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BattleTech Game of Thrones meets Pacific Rim

#1 User is offline   Werthead 

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Posted 03 May 2021 - 03:08 PM

The Warrior Trilogy Book 1: En Garde by Michael A. Stackpole

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The year 3027. Three hundred years ago, the great Star League, which united all the worlds of humanity in a peaceful, golden age of technology, fell into ruin. From the chaos emerged the five Successor States: the Lyran Commonwealth, the Draconis Combine, the Federated Suns, the Free Worlds League and the Capellan Confederation, each ruled by a Great House. At the centre of them all and controlling ancient, holy Terra is ComStar, a mercantile consortium turned religious institution and the arbiters of interstellar communications. Political intrigue is rife, and warfare is conducted by vast, towering war machines called BattleMechs. The period of chaos known as the Third Succession War has come to an end and the Great Houses are rebuilding, but stability is no guarantee of safety. The Allard family, in noble service to House Davion of the Federated Suns, is placed in the centre of huge events when one scion is disgraced and sent into exile on the game world of Solaris VII and another joins the legendary mercenary army known as the Kell Hounds.

BattleTech is the franchise that stubbornly won't die. Starting life in 1984 as a tabletop miniatures game, it quickly spun off a series of over one hundred novels and more than a dozen popular video games (most famously, the MechWarrior and MechCommander series) before petering out in the late 2000s after an ill-advised reboot (the Dark Age setting). After a few years in the doldrums, it suddenly spun back into life with a new edition of the tabletop game and two well-received video games: 2018's turn-based BattleTech and 2019's real-time simulator MechWarrior 5 (which is getting a wider release this month on Steam and Xbox). Capitalising on the moment, franchise-holders Catalyst Game Labs have started making the immense backlog of novels available again vie ebook and Amazon's print-on-demand service.

Arguably the best-known and regarded of the BattleTech authors is Michael A. Stackpole, whom in later years would gain much greater fame and success as a Star Wars author (particularly of the X-Wing series, alongside the late, great Aaron Allston). Stackpole has built a career on writing fast-paced but also character-based military SF and fantasy. Like Dan Abnett (his Warhammer 40,000 counterpart, or the nearest equivalent), Stackpole knows that writing good military SF isn't just about the action and explosions, but creating interesting characters and telling the story through their eyes.

En Garde, the first book in the Warrior Trilogy, was the fifth-published novel in the BattleTech line but is widely regarded as the best novel to start with. The earlier books were published when the details of the setting were still being worked out and are prone to bouts of early-installment weirdness. They were also not as well-written as Stackpole's work, and tended to be smaller in scale. In contrast, En Garde is a book at times so epic it becomes dizzying.

The novel packs more storylines and characters into its modest 320 pages than some 1,000-page epic fantasy novels. At the start of the book it appears that we'll be following Justin Allard as he tries to clear his name after being wrongfully exiled as a traitor. However, Allard's experiences rapidly turn him into an apparently rage-fuelled antihero as he murders and backstabs his way through the crime-ridden underbelly of the gladiatorial world of Solaris VII. His much more sympathetic brother Daniel, a member of the Kell Hounds, finds himself on the front lines when his mercenary company is targeted for extermination by the ruthless intelligence agency of the Draconis Combine. Elsewhere, very high-level political intrigue unfolds when Princess Melissa Steiner of the Lyran Commonwealth has to travel incognito to the Federated Suns to discuss an alliance with Prince Hanse Davion, a prospect bitterly opposed by the other three Great Houses and many factions within their own empires. Yet another subplot follows a dishonored MechWarrior of the Draconis Combine who is offered the chance at redemption by forming and training an elite new military cadre (a fascinating idea which, unfortunately, mostly happens off-page). On top of all that, there is a framing story revolving around the priest-businessmen of ComStar, who preach neutrality and serving all of mankind's needs but, predictably, are up to their elbows in everyone else's business and trying to pull everyone's strings.

Stuffed to the gills with political intrigue and crunchy, mech-on-mech action, En Garde moves fast. As Stackpole's first novel and written under an unholy deadline (the entire trilogy, totalling north of 300,000 words, was written in under ten months), the novel lacks the polish of his later works. There's a noted prevalence of exclamation marks, especially in Justin's storyline: Justin is a big fan of making threatening speeches to his enemies, which are sometimes icily effective and sometimes feel like a five-year-old on the playground explaining why he's so tough and about as intimidating. Dialogue favours exposition, which is often clunky but at least does a good job of explaining what the hell is going on. I do feel like an appendix of in-universe terms and maybe some head-of-chapter preambles explaining the factions (like those in Frank Herbert's Dune) could have been a more elegant way of getting this information across to the audience, rather than a few too many "As you already know but I will explain anyway..." style conversations.

But Stackpole makes many of the characters complex and interesting: Gray Noton is initially presented as an antagonist but becomes a much richer character as the novel progresses, whilst expertly flipping Justin's storyline from a predictable "clearing his name" narrative to a more elemental story of utter vengeance makes for a much more morally murky storyline. A few characters do get short shrift, but hopefully they will rise more to the fore in the succeeding volumes of the trilogy.

There are a couple of other issues stemming from the background material more than Stackpole's writing. The Capellan Confederation and Draconis Combine are fairly obviously based on China and Japan, and a few wince-inducing stereotypes ensue, such as House Kurita's warriors being obsessed with honour, relaxing in tea houses and sometimes inexplicably wielding katanas against enemies with assault rifles. To be fair this actually plays a key role in the storyline, with Justin's half-Capellan heritage marking him out for racist abuse, but it's unsurprising that later iterations of the BattleTech franchise beat a retreat from these kind of stereotypes, with the Confederation and Combine receiving a great deal more nuance. It doesn't help that they are presented as the "bad guys" at this stage, whilst Houses Davion and Steiner, more European-American in inspiration, are the "good guys." Very fortunately, Stackpole upends this idea as soon as the very next book in favour of the setting's more familiar equal-opportunities moral murkiness, with all the factions having good and bad elements to them.

Warrior: En Garde (***½) is a slightly dated but still readable slice of pulp military SF, with interesting characters and a fascinating universe (very much Game of Thrones meets Pacific Rim, with a light dusting of Dune). Some clumsy exposition and iffy dialogue are offset by a relentlessly readable pace and some very enjoyable action set-pieces.

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#2 User is online   Aptorian 

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Posted 03 May 2021 - 03:17 PM

I've never delved into the history of Mech Warrior stuff (I find mechs a bit stupid, cool but stupid).

Went ahead and bought En garde. Can't wait to read it some time before I die.

You should include your amazon affiliate links in your review Wert. I can't imagine any mod would oppose considering the amount of quality reviews and recommendations you've posted here over the years.
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#3 User is offline   Garak 

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Posted 05 May 2021 - 04:41 PM

Ah Battletech, another favorite setting of mine. Noble houses playing the Game of Thrones (including plenty of plotting and backstabbing within each House), mercenaries roaming the stars looking to make a profit, a shadowy organisation seeking to keep everyone stupid and on the path to blasting each other into the Stone Age, the utter insanity of Clan culture and Big Stompy Mechs! What's not to love?

I mean, the battle descriptions can be a tad dry but I'm willing to overlook that since I enjoy the setting the characters enough. Plus this particular trilogy also drops a bomb on people at a wedding and the whole thing is glorious.
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#4 User is offline   Werthead 

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Posted 10 May 2021 - 01:16 PM

The Warrior Trilogy Book 2: Riposte by Michael A. Stackpole

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3028. The Inner Sphere has been rocked by the news that Prince Hanse Davion, ruler of the Federated Suns, is to wed Melissa Steiner, the Archon-Designate and heir to the Lyran Commonwealth. This union will unite almost half of the human race under one banner. The Draconis Combine, the Free Worlds League and the Capellan Confederation are opposed to the union but, after a failed assassination attempt on Melissa's life risks open war, seem powerless to stop it. As the governments of humanity gather on Terra for the wedding of the century, former enemies find themselves united in common cause as they begin to realise that ComStar, the priesthood-conglomerate that rules humanity's homeworld, has been keeping a dark secret from them...

Picking up after the events of En Garde, Riposte continues Michael A. Stackpole's Warrior Trilogy. Set in the BattleTech universe - think Game of Thrones meets Pacific Rim - this trilogy is a wildly ambitious work which sets to tell the stories of both individuals and cultures clashing a thousand years in the future, when wars are fought with building-sized robotic war machines called BattleMechs. En Garde was a fun but extremely busy novel which had more storylines and character arcs going on than most thousand-page epic fantasies, making for a novel with a cracking pace but on occasion could feel rushed,

Riposte calms down that pace and has a bit more time to smell the roses. There's still a lot going on but it's mostly a continuation of the first book's storylines rather than introducing new ones, allowing the story to breathe a lot more.

The book is divided into two general sections. The first section, before the wedding, is mostly setup as we rejoin the characters. The Kell Hounds mercenary group are recovering from the tough battle they fought in the first volume, Andrew Redburn's meteoric career rise is continuing and Justin Xiang (formerly Allard) has been recruited to serve in the Capellan Confederation's intelligence division, where he now directly contests the plans of his father, the Federated Suns' intelligence chief. This section is low on action but high on intrigue, and is mostly well-handled.

The wedding is the centrepiece of the novel and shows how you can use a wedding in an SF novel to completely upend the balance of power in a story without murdering everyone present (cough). The wedding arguably remains the most notable gamechanging moment in the BattleTech universe (or maybe the second, after the events covered in the subsequent Blood of Kerensky trilogy), even being live-reenacted at GenCon 1988 as a clever way of kicking off the BattleTech miniatures battle tournament. It's a fun scene which, oddly, we don't get to see the full events of, with Stackpole choosing to cut away at the key moment to events elsewhere and we only see the aftermath in flashback, which is mildly disappointing. It does make the second part of the novel much more of an all-out war novel, with major characters in action on the front and setting things up for the concluding part of the trilogy.

Some of the weaknesses of the first novel remain - the book veers at times towards melodrama and pulp, entertainingly realised but old-fashioned by today's standards - but others are solved. The first novel made it appear that Houses Steiner and Davion (based on European powers) were the "good guys" and Houses Liao and Kurita (based on Asian powers) were the "bad guys" (House Marik continues to mostly be ignored at this stage), This book throws that into considerable doubt and makes the setting more morally grey across the board, which is more interesting, and instead encourages readers to sympathise with individual characters rather than their polities. Another weakness is that some key characters from Book 1, most notably Melissa Steiner, all but vanish in this second volume, making their storylines feel curtailed.

Still, Warrior: Riposte (***½) is a fun action-SF novel set in a well-realised universe of giant stompy mechs fighting other giant stompy mechs.

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"Try standing out in a winter storm all night and see how tough you are. Start with that. Then go into a bar and pick a fight and see how tough you are. And then go home and break crockery over your head. Start with those three and you'll be good to go."
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#5 User is offline   Mentalist 

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Posted 10 May 2021 - 01:24 PM

I started with the Blood of Kerensky trilogy, and loved them to death.

Stackpole's sequels to those books (which show the Clan invasion) are pretty epic in scope, but the series fizzles out with Twilight of the Clans sequence (written by diff authors), and I've heard the story doesn't really have a satisfactory ending.
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View PostJump Around, on 23 October 2011 - 11:04 AM, said:

And I want to state that Ment has out-weaseled me by far in this game.
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#6 User is offline   Garak 

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Posted 10 May 2021 - 09:25 PM

I enjoyed the Twilight of the Clans series. The follow up FedCom Civil War was less fun, the books felt a bit rushed. The Jihad is mostly covered in the sopurcebooks and some short stories, which is a shame since some major stuff happens. The Dark Age is hit and miss and Catalyst (the company running the tabletop game now, made up of former FASA employees from what I heard) have been putting out new material for a while now and are launching into the next major era. So the ball is still rolling.
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#7 User is offline   Werthead 

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Posted 12 May 2021 - 12:22 PM

View PostMentalist, on 10 May 2021 - 01:24 PM, said:

I started with the Blood of Kerensky trilogy, and loved them to death.

Stackpole's sequels to those books (which show the Clan invasion) are pretty epic in scope, but the series fizzles out with Twilight of the Clans sequence (written by diff authors), and I've heard the story doesn't really have a satisfactory ending.


They ran into rights problems for years which slowed things down, but managed to overcome them a while back (after defeating a Harmony Gold lawsuit) and are now getting up to speed. The latest run of novels has moved out of the Dark Age era and has finally resolved the outstanding Clan storyline:

Spoiler

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"Try standing out in a winter storm all night and see how tough you are. Start with that. Then go into a bar and pick a fight and see how tough you are. And then go home and break crockery over your head. Start with those three and you'll be good to go."
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#8 User is offline   Werthead 

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Posted 14 May 2021 - 04:04 PM

The Warrior Trilogy Book 3: Coupé by Michael A. Stackpole

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The Inner Sphere has erupted in the Fourth Succession War. The forces of the Federated Suns have launched a devastating assault on the Capellan Confederation in reprisal for an attempt to assassinate the ruling prince, whilst the Federation's allies in the Lyran Commonwealth have launched spoiling raids to stop the Draconis Combine and Free Worlds League from coming to the Confederation's aid. Whilst Capella's defences crumble and recalcitrant member worlds take advantage of the chaos to declare independence, Chancellor Maximilian Liao has developed plans for a bold strike far behind the lines to halt the offensive in its tracks, but endanger the entire economic future of the Inner Sphere in the process. Whilst the Federation rallies scratch units to fight a final, desperate battle, the Kell Hounds and the Genyosha agree to an honourable duel to end their long-running feud.

Following up on the events of En Garde and Riposte, Coupe concludes the events of Micheal A. Stackpole's Warrior Trilogy. The first major "core" work in the BattleTech universe, this trilogy redraws the borders of the five major powers and advances the timeline through the first major military conflict to take place during the setting's "present day" timeframe. Stackpole is juggling a lot of factions, characters and stories here, as he has throughout the entire trilogy, and manages the admirable job of retaining a core focus whilst also telling an epic story on an enormous scale.

It's also a book with a lot of variety in the storytelling: Andrew Redburn and his mercenaries fighting on the front line, Justin Xiang walking a political tightrope at the heart of the Confederation's intelligence network, Prince Hanse Davion having to retain sympathy and support whilst he undertakes an effective war of aggression, the struggles of the Genyosha as they debate their loyalty to the sometimes-duplicitous House Kurita with the demands of honour, and Morgan Hasek-Davion's struggles to balance his desire to fight on the front lines with the needs of his family, to which he is the only heir.

Stackpole orchestrates this enormous story with impressive grace, knowing when to focus on a storyline and when to back away. There is still too much story here for one volume or even one trilogy, and other books and authors fill in some details which are skipped over here: Robert Charrette's Heir to the Dragon explains why Theodore Kurita is suddenly such a big deal, for example, whilst the hard-to-find Wolves on the Border explains why Wolf's Dragoons have such a hate-on for the Draconis Combine, enough for the highly-reputed honourable company to betray their former employers and plunge their border into chaos (the Dragoons themselves have some oddities which aren't fully explained until Stackpole's subsequent Blood of Kerensky trilogy). This is both a way of letting other stories get filled in whilst making people buy more BattleTech books, which was a great idea for the publisher in 1989 but is not as effective in 2021, when many of those other books are unavailable.

There are other weaknesses: a few characters are killed off whom I think we were supposed to feel quite bad about, but because they only got a fairly nominal amount of development through these three very busy-but-short novels, these don't always land very well. There's a few eyebrow-raising coincidences, and the whole thing is of course old-fashioned space opera pulp, which some may feel has dated more badly than others. Fortunately, this novel increases its predecessor's achievements in rolling back the stereotypes and increasing the complexity and nuance of the factions.

Overall, Warrior: Coupe (***½) matches its predecessors in being a solid novel which delivers on political intrigue, splendid action sequences and fun characters.

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"Try standing out in a winter storm all night and see how tough you are. Start with that. Then go into a bar and pick a fight and see how tough you are. And then go home and break crockery over your head. Start with those three and you'll be good to go."
- Bruce Campbell on how to be as cool as he is
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