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One Good Soldier by Travis S. Taylor

Cover art by Kurt Miller

Published by Baen Books

Each of the first two books of this trilogy ended with the revelation of a piece of information that completely upended our view of the political situation in the fictional universe. At the end of One Day On Mars, we discovered that the Separatists who had caused so much horrific destruction and loss of life weren't Communists, Fascist, Islamists, or followers of any of the other -isms that have made life so hard in the century just past. Instead, they were a group who believed that the United States had made a disastrous mistake in incorporating the entire Solar System, gaining the world only to lose its soul, and as a result had dedicated themselves to restoring what was lost. And in its sequel, The Tau Ceti Agenda, we discovered that President Alexander Moore, stalwart defender of the Constitution, was in fact the son-in-law of Separatist leader Elle Ahmi, and was in ongoing contact with her.

This volume opens with a brief prolog set shortly after the closing of The Tau Ceti Agenda, but then moves forward six years to take up as President Moore's daughter Deanna is learning to handle a mecha. After nearly being killed alongside her father during the Separatist attack on the family's Walt Disney World vacation, she swore that she was never going to be helpless like that again. She was going to learn to fight, just like her daddy, and when she was old enough, she was going to join the Marines just like him. And in the past six years, she's been working hard on keeping that promise. She won't be able to actually enlist for a few more years (as a result of the rise of life-extension therapies, the age of majority has been moved up accordingly, but it is never clear whether life-extension actually results in the slowing of maturity, or if established adults don't want to have all those young people competing with them for jobs and have added additional years of enforced dependency upon parents, with all the adolescent angst and frustration that entails, not to mention the legal and economic vulnerability attendant upon dependency), but she's been training like crazy so that she'll be able to hit the ground running when she does accumulate the requisite number of birthdays.

When I finished reading The Tau Ceti Agenda, I was left wondering whether I was witnessing a supreme act of betrayal or the scheme of a master strategist, and pondered how it might play out in the next volume. And I'm glad to say that the themes of betrayal and of double identities play out throughout this novel, as the Separatists and the United States close in for their final confrontation. The colony in the Ross 128 system (an actual star, and although at present no exoplanets have been confirmed to orbit it, two different exoplanet-hunting space missions were to have targeted it for close examination, before both were canceled for budgetary reasons) has been at odds with the Federal government over issues of proper and improper taxation. Although they understand that they should be expected to pay their fair share of the defense of their system from the Separatist threat, they're not entirely convinced that it is indeed as serious as it's being presented, nor that the money they're sending Solward is indeed being used to pay for things that benefit them, and not used to line the pockets of fear-mongers.

On the surface, it looks an awful lot like a replay of the very way the Thirteen Colonies came to a rupture with the United Kingdom and as a result birthed the US. However, there's also evidence that the colonial government of Arcadia (the habitable world of the Ross 128 system in this fictional universe) has been infiltrated by Separatist agents provocateur, and that they are manipulating public opinion to blow the situation up into something far bigger than its actual merits.

However, that information doesn't come in soon enough for Dee Moore, who's on her way to the Ross 128 system for war-games in her beloved fighting mecha. So into the trap she goes, and thus becomes the focus of several intersecting major plotlines. Not only is an entire fleet of space carriers heading to her rescue, but her own father is also going to personally take on the charge of tracking her down and returning her safely home. And remember the CIA agent working under deep cover from The Tau Ceti Agenda, who had several narrow escapes in the course of the novel and was left in circumstances that left her longtime survival in doubt? Yes, she has not only survived, but has managed to infiltrate a crack Seppie mecha squadron.

Meanwhile, Dee Moore is no helpless damsel in distress. Her father's told her of his own time in captivity, back when the Separatists were just getting started on Mars, and she's listened very well to him. She knows that her first job is to stay alive, even if it means compromising pride and defiance that might lead her to refuse anything offered by her captors. Eating their food may be distasteful, given the associations of food with hospitality and a guest's obligations to her host, but she knows she's not there of her free will, and thus no guest-host obligations inhere. Food and drink are resources that will help keep her strength up until she gets an opportunity to escape, and finding a way to break free and escape must be her long-term goal.

And so she sets herself to the task of getting free, even as one of the very pilots with whom she was war-gaming is now heading on his way to bust her out. Even as she discovers the true identity of her captor, she's not going to let it shake her. Blood may be thicker than water, but she can't forget the blood that's been shed at this woman's orders, including the blood of some of her nearest and dearest friends, people she'd come to really respect.

I will warn readers that not only is this book pretty rough reading in terms of the level of violence (the author does not spare us any of the horrific human costs of fighting a mass starship battle), but it's also very heavy reading in terms of military jargon and particularly the radio protocols between the mecha pilots. I found it sufficiently dense to be very difficult going at some times, but it's quite possible that some readers will enjoy the feeling of verisimilitude inherent in all this use of acronyms and radio chatter.

And yes, this book also ends with a surprise, one which finally explains all the peculiarities of the actions of the principal antagonist throughout these three volumes. It's an element that's been suggested from the very beginning, when we learned that AI's form families and they form affectional bonds with their human partners and with one another. So what might happen were there to be an AI who failed to form such bonds, or worse, was incapable of forming such social connections? In other words, a sociopath -- but with raw intellectual power orders of magnitude beyond the human, able to form plots and schemes of such intricacy as to make "Byzantine" seem an understatement.

But it might still be outwitted, by a team of determined humans and AI's working together in love and trust, leading it along until it exposes itself. And perhaps even the human in which it had been implanted might yet retain just enough independence to do a little fighting of her own, if sufficiently motivated by loves that had seemed long behind her.

It's a good conclusion to the trilogy, and like all good conclusions, satisfies while leaving you wanting more. I'd love to see more novels set in this fascinating universe, maybe when Dee grows up and comes into her own, maybe a few generations down the road as QMT becomes commonplace and fully integrated into human society. But I also could live with just these three novels, because the story arc as it stands is complete, with the threat vanquished.

Review posted June 4, 2012,

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