and rule as kings.

Second there are the conflicts with the various groups existing on the planet. It appears that the aliens have regularly kidnapped small-ish military units for the same purpose as Rick’s group, and some of them had enough of a core group that they were able to sustain a solid cultural presence over the centuries. And, with few exceptions, a state of war exists wherever there are people. Even though their weaponry is primitive, compared to what Rick is supplied with, even a rock can kill you.

Finally, there is a conflict with the aliens that brought them there. From oral traditions found on the planet, combined with some clues provided by the abductors and other members of the Galactic society, Rick discovers that the plan is to have his group organize the harvest of the desired crop. As a reward, they might all be killed, probably by kinetic strikes from space. But, if they do NOT cooperate, they most certainly will be killed.

In this last volume, we finally get to the endgame for Rick’s command. The endgame can’t come too soon for Rick; he has become sick and near death from the strain of command, and the knowledge that there are innocent civilians who die as a result of the constant war. Other than the few troops left out of the group he brought from Earth, he has scarce sure allies; the most powerful nations always have their own best interests at heart, and require constant attention to keep them on the same path as Rick. That grows more difficult with each battle.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the aliens are preparing for another abduction, with a very strange composition: a woman who was formerly a member of the San Francisco Police Department; a disgraced high school science teacher who is methodically drinking himself to death; and, a former heroin addict with a long-ago tour as a community builder in Africa. They collect a vast assortment of educational technology, and a few other things, and anticipate being relocated to a primitive village in a distant part of the world. As with Rick’s troops, they don’t find out the truth until too late.

And another group of aliens is interfering with the process.

And Rick grows more weary…

It’s a great last chapter. While I think that new stories could easily be written in the universe, the cycle of the tale is finished. At the end, we know what will happen next; not the details, but the path. Since it’s been almost forty years since I started my relationship with Galloway and Company, I’d like to send a letter to my youthful self, promising that the read will be satisfactory, not only in the short term, but also in the end.

Peace be on your household.


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