The Tyrant by Eric Flint and David Drake
Cover by Gary Ruddell
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In The Reformer, David Drake and S. M. Stirling continued the story of Raj Whitehall and Center on yet another planet. Hafardine had undergone major scientific and technological regression, losing all industrial-age technology and even the memory of their origins. Their major cultures bore strong resemblances to the cultures of the Mediterranean basin during the closing years of the Roman Republic, perhaps a little too much for some readers to maintain suspension of disbelief. The Vanbert Confederation plays the role of Rome, but its original dynamism is being compromised by a growing reliance on slave-tilled farms and the rise of a kleptocratic attitude among its elites. If it is allowed to form the Universal Empire it desires, its fatal flaws will result in a cycle of collapses and rebuilding that will ultimately preclude the development of industrial civilization and space travel as a result of resource depletion, and ultimately will ensure that humanity on that world will be forever vulnerable to an extinction-level event.
The original plan was for Adrian and Esmond Gellart, brothers from the Emerald Empire (Hafardine's equivalent to the Greeks, although they actually formed a cohesive polity rather than a loose confederation of mutually suspicious poleis as did the historical Greeks) to foment civil unrest within the Vanbert Confederation and ultimately bring it down from within, with the hope that from the ruins may grow a polity that can actually start building, rather than merely looting its conquests and thus being dependent upon conquest for continued growth, and ultimately doomed to run out when there are no new lands to conquer (much like a pyramid scheme or Ponzi scheme will inevitably run out when it run through the population of susceptible marks and can't maintain the levels of recruitment necessary to produce returns).
However, that plan failed disastrously, as did the fallback plan of retreating to the nearby isles that were the home of pirate clans who had long been troubling the shores of northern Hafardine. As a result, the Gellart brothers have fled to the southlands, which are inhabited by a range of barbarian tribes, some of which have had various levels of dealings with the Vanberts. Some of the tribal chieftains have even spent time in the city of Vanbert itself, although they have often returned with a strong resentment of the way that, no matter how well they might assimilate themselves to Vanbert customs and modes of dress, they continued to be regarded as a lesser order of being, to be looked down upon by the civilized Vanberts. As a result, Adrian Gellart is hoping that he can weld them into a fighting force that will have a real hope of breaking Vanbert's power and replacing it with something that will last, something that will build and grow instead of just looting.
In particular, he finds interesting the new religion that has sprung up among the barbarians, which centers around a prophet known as the Young Word who was executed in a particularly horrific manner in hopes that his religious troublemaking would die with him, but who instead became a martyr and hero to a new cadre of believers. On the surface there are obvious parallels with Christianity, although that religion would not begin until the time of Tiberius, well after the period that is being paralleled in this novel. However, given that the culture of the Reedbottoms and the other southern barbarians is very much unlike Jewish culture in First Century Judea, and the theology of the Young Word's religion seems pretty vague and not built on a prior strong tradition of prophetic monotheism, it's also quite possible that one may find historical bases for this character and his religion in the various Native American prophets such as Handsome Lake and Tenskwatawa.
While Adrian has held fast to his background as a Scholar of the Grove, one of the Emerald Empire's intellectual elite, his brother Esmond has gone native in a big way. He no longer bathes or shaves as Emerald men pride themselves in doing, and he has taken to wearing the loincloth and long hair of a barbarian tribesman. Worse, he is even undertaking the ritual scarifications that are so important in the barbarian rites, which to Emeralds, who have a downright Grecian love of the body beautiful, is a horrific act of bodily vandalism. Adrian is disgusted by what he views as his brother's spiritual disintegration, but the voices of Raj Whitehall and Center within his mind suggest that these behaviors are the result of self-blame because Esmond was unable to save the woman he loved when the Vanberts attacked their base in the Islands.
Also, their time within the Vanbert Confederation was not without its own set of unexpected consequences. Adrian introduced several technological innovations to the rebels who were supposed to assassinate the Vanbert leader and start a civil war, and those ideas and techniques didn't disappear when the Gellart brothers fled for the isles. Far from it, they have fallen into the hands of a very capable man who also has come to see the Vanbert Confederation as a nation going in a very wrong direction, but who at the same time is a Vanbert patriot and a very wealthy man whose income is largely dependent upon the very latifundia that are one of the social dead ends the Vanberts are driving themselves into. Verice Demansk had originally started with the intention of driving change from within the system and thus reforming it, but he's increasingly becoming certain that reform is no longer possible because the forces that will resist any reform have become too strong. Instead, he will have to take over by force and smash the obstacles that will be put in his way.
However, there's one huge complicating factor -- his daughter Helga was for a time Adrian Gellart's girlfriend, and has borne him a son. A son who now lives in Demansk's household, and could easily become a political liability in a culture that values womanly virtue above human life, at least in theory. Yet he cannot bring himself to order his daughter or his grandson slain to protect his honor, which means that when it comes time to fight the Gellarts and their barbarian allies, his opponents will have something to use against him to raise suspicion about his political reliability.
Much of this novel is the maneuver and counter-maneuver of these two men, each one of them determined that civilization on Hafardine not die, but each wedded to a method which places him in direct opposition to the other. The novel ends on an ambiguous note, and it appears that there was originally a plan for at least one more volume to bring it to a definite conclusion. However, for various reasons no further novels were ever produced in the series. One of the reasons was S. M. Stirling having bowed out after The Reformer, which resulted in Eric Flint having to take over the role of co-author. However, he was already deeply committed to the series he was doing with David Drake, based upon the idea of Belisarius receiving the desperate appeal of an AI from the far future, who had been sent to the past to counter a time-traveling computer that had taken over a nation in the Indian subcontinent and was twisting the Hindu caste system into an ideology of racial purity and world conquest. Apparently this series wasn't selling as well as that one, and both authors really wanted to move on to other projects of greater interest to them, so Baen decided to end the Raj Whitehall series here.
Review posted January 1, 2013.
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