I’m a long (LONG) time Baen Books reader and I damn near cut my teeth on David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series, so I’ve been reading military science fiction since the ‘good old days’. Knox’s Irregulars is a worthy addition to the genre, not just because of the solid military action but because of the worldbuilding and the unique take on theology in war.
The plot is pretty straightforward, good guys verses bad guys. And that’s ok. The bad guys in this book are semi-Islamic extremists who slaughter the moderates in their own government and promptly invade their infidel neighbors. The ‘infidel neighbors’ are a smallish colony of Calvinist Christian colonists who purchased some land from the original settlers and had the audacity to build a successful, technological society. The good guys are outnumbered, pushed aside and war in all its ugliness ensues. The protagonist, Randal Knox, is son of the Prime Minister, groomed to succeed him but he rejected that life to enlist and rise to the heady rank of Corporal in the infantry. When the invasion hits, he’s trapped deep behind the front lines and ends up organizing a partisan force to harass the bad guys and ultimately play a pivotal role in ending the war. It’s Red Dawn meets Starship Troopers.
The book is polished and professional. It really would fit in magnificently in the Baen roster, and who knows, maybe it will some day. The military details are authentic, which makes sense since Mr. Bush was Airborne Infantry. The tech is functional, the powered armor feels a bit like John Ringo’s but with a little less ‘fantasy tech’. You get the feeling that these suits could be made and used sometime this century. There is a cost for every victory, which is something a lot of military sci-fi seems to miss. Logistics matter, civilians suffer as well as the partisans. Good guys die, bad guys win, though the ending is satisfying enough.
A few criticisms: The final partisan raid seems almost too easy, though not without cost. I’m having a hard time picturing partisans raiding, say, Rommel’s Headquarters at Pontcarre in June 1944. So the success of the main characters there at the end feels a little…off, but not disastrously Deux Ex Machina-esque. The characters feel real, with a couple of exceptions. Jeni Cho seems to have some sort of ‘most favored character’ status in this book. I wanted someone to smack her but no one ever does. The female romantic interest, Ariane Mireault, is a bit of load. She also feels cold and is the only character I considered preachy in the book. There is a real lack of sexual tension in the book. In fact, that’s one of the only things that didn’t feel authentic. I realize these are all first or second generation religious pilgrims (or Pilgrims, if you prefer) but the main characters seem to have their libido turned off. Ariane has a bastard child (using the word advisedly) but seems oddly sexless on the page. For a group of soldiers, from my experience, this lack of ‘earthiness’ seems to be the only whitewashed part of the book. I think the ‘spiciest’ thing to happen in the book is a kiss. For some, this is a bug for others, it’s a feature.
Ok, let’s get into the ‘controversial’ part of this book. The good guys are Christian. This is basically a group of Revived Swiss-style Calvinists who fled Earth looking for religious freedom in the stars. They settle on this planet, make a successful colony and end up fighting for their lives. This is not C.S. Lewis allegory here, this culture wears its Christian bona fides openly. Christian theology is part of their everyday life and conversation. For a lot of readers, this is going to feel a little weird. Actually, I think that it works. It’s almost an examination of an alien culture (and let’s be honest, this kind of open Christianity is alien to a lot of sci-fi readers). Taken in that spirit, it’s difficult to be offended by anything here, at least for me. This culture is Christian, the book says. I shrug and say ‘ok’. It works in another way, as well. It has a theme of rejecting hate while opposing evil. That’s rare, in real life and in fiction. It reminds me a bit of Quo Vadis, in that way. Again, religion is part of everyone’s daily life, so there’s not a lot of attempts to convert characters or the reader. There are no Ayn Randian diatribes pushing the author’s worldview. Faith is part of what keeps the characters together and even serves for redemption for one character but it never feels oppressive. It reminds me a lot of Gordon Dickson’s ‘Soldier, Ask Not’, especially the novella (which won the Hugo for best short story in 1965). In that vein, this book firmly belongs in the sci-fi pantheon.
Final verdict, this is a solid Sci-Fi novel with an interesting culture. I recommend buying it. So far, it’s only available as an ebook (http://www.amazon.com/Knoxs-Irregulars-J-Wesley-Bush/dp/1466487046/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1). At 2.99, it’s even more attractive.
I’m looking forward to the author’s next book.