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March to the Stars by David Weber and John Ringo

Cover by Patrick Turner

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

John Ringo started his literary career with A Hymn Before Battle, a near-future military science fiction novel starring a protagonist with strong autobiographical features. Its strengths were obvious enough that publisher Jim Baen decided Ringo's career should be developed through a collaboration with an established author, much as Baen had developed Eric Flint's career by having him write the Belisarius series in partnership with established author David Drake. Both authors would benefit from the partnership -- the established author would be able to produce a series in a universe he might not otherwise have the time and energy to fully develop, and the junior author would gain name recognition by having fans of the established work exposed to the collaboration.

Thus was begun the Empire of Man series, a Bildungsroman in which a spoiled young scion of a glorious Imperial family is forced to grow up fast. The worldbuilding is more reminiscent of Weber's Honor Harrington universe than Ringo's Legacy of the Aldenata, with humanity spread to the stars and forming several major star nations in contention with one another. Prince Roger is the youngest son of the Empress, a son whose paternity makes him automatically suspect, and who has continually presented the appearance of a worthless, empty-headed fop, interested only in idle pleasure.

But like Brandon vlith-Arkad in Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge's Exordium series, Prince Roger's vapid exterior is just that -- a mask he's developed to protect him from the deadly intrigues of a court he largely despises. And when trouble develops on what was supposed to be a routine show-the-flag visit to an insignificant planet and they're instead stranded on the hell-world of Marduk, with evidence that it's been taken over by the Empire's chiefmost enemy, the hypocritical eco-freaks known as the Saints, Prince Roger proves to have unexpected depths.

However, given that Weber and Ringo are writers of military science fiction, Prince Roger's journey to maturity and responsibility comes within the framework of military hierarchy and discipline, rather than among freebooters like Smith and Trowbridge's Rifters with whom Brandon vlith-Arkad runs away from what turns out to be an assassination attempt. Since Prince Roger was traveling on an official mission, he is accompanied by a bodyguard unit of elite Imperial Marines, and they accompany him to the surface of Marduk, where they begin the long and difficult overland journey through trackless wilderness and a multitude of hostile native peoples to the spaceport where they hope to be able to secure their passage home. When the journey began, Prince Roger saw them as little more than interchangeable faceless mooks. But over the course of March Upcountry and March to the Sea, he's come to know and care about them as individuals, and feel as a personal anguish the losses of each of them.

He's also learned personal responsibility in the form of his Mardukan asi, or life-debt servant, D'Nal Cord. Formerly the shaman of his stone age tribe, Cord was on a spirit quest when he was attacked by a flar, a beast vaguely like a rhinoceros. When Prince Roger shot the beast and saved the Mardukan's life, he created a debt that can be repaid only by a lifetime of personal service.

After all that, their greatest challenge lies ahead. They still have to take the spaceport, with every probability that they will be dealing with treachery from their own, and thus with foes that are their technological equals.

However, March to the Stars does not begin with Prince Roger and his loyal troops. Instead, it begins with Jin, an Imperial agent, examining the bodies in a tomb not far from where there was a major battle. He's certain these bodies were Imperial Marines, but he cannot determine what unit, so thorough was the destruction of even the most minute evidence of identity. Still, he is certain he has something of critical importance.

It's a particularly interesting scene not from what we learn, but from what we don't learn. We don't know who he serves, or why he's searching. Is he a scout for a rescue expedition? Or is he someone sent to make sure that the assassination attempt against Prince Roger did indeed succeed, and if not, to finish the job? Just the fact that his thoughts are so carefully focused, so guarded that we never learn these things yet never feel as if the authors are withholding the information, makes us view him as suspect, less than completely trustworthy.

After that brief and tantalizing prolog, we get back to Prince Roger and his company, now aboard the schooner Ima Hooker, traversing the sea that separates them from the continent where they'll find the spaceport. It's a dangerous sea, full of giant predatory fish such as the giant seagoing cool, which are the size of the great whales of Earth. One of them attacks a ship of their fleet and bites it in two before Prince Roger can kill it with his antique hunting rifle.

But when they finally reach land, they discover their troubles aren't over. Not by a long shot, as they discover when they encounter another ship and hear the story of a battle these Mardukans recently fought. As a result, Prince Roger's little fleet end up taking hire as mercenaries to clear out a nest of pirates that will be blocking their intended path to the mainland and their goal. And in the process Cord rescues a prisoner who was about to be murdered by the pirates, and thus acquires her life-debt, not to mention creating a rather stiff situation with the head of the Prince's security detail.

But once they get everything sorted out, they realize they have a very important intelligence asset in Pedi Karuse. She's a warrior princess of the Shin, a tribe trained to the arts of war from the time they're able to leave their mothers' nurturing slime and walk about on their own power. Furthermore, they've had enough cultural contact, however hostile, with the peoples of the mainland that she can tell them vital information necessary to infiltrate the area around the spaceport, which will enable them to avoid unnecessary combat on the way and save their forces for the actual assault that will enable them to take it and a ship that can get them back home to Earth. And part of that involves a well-nigh suicidal battle to rescue the Temple's treasure ships from the pirates, in hopes that the Temple priests will look kindly upon them and not ask too many awkward questions.

It works, and they secure their entry into a port city of the Krath, the Mardukan nation that controls the land around the spaceport, and thus their access to it. But it's not long before they can see there's something very strange afoot. This country is supposed to be a theocracy, but nobody talks theology, ever. It's almost like it's too scary to discuss, beyond the fact that they worship a Fire deity. When they try to ask their local informants what it means to be a Servant of the God and why it's such a terrible thing that people will fight against suicidal odds rather than submit to it, they get nothing but circular answers.

Finally they begin to wonder if the translation kernel they downloaded from the computer before landing might have some built-in biases that are intended to hide some kind of secret. In desperation, Prince Roger deletes everything he's accumulated on the Krath language in his implanted computer, and starts the entire process of language acquisition over again. In a matter of minutes they have their answer -- the term the computers had been translating as "servant" in fact means "sacrifice." The Fire Priests are performing the local equivalent of human sacrifice, killing enormous numbers of Mardukans of other ethnic groups and offering them to the Fire God, a ritual which includes cooking their bodies for consumption by the Krathan worshippers. Worse, it appears that this practice is a relatively recent development in their religion, and did not develop as a mutation of a prior local practice.

Except there's one huge problem -- by the time our heroes discover this, they're already well inside the Fire Temple. There's no choice but to literally fight their way out, and that means heading straight through the sanctuary where the sacrifices are in progress. It's quite a fight, even for battle-hardened troops, but after what they've witnessed, they're not exactly inclined to mercy, or to half-measures.

And just when they think they've gotten through all the obstacles and are about to get their ticket home, our protagonists encounter that special agent, Jin. Turns out yes, he's on their side, but he has even worse news: there may no longer be a home for them to return to. Political upheaval has torn apart Earth, and Prince Roger's mother the Empress is a prisoner in her own body, victim of a nightmarish plot -- and the arch-traitor who's running it is Prince Roger's own genetic sire.

Somehow Prince Roger and his Marines have to retake the starport and make their way back to Earth and put things to rights. No matter how many dead bodies they have to go over -- literally. And thus we have our big climactic battle, this time against both the Saints and the traitorous governor of Marduk, to take the spaceport and seize a spaceship that can get them home.

On the whole, it's yet another helping of fascinating and at times darkly humorous military science fiction by two masters of the art. One of the most amusing scenes is the one in which the sergeant-major explains how Satanism became the majority religion on her native world of Armagh. It's not exactly Anton LaVey's brand of Satanism, but a narrative of a war in Heaven in which Lucifer was thrown out as the wicked rebel angel not by God, but by the angels who usurped His authority and refused to hear any objections -- and thus becomes a very fascinating parable about the dangers of self-righteousness.

And the ending clearly sets up for the return home to Earth and the final confrontation with the people who set up the assassination attempt that landed Prince Roger on Marduk in the first place, which we'll see in We Few.

Review posted January 1, 2013.

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