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In the Heart of Darkness by David Drake and Eric Flint

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This novel is the second volume of the Belisarius series, which is a collaboration arranged by Baen Books to help build the career of Eric Flint, then one of their newest authors, by pairing him with established author David Drake. It is the story of a world in which rival powers of the far future each sent artificial organisms backward in time to manipulate a key inflection point in history. In the first novel, An Oblique Approach, Belisarius received a terrible vision of Constantinople in flames, of the entire Eastern Roman Empire crushed under the heel of the Malwa Empire and their horrible torturers. Thus he set forth to assemble a company of allies that would help the Romans stand against this horror, helped by the tiny crystalline entity Aide.

In this volume Belisarius and his most trusted bodyguard unit, accompanied his Auxumite allies, must go on a dangerous scouting mission to India, into the heart of the Malwa Empire itself. Somewhere within this new conquering power lies the intelligence that is directing their successes, giving them weapons technologies just enough in advance of their neighbors that they can crush rivals with ease. But it will also be watchful for enemies that could threaten it, so Belisarius must conceal his true attentions, instead pretending that he wishes to ally with the Malwa and betray his own Emperor, taking the Empire's forces westward in an attempt to reconquer the Western Roman Empire and thus leaving it open to Malwa forces.

Their first stop in Malwa India is Ranapur, a city the Malwa army has invested and is in the process of crushing. While many of the Roman cataphracts see the Malwa cannon as magical and terrifying, Belisarius is able to see their true potential -- what they are seeing are very primitive devices, crudely built and thus grossly inaccurate. With better machining technology applied to both barrel and projectile (Eric Flint has worked as a machinist, and it shows), cannon could become far more powerful and accurate, or could become small enough to be handled by a single soldier in the field. If the Romans have nothing with which to answer it, they will have no more hope of standing against the Malwa than Ranapur.

A city whose fall is accompanied by an orgy of rapine and pillage that brings home to all the Romans and their Auxumite allies just what Malwa victory would mean. And thus begins a new battle, one far more subtle than siege warfare, or even the intricacies of maneuver on an open field. For Belisarius and his followers are invited to join the Malwa worthies in their celebration of their victory. It is an opportunity that, distasteful though it may be, Belisarius cannot pass up, and not just because he dares not betray his true motives. It is also a possibility to locate the computer that is the true source of the Malwa's power -- might it be controlling their Emperor, using him as a sort of meat-puppet.

But a meeting with the man soon shows that no, he is just a man. A fat and rather nasty little man, for all that he is greeted with one after another grandiose title, far beyond what any Roman emperor would ever presume to claim, even excluding the ones of theological significance. And a man with rather nasty tastes -- as the centerpiece of the celebration, he presents Belisarius with the family of Ranapur's rebel leader, fully expecting Belisarius to torture them, perhaps even rape the women. Instead, Belisarius calls forth Valentinian, one of his cataphracts.

Without a further word, Valentinian draws his spatha and beheads the entire rebel family in a rapid sequence of strokes. The initial reaction of the Malwa worthies is horror and disgust as blood splatters everywhere, putting them at risk of ritual pollution. But then, when they are alone, they ponder the significance of what they have seen, what it says about the character of the man they are seeking to suborn and turn to their purposes. Answers that raise even more troubling questions in their minds?

And thus comes an even stranger invitation -- Belisarius is to see the Emperor's great-aunt, the Great Lady Holi. This news is greeted with instant alarm by Shakuntala, the Maratha empress in exile who was rescued from duress vile in the conclusion of the previous volume and has been hiding among the concubines of Eon, the Auxumite crown prince ever since. Stay away from that woman, Shakuntala warns. She is a witch, a sorceress.

Belisarius is surprised at this sudden upwelling of seeming superstition from this young woman who had seemed so rational and level-headed. Until Aide confirms that there is reason for caution, that it is very possible that the mysterious Link they seek resides with or in this elderly woman. Yet it is essential that they locate Link, which means that Belisarius must brave the encounter, perilous though it may be. It also means that he will not be able to have Aide's advice during the encounter, for there is too much danger that Link will be able to recognize this entity's presence and raise the alarm. So Aide dissolves into its constituent facets, no longer a self-aware being.

Thus Belisarius walks into the heart of the darkness that is spreading all over the Indian subcontinent and threatening the entire world, forever. When he first encounters the Great Lady Holi, she is veiled and silent, and thus Belisarius must first deal with her spokeswoman, the Great Lady Sati. But no, this young woman of icy beauty is just a human being, which means that Shakuntala's accusation of witchcraft may well have ground in fact, after Sir Arthur C. Clarke's famous aphorism about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic to the uninitiated.

And then the Great Lady Holi unveils to speak to Belisarius, and in doing so reveals the horror of a meat-puppet, of a human body that is but a vessel for a computer of unearthly sophistication. As Belisarius looks into those terrible, empty eyes, he knows there is no way he can deceive this entity known as Link, that he can hope to maintain his mask of a man ready to betray his country and his Emperor. There is nothing to do but make a break for it, and to try to do as much damage as he can to the Malwa in the process. Starting with the Malwa spymaster, Nanda Lal.

In his escape, Belisarius also sets into motion the various subterfuges he has been preparing against the Malwa even as he was pretending to have been suborned by them. Not only does he himself escape, spreading chaos throughout the capital in the process, but he also signals his entire entourage to make their own escapes, often in a wide variety of ruses. Shakuntala and her ladies in waiting pretend to be prostitutes long enough for Kungus and his Kushans to smuggle them out of the city, and then off to the Majarashtra where she will make the Malwa howl. And even as Belisarius lays a false trail to bewilder the Pathan trackers set on his heels, the rest of his entourage heads for the coast to catch a ride on an Auxumite trader.

Meanwhile, the Malwa are trying to sort things out, and from this after-action analysis comes a scene as horrifying in its own way as Belisarius' initial vision of the destruction of Constantinople at the beginning of An Oblique Approach. Rana Sanga the Rajput is summoned before Great Lady Holi, who dismisses the Emperor Skandagupta as casually as another might send away a servant. And then she, or rather the guiding intelligence Link which controls her body, explains to him the purpose of the Malwa conquests through a series of visions of the future: the destruction of cities by nuclear weapons, in a war that left the Earth devoid of life until it could be reseeded by colonies elsewhere in the solar system, visions of humanity spread out throughout not just the solar system, but the entire Milky Way galaxy and its galactic neighbors, fighting terrible wars with weapons unimaginable to a man of the sixth century: nuclear explosives, kinetic bolides, DNA-destroying nanomachine plagues, and even an homage to Heinlein, planets "rotated about their axis" into another dimension and left to float in the void forever.

And in the process of settling so many worlds, humanity is differentiating into brand new clades of intelligent beings, adapted to alien environments, bearing only the faintest resemblance to its original parent stock. A transformation regarded as an abomination by the new gods, the people who originally sent Link into the past, with the intention that these changes should be prevented and humanity kept to what they regard as its pure and proper form. Thus they are focusing on India, with its varna and caste system, as the best place to create a tradition of purity that will be able to crush the "blind worship of ability" that they regard as the root of all they abhor. And they regard Rome as the wellspring and fountainhead of that hated ideology, which means that if they cannot suborn the Eastern Roman Empire, they must destroy it, root and branch. Only then can they force history to travel down a new path, one in which the new gods and their philosophy of human purity will reign supreme.

Meanwhile, Belisarius is on his way home, and not a moment too soon. Treachery is afoot in Constantinople, a scheme we've been seeing in bits and glimpses from the beginning of this volume. Malwa agents have suborned several key Roman leaders, who have sought to use the horse-racing factions, the Blues and the Greens, as muscle to overthrow Emperor Justinian and install their own pliable candidate in his place to bring Rome down from within.

It seems like a good enough plan, except that the horse-racing factions at the Hippodrome are not trained fighters, but a rabble more akin to the soccer rioters familiar to the European sports scene in the last several decades of the twentieth century. Had Belisarius lingered in India or been delayed in his return, they might have been just enough to cause sufficient chaos that the conspirators would be hailed as liberators by the ordinary populace when they brought in trained troops to restore order. Instead, Belisarius arrives to fight a daring battle on both sea and land, in which the victory can only be partial, and won at a terrible price.

Since this volume is only the second in a six-book series, it is only fitting that the victories won in it are of the conditional sort, temporary unless followed up by further actions that will seal them. And at this point it is far from certain, because civil war fought within Constantinople itself is a body blow to the one great power with the best hope of defeating the Malwa and their monstrous vision of human perfection.

As in the first volume, the authors close with an epilogue composed of a series of vignettes looking into the inner lives of several of the key characters, in India and in Constantinople, ending with Belisarius and his little artificial friend and advisor, Aide.

Review posted January 17, 2015.

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In the Heart of Darkness has been reprinted along with An Oblique Approach in the omnibus volume Belisarius I: Thunder at Dawn