Do unto Others... by Michael Z Williamson
Cover art by Kurt Miller
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
This novel continues the story of the private security company Ripple Creek. Although there are some references to events in Better to Beg Forgiveness, it's not necessary to have read that novel in order to enjoy this one. The fact that certain characters have indeed survived could constitute spoilers, but probably not enough to ruin your reading experience of the first one if you read them out of order.
This time they're being hired to provide security for a businessman's daughter. Caryn Prescott is finishing a degree in mining engineering so she can work in the family business. The Prescotts started as Welsh coal miners but worked their way up to owning the mine and expanded from there. The current generation has acquired an entire stellar system rich in mineral wealth and has been planning their nest steps for diversifying as the resources of this system are depleted within another generation or two.
If you've got an image of people like the reperesentatives of the greedy, amoral corporations from Contact with Chaos, forget it. The Prescotts are businesspeople who Get It -- they not only are fiercely loyal to their personal retainers, but they also make sure their employees have good working conditions and opportunities to better themselves and their families.
However, that hasn't kept somebody from trying to harm them. Maybe it's someone with a political agenda, or maybe just someone who resents other people's wealth, but the threats are clearly serious and it's time to take preventive measures.
Caryn isn't exactly happy with the way her new security team interferes with her ability to socialize like a normal college student. Bad enough that she can't go to parties without bodyguards trailing her and vetting all the guests -- they even have the nerve to intimidate her boyfriend, to the point he's scared he'll get castrated with a dull spoon if he so much as kisses her. How can she have fun and be intimate and generally live a normal life when they're breathing down her neck all the time and can't seem to distinguish between a loving touch and a rapacious attack?
And then she's nearly poisoned, and only some very quick thinking and innovative technique on the part of one of her bodyguards saves her life. She's no more recovered from that attempt on her life when she's kidnapped and taken on a wild ride. The culprit proves to be one of the family's most trusted retainers, who agreed to it only because someone found the lever that would move him, the secret by which he could be blackmailed.
The punishment her father levies is particularly harsh: not only is the turncoat Ewan to be dismissed from his trusted position with a bad recommendation that will ensure that he will never again be able to gain any but the lowliest of work, but his entire family will share his fate, with the stigma upon his innocent children continuing even after they reach adulthood and try to seek employment of their own. Furthermore, Caryn is strictly forbidden to take any steps to ameleorate the children's fate -- their suffering must be seen as a warning to all those who might think of betraying the Prescotts, whether out of greed or fear.
It's hardly surprision that Caryn would balk at the idea of Ewan's punishment being extended to his innocent children. On a personal level, these are her friends, and she's being told she has to dump them like a stone, not for any fault of theirs, but because they happen to be related to someone who did commit an act worthy of punishment. On a more practical level, there's also the problem that punishing the innocent along with the guilty can end up creating worse trouble, since the innocent children may well not agree that it's right and proper for them to be sacrificed to make an example as a warning to others. But the elder Prescott probably figures that if they resent their new situation, let them resent so long as they remain powerless, and if they try to take their case to the people, it's simple enough to hire a journalist to pretend sympathy in order to gain an interview and then write a smear article portraying them as selfish, contemptible, and generally persons of bad moral character, unworthy of the least crumb of sympathy.
With that situation resolved, the Prescotts head off to the system where their family has made its fortune, ostentiably on a brief inspection tour. But they've been betrayed, and suddenly Caryn and her trusty bodyguards are on the run, trying to survive long enough to get to the bottom of this treachery.
Once again we have a climax in which our heroes of Ripple Creek go above and beyond for their principal. But we also have the new element of the scion of wealth and privilege having to put her money where her mouth is on her family's commitment to their employees and work right alongside them at the difficult and nasty jobs of mining. It may be a temporary arrangement, and I don't think they really expect her to work at an expert level, but the fact that they're running for their lives gives the process an open-ended aspect that's closer to what actual workers face than any artificial "work for x amount of time as an ordinary person" program could. And with her willingness to do work most people of her rank and station in life would find distastedul she wins the respect of the workers who had thought themselves ill-used, the company's promises to them betrayed.
The ending can't be happy, because too many peolpe Caryn cares about have died or had their lives ruined such that it's impossible (either physically or politically) to make them whole again. But it is a satisfying one, in which wrongs are righted as best is possible for mortal hands to achieve. And I rather expect we'l be seeing more of Ripple Creek, and maybe the Prescotts will become recurring good-guy Industrialists Who Get It, rather like the Hauptmanns in the Honorverse have become since their initial unpleasant introduction in On Basilisk Station.
Review posted July 21, 2011
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