Honestly, I initially had a hard time getting into this book. It was a struggle. But it was Weber and he’s usually quite good, so I kept slogging on and am I ever glad I did. By the time I was halfway through, I knew it was pretty good. By the time I was 75% of the way through, I was convinced it was damn brilliant. By the time I finished late last night, I was convinced I had just finished one of the best military sci fi novels I had ever read and I’m deeply disappointed there is apparently no sequel. I actually feel honored to have read such a masterpiece! This was a true work of art. Weber can tell a story like no other and while he can get bogged down in infodumps and can drive readers nutty with irritating habits, such as using stupid names and titles and reusing the same words over and over again (people “nod” and “shrug” and “bare their teeth” and “pinch the bridge of their nose” in most of his novels), it’s less frequent in this book than in most of his other books, for which I was grateful.
The synopsis of this book lies in a small fleet of 14th Century English knights and their army on their way to fight in France, fighting for their lives in a bad storm and losing the battle. With half the fleet having been lost and the remaining ships about to go down, an alien spacecraft from the Galactic Federation rescues Sir George Wincaster and his army of knights and longbowmen from certain death at sea and forces the Englishmen to act as slave/mercenaries to fight intergalactic battles against other “primitive” species throughout the universe on various planets where advanced weapons are banned. Sir George is a master tactician and is told by his “Commander” that he and his people will die if they lose a battle, so they have an incentive to win – every time – and they do. Over and over again. And they and their families go into “stasis” sleep during flights between planets, thus living hundreds of years while aging merely several years at a time, all the while hating their “demon-jester” Commander who kills their fellows as “object lessons” and has other alien species as guards and a godlike colleague named “Computer” who can monitor the humans’ conversations and converse with them virtually anywhere, but ensures that they must watch what they say at all times.
Apparently, there are 22 “civilized” races or I guess civilizations in the Federation overseeing hundreds of barbaric protectorics or other types of planets, all of which are subject to complete annihilation at the hands of the Federation with no qualms whatsoever, as the inhabitants of these planets, as barbaric uncivilized nonentities, are fortunate to even be allowed to live at the pleasure of the Federation. Earth, however presents a problem because it has and can develop technologically faster than most other civilizations and represents a long term potential threat.
Sir George and his people desperately want their freedom, desperately want to kill their ruthless and thoughtless and brutal Commander and to their surprise, some 350 years into their adventures, one of the alien species acting as guards on the gigantic ship they are on present a tiny possible way to do this, but they have to act quickly and decisively and if they fail, they all die. Additionally, Earth will almost certainly die and they will have to join this “dragon-man” species in finding a new planet to colonize and create a new human colony for the race to begin over again. It’s a very tense moment in the book.
I won’t describe what happens next, but it’s climactic, to a certain degree. But there’s more. Jump ahead hundreds of years. To Earth, which has been in contact with the Federation for over 100 years and which has been using antiquated Federation technology to build its own Navy as quickly as possible, knowing they can never match the Federation’s military capability. Fast forward to a Federation ultimatum put to Earth’s government which they are willing to meet, only to be told, off the record, by the local Federation fleet admiral that nothing they do will be acceptable, that they are to be exterminated. The human admiral is devastated, knowing the human race is literally about to be wiped out forever and ever, within hours. Can anything possibly save humanity? Can anyone or anything stand against the Federation?
It’s a quick, climactic ending to the book after a long, drawn out build up to this point, and that’s a little disappointing, but the duel ending, while short and sweet, does not at all disappoint and it’s pretty damn awesome. Could the Federation actually be in trouble and not even know it? Pretty awesome if that’s true. A lot of stuff is explained at the end of the book, classic Weber infodump which I actually didn’t mind for once, but what it amounted to was hope for the future and a personal hope and desire for a damn sequel, which I’m not getting. So that blows. But suffice it to say that the ending, again, while rushed, was eminently satisfying and partially mind blowing. No, completely mind blowing. I loved it! This isn’t Weber’s best book at all, but quite good, very good. But as a stand alone, especially, it’s quite excellent and very enjoyable and, for me, it’s a strong five star book and well worth the read. Definitely recommended!