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The Reformer by S.M. Stirling and David Drake

Cover art by Gary Ruddell

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This volume continues the story of Raj Whitehall and Center, the ancient battle computer left over from the civilization that took humanity to the stars, a civilization that subsequently tore itself apart and left humanity isolated on a multitude of individual planets, regressing technologically and socially. Like the situation in The Chosen, Raj is now a sort of electronic "ghost" on a chip along with Center, working with a human native of the world on which the chip has arrived, with the goal of pulling the locals back out of barbarism and onto the road to an industrial civilization capable of returning to spaces.

Hafardine has regressed so far that it has forgotten all industrial technology, even forgotten that humanity is not native to it and once came as settlers from the worlds of other stars. Its major culture group has stagnated in a state curiously resembling that of the late Roman Republic, right as it is becoming an Empire. There are some odd little differences -- for instance the Confederation of Vanbert (the Roman analog) uses Zulu-style oval shields and stabbing spears instead of the actual Roman shield and gladius. Yet overall the parallels matched up so well that it was just too much to have happened by chance, which can be damaging to the suspension of disbelief of readers who are particularly demanding in their worldbuilding. There do appear to be relatively few Terran domestic animals, and the humans have domesticated a number of the local species, but these differences seem to be there mostly to add local color -- in fact the velipads used as mounts seem to be more akin to the "lofty silken kaillia" from John Norman's Gor books than anything.

The story begins with brothers Adrian and Esmond Gellart, scions of a wealthy family of the Emerald Empire, a once proud land that pretty clearly is an analog to the ancient Greeks, although they managed to create a union far stronger than the Greek poleis ever managed to do, before the Confeds smashed it. When we first meet them, they are at a religious ceremony dedicated to a goddess known as the Grey-Eyed Lady, whose temple in the High City is so clearly based upon the Parthenon in the Athenian Acropolis that some readers may well find the parallelism goes beyond merely modeling an imagined society upon history, and that if the authors want to write about ancient Greece and Rome, they should simply do so rather than try to cover them with a thin disguise of an alien world. (Interestingly enough, David Drake's next project, undertaken with Eric Flint, actually dealt with Belisarius, introducing the science fictional elements through the mechanism of time travel).

Amidst the ceremonials, Adrian is suddenly bespoke, mind to mind. It is of course the chip upon which has been imprinted copies of Center and the mind of Raj Whitehall, and they have news for him -- his world is in trouble. If things continue as they have, the Confederation of Vanbert will soon take over their entire world, crushing all other polities, all other options. It's not that hard, since Hafardine is a world with a single relatively small continent shaped like an hourglass.

On the surface, unification might seem to be a good thing. Anyone who's read the original five books of the General series will remember that Raj fought to unite his own homeworld of Bellevue so that it could return to the stars and found a multi-system Federation. But the Confederation of Vanbert is simply the wrong polity for the job. They're too arrogant, too brutal, too kleptocratic, and most of all, too wedded to slavery to be able to put their world back on the path to industrialization and ultimately space travel. If the Vanberts are allowed to conquer and dominate their world, they will simply exploit it until their empire-in-all-but-name collapses under its own weight, splintering into a mess of ever-quarreling warlords until one of them gets strong enough to have an edge over the others and start the cycle of conquest again. But resource depletion as a result of the cultural attitude that victors strip conquests of their wealth to live in luxury, rather than investing and nurturing them toward long-term goals of growth, will ensure that each cycle will reach a lower high-water mark, until it's no longer possible to maintain a technological civilization at all and humanity's future on Halferdine will ultimately be extinction when one or another cosmic disaster renders the planet entirely inhospitable to Terrestrial life.

As a result, Adrian and his brother Esmond are being enlisted to undermine and ultimately disrupt the development of the Vanbert Confederation into a world empire with a stranglehold on Hafardine's future. Their first plan is to go to the Confederation's capital of Vanbert and there ingrate themselves with the local aristocracy, the better to aid a conspiracy that can break the expansionist drive. In order to make suitable aristocrats interested in them, they have been allowed to introduce some technological innovations, including gunpowder, from Center's database of useful tech.

However, the plan to assassinate one of the Vanbert leaders, a plot that bears a strong resemblance to the historical plot to assassinate Julius Caesar, goes awry. Suddenly Adrian and Esmond are on the run to the nearby islands, notorious pirate bases, where they hope to find allies. The Islanders are far more flexible than the tradition-bound Vanberts, but their pragmatism lacks any interest in systematization of skills and technology. To them, everything Adrian introduces is naught but an interesting bag of tricks, useful for what advantage it can gain them over the Vanberts' sea forces.

Meanwhile, the technology Adrian introduced as part of the abortive coup didn't vanish with his flight. A Vanbert nobleman, Verice Demansk, has taken note of them and is incorporating them into his own force, with which he hopes to quell the troubles and bring order to his nation. When his daughter is kidnapped by the Islander pirates, he focuses his attentions upon the Islands with a determination to crush these damnable pirates once and for all. A determination that puts him on a collision course with Adrian and Esmond Gellart.

Unlike The Chosen, this novel is not complete in itself. Instead it is the first of two volumes, with the story being continued in The Tyrant, this time with Eric Flint rather than S. M. Stirling as Drake's collaborator. As a result of this division, the novel ends with catastrophe for our protagonists and their flight in search of new allies. We're left wondering how they're going to pull victory out of this disaster, assuming they even can.

On the whole, I found this novel unsatisfactory. It really did feel like an attempt to cash out some more from the success of the original General series. But then I may just prefer the success of David Drake and Eric Flint's Belisarius series, which used actual history and changed it with the intrusion of future AI's.

Review posted December 14, 2012.

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