Rogue by Michael Z. Williamson
Cover art by Kurt Miller
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Like The Weapon, to which it is a direct sequel, Rogue is told in the first person by its protagonist, Ken Chinran. While the first novel was the story of how he was made into a living weapon of mass destruction and the effects upon him of being used against his star nation's worst enemy, this novel is the story of redemption, of coming back to some measure of self-acceptance after years of self-loathing.
The very beginning of the novel is written in another narrative voice, that of a restauranteur who encounters a mysterious little girl one day. She's about a year and a half by Grainne reckoning, which translates into two and a half Earth years. Astonishingly precocious, she arrives one day and orders a pizza. She's so charming that he goes ahead and gives her a slice, and decides to worry about the payment later. A few days later she arrives with money in hand, payment for the food she's eaten on previous days.
She also proves a very perceptive and helpful child, grabbing napkins and cleaning up other people's messes. Impressed by her conscientious nature, Andre soon puts her to work with a child-sized broom, since she's far too small to run the floor polisher. By this time he's becoming concerned about her family situation, but has a hunch that her parent or parents would be insulted to be offered charity. However, his note offering employment at his restaurant is turned down with a note that her mysterious father is self-employed.
Over the next several years this man, who calls himself Dan, works his way up from being an itinerant courtesan to owning a fair-sized machine shop with several computer-driven mills. He also shows evidence of other, even more interesting skills. Of course on Grainne, where dangerous predators are found everywhere except the most populated areas, having children develop firearms proficiencies at very early ages is not at all remarkable -- but the sheer level of skill and confidence she displays is.
By this time anybody who's read The Weapon has a pretty good idea just who Dan is. And then all doubt is destroyed on the day when a gang of punk kids comes into Andre's restaurant, intending to rob it, and father and daughter put a stop to the crime with swift and decisive action. Dan isn't just a veteran -- he's got the training and the implants of a special forces Operative, one of the super-secret trained killers who were instrumental in winning the Freehold's war of independence against Earth.
However, the competencies he's displayed while he was just doing the right thing for somebody who'd looked after his daughter have also attracted the attention of the authorities. Specifically Marshal Naumann, the commander of the Freehold Military Forces, the man who masterminded the entire plan to defeat Earth not just on Grainne soil, but on its own homefront. Naumann knew when he got Ken Chinran's final after-action report that the man had disappeared somewhere into Freehold society and didn't want to have any further part of the organization to which he had once been a proud member. However, the right of Residents to privacy is one of the fundamental principles of the Freehold, in stern contrast to UN-ruled Earth where everyone is tracked with implanted electronic devices, supposedly for their own safety. So there was little Naumann could do to retrieve Chinran unless and until the man chose to reveal himself.
But now that he has, however inadvertently, Naumann is not going to pass up the opportunity. For he has a major problem of his own, one that could bring discredit upon the entire Freehold Military Forces if it is not resolved, and quickly.
Freehold military training is not for the faint of heart, as Kendra Pacelli discovered in Freehold. After having left a career in the UN military, she'd thought herself experienced -- until she went through FMF Basic Training and discovered a whole new meaning of the word "rigorous." But the training for the special forces is at least an order of magnitude more rigorous than that. Not only does it take the trainees to the very limits of physical and mental endurance, but it also breaks down all the social inhibitions that are automatic and unthinking taboos for most people, so that a Blazer or Operative can henceforth decide on a conscious basis whether to observe or break them as the situation warrants.
However, all this training assumes that the person being trained has a fundamentally sound conscience and moral compass, and will only use that training for its intended purpose of the defense of the Freehold of Grainne and such allies as the command structure deems appropriate. Unfortunately, it has turned out that, in preparing for the deep-cover operation that took down Earth, Ken inadvertently trained a psychopath. A man who has since decided to take his training and run, offering his skills as an assassin for hire to the highest bidder in one troubled star system after another.
Ken Chinran doesn't like the idea of giving up the life of anonymity he's carefully built for himself. But he recognizes the urgency of the situation -- not only is there the potential for embarrassment of the Freehold in the interstellar political arena, but there's also the possibility that Randall, the agent gone rogue, could compromise important secrets about the actual capabilities of some of the Freehold's most secret military assets. So he reluctantly agrees to take on the task and sets about the process of training for it.
The first step is bringing his new assistant up to speed. Although he really doesn't want to be responsible for another life in the field again, he knows that he can't do it alone.
However, he is not prepared for the one who arrives. Her name is Silver McLaren, although she travels under the cover name of Cynthia Charles. She's slightly built and physically attractive, and although she's fit and well-trained by the standards of the regular FMF, she's got a long way to go if she's to have any hope of surviving an encounter with their opponent, let alone prevailing. So Ken sets about developing her skills in fighting with improvised weapons in urban situations, starting with his machine shop. And all the time he's trying very hard not to allow himself to develop any sort of emotional bond with her, even a professional one, because he dreads the possibility of having the old wounds torn open again should she not make it.
And then they're off on a chase across stars, pursuing the faint trace of a man who's been trained to move like a shadow, to blend in with his surroundings until it's time to strike and to kill with terrible efficiency. In this voyage Ken retraces the path of his own training as it was developed in the middle part of The Weapon -- not precisely, for that would be far too crude and simplistic for good art. But we see the basic outlines of a recapitulation of his original journey of becoming that made him into the living weapon that could bring down the most populous and powerful planet in human space.
The first stop is Caldonia, a culturally British world with a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch actually has more than a purely ceremonial role. Think something along the lines of David Weber's Star Kingdom of Manticore in its early days, before it become the superpower it has become in the more recent Honor Harrington books. In The Weapon, Ken took a team there to help train their military forces and improve their general security and alertness levels. This time he's officially a civilian, which means that he's not going to have any official standing with the authorities when it comes time to act. A situation that leaves him exceedingly vulnerable when things go wrong.
From some essays the author has written, I have reason to believe the prison sequence is based upon personal experience. It certainly captures the mind-numbing institutional cruelty that can develop in a system in which the bureaucracy has gone malignant and taken on a life of its own. One of the great failure modes of bureaucracy is the disconnection of the personal moral compass of its individual actors from their actions as following proper procedure increasingly becomes more reliably rewarded than actually doing the right thing.
However, Silver does pull through and get Ken sprung from that Kafkaesque nightmare in which nobody in authority knows anything or has the power to actually accomplish anything on the behalf of the accused who are being held within its works. So off they head for what they hope to be the climactic confrontation with Randall.
Except it goes horrifically wrong when the local authorities not only grossly underestimate their opponent's abilities, but also actively obstruct the efforts of the one person who can actually help them. By the time the massive casualties have been taken, the surviving authorities are in no mood to see Ken as anything but another enemy, someone who's caused them to lose face, rather than someone they should've listened to. In any case, Randall knows that his cover's been blown and it's time to move on, so Ken and Silver must do likewise.
The next stop is Mtali, the world torn by factional fighting where Ken first learned the hard way the price of overconfidence when he had to carry out his threat to massacre an entire village of troublemaking locals. Things haven't gotten much better in the intervening years. The alliances may have shifted into different configurations, but the fundamental lack of social cohesion and general trust has persisted, making it impossible to create a lasting peace that will enable the populace to have prosperity.
It's the perfect place for an assassin-for-hire, and both sides know it. The lack of any strong central authority makes it easier to operate without hassles from local constabulatory forces. However, it also means that they will have to deal with continual petty harassment from the local low-lifes. Although both of them have more than adequate skills and weaponry to take down any of these nuisances, it's a distraction when they need to concentrate all their mental and physical energy on their real target.
The next leg of the journey takes our protagonist to a world that was only peripheral to The Weapon, thus breaking down some elements of the recapitulation of his personal journey of development. However, it is already becoming increasingly obvious that he will have to return to Earth to face not only Randall and a government angry at the devastation he dealt them a decade earlier, but his own personal demons.
Except the story doesn't end there. Although it's important for him to see that yes, Earther society really is as messed-up as he recalled, it's not sufficient for him to reaffirm his knowledge of what he was fighting against. He needs to know that he was fighting for something that was worth preserving. And that must inevitably take him back home, not just to the world of Grainne where he was born, but to his own hearth and the daughter who gave him a reason to live when he believed that he had become so completely stained morally that he would prefer to just lie down and die.
It's interesting to see the continuation of the theme that was developed in The Weapon of just how far a small polity of free people can and should go in fighting a tyranny that has them outmanned and outgunned, and just what the cost is for the people who actually do the terrible deeds that save them. Yet again we have the knife-keen balance between the exceedingly grim scenes of violence and the bright images of a world and a society that really are worth fighting for. And we get at least some of an idea of the backstory to which Chelsea referred in her brief cameo in Contact with Chaos.
Review posted November 30, 2011.
Buy Rogue from Amazon.com