Archive | May, 2022

Snippet – All for All (Cast Adrift 3)

23 May

Prologue I

From: A Short History of Galactic Civilisation V.XXVI.  Alphan History University (Terran Campus).  505PI.

Earth’s isolation from galactic affairs, as far as anyone knew, came to an end when the Alphans, the de facto masters of the known universe, invaded, occupied and subjected the planet.  The human race did its best to fight back, and there were three major and over a hundred minor revolts over the first two hundred years, but against an enemy with massive technological superiority and the willingness to use it ruthlessly.  The Alphan Viceroyalty had plenty of carrots and sticks at its disposal, as the humans noted, and had few qualms about using them.  There was no reason to think the human race would ever see independence, let alone become a great power.

Indeed, by the time of the First and Second Lupine Wars, humanity had become one of the most useful client species in known space.  Humans served Alphans as soldiers, spacers and industrial workers, as well as hundreds of roles the Alphans were unwilling or unable to perform for themselves.  Human starship designers lacked the first-rate tech of their alien masters – a number of advanced weapons and drive systems were kept solely in Alphan hands – but they put together modular freighters that revolutionized interstellar shipping and, it was later discovered, could be rapidly converted into cheap and surprisingly effective warships.  Human traders, free and independent, wandered far from the Alphan Empire and brought back tales of wonders beyond the rim of explored space.  Human researchers, even, pushed the limits of the tech assigned to their species, sometimes working on ways to improve it and, at others, figuring out how to duplicate the tech forbidden to them. 

The Alphans did not seem to notice.  They had other problems.  The First Lupine War was a brief set of skirmishes, just another border clash with an up-and-coming junior race that thought it could take on the masters of the known universe; the Second Lupine War was a determined attempt to destroy the Alphan Empire that came alarmingly close to success.  The Lupines were technologically inferior, but they had the numbers and a certain willingness to take horrendous losses to wear down their enemies.  If humanity had not fought beside its masters, adapting tactics and technology to meet their foes on an equal basis, the war might have ended with complete disaster.  As it was, the Alphan Empire emerged victorious … but broken, bleeding, and with a whole string of new problems.  The worst, they came to realise, was simple.  What were they to do with the human race?

There was no way to avoid the problem.  The humans had fought well and emerged changed.  The demand for a greater share of power within the empire was becoming irresistible.  Even loyalists thought human service deserved a great reward.  The Alphans found themselves caught between two fires.  If they accepted humans as equals, their empire would very rapidly become a human empire.  The economic dislocation alone would be utterly disastrous.  But if they refused, they would face another – and perhaps final – rebellion.  The days when the human race was confined to a single planet were long gone.  Now, humans had starships, modern weapons and a powerful presence right across the empire.  The Alphans decided, reluctantly, to cut their losses and grant the human race its independence.

It was a shock.  The economic dislocation of being cast adrift on a sea of interstellar troubles was quite bad enough, but the perception of weakness was worse.  The Vulteks – a client race of the spider-like Pashtali – invaded human space, intent on crushing the newborn star nation before it could rise to greatness.  But the humans had learnt their lessons well and, in a stunning military campaign, turned the tables on their attackers and defeated them in open battle.  The Pashtali saved their clients from total defeat, but humanity had clearly won the war.  The Galactics ceded control of a sizable chunk of territory to Earth.

This region – known as the Occupied Zone – rapidly turned into a millstone around humanity’s collective neck.  The countless settlements within the zone had rarely, if ever, bent the knee to the Vulteks.  They had no intention of letting the human race take control without a fight, even though humanity had made it clear they had no intention of imposing total control.  Worse, it provided an excellent opportunity for the Pashtali to bleed the Solar Navy, and damage humanity’s reputation in front of the other powers, without ever quite showing their hand.

And then, the unexpected happened.

Multispace storms are far from uncommon, but the storm that blew up along the threadlines between Earth and the Alphan Empire was unprecedented.  This storm made it difficult, if not impossible, for ships to move between the two powers, largely isolating the human race from its former patrons.  (Indeed, there were suggestions – then and later – that the storm wasn’t natural.)  The Pashtali saw their chance and moved, feinting at the Occupied Zone to draw a chunk of the Solar Navy into a trap and then striking directly at Earth itself.  The war seemed on the verge of being lost.

But the human race struck back, adapting its tactics and accepting massive losses to destroy the enemy ships or force them to surrender.  The Pashtali broke and ran, saving what they could, but – in the aftermath – it became clear they were far from defeated.  They were still a Great Power, they still badly outnumbered their enemies, their technology was still more advanced …

Humanity had won a great victory.  But the war was very far from over.

Prologue II

There had been a time, Ambassador Yasuke had read in the history logs, when ambassadors lived so far from their governments that they had the power to bind and lose without having to ask permission first.  Those ambassadors had been trusted to understand what was going on and take the right decisions, before time ran out and their decisions no longer mattered.  It had been true, back in the glory days, that military commanders – too – had wide authority to react as they saw fit.  In hindsight, after the carnage of the last war, Yasuke suspected that had been a mistake.  Too many commanders, in the opening days, had tried to call home for orders, orders that hadn’t arrived until it was far too late. 

The humans learnt from our experience, he reflected, as he waited for the secure communications link to be checked and rechecked by operators on both ends of the line.  If their commanders had waited for orders, the war would be over by now.

It was a chilling thought.  The Pashtali had come very close to outright victory.  They’d ignored most of humanity’s colonies, few of which had any real industrial base, and driven straight at Earth, using their new crossroads technology to take their enemies in the rear.  That had been a surprise.  The Alphans had known, only a few months ago, that they were the only ones who could enter and exit multispace without a crossroads.  They hadn’t imagined the Pashtali could do it too … Yasuke muttered a human curse, savouring a word that had no direct equivalent in his tongue.  Every race that thought itself a great power – and even those who didn’t – had been working on the tech, ever since they’d discovered it was possible.  His people should have known that, sooner or later, someone else would crack the secret.  They had the great advantage of knowing it was possible.

The room darkened, the holographic projector displaying the chairman’s face.  A faint flicker of static crossed the image, a grim reminder the conversation was heavily encrypted and yet vulnerable to interception.  The Pashtali would be doing everything in their power to hack into the network and there was no way to be sure, now, they weren’t listening to every word.  He would have sooner returned home and spoken to his government in person, but there just hadn’t been time.  Hopefully, the encryption would minimise the risk.

“Ambassador,” the chairman said.  He was alone.  That was generally a good sign.  “We have reviewed your proposal.”

Yasuke nodded, then waited.

“It is risky,” the chairman said.  “Do you really think we should take the risk?”

There was a time, Yasuke thought coldly, that we didn’t shy away from risk.

He kept that thought off his face.  The chairman – and the government – had too many problems.  The mighty fleet of warcruisers had been badly weakened – in the time it took the Alphans to produce a single ship, the Lupines had turned out hundreds – and the empire was in full retreat, granting clients independence and abandoning colony worlds.  The empire was still mighty, still capable of defending itself, but the days they could send an entire fleet thousands of light years from home were gone.  And they wouldn’t be coming back.

“I believe I argued my case quite clearly,” he said.  “The humans have won a major victory, true, but the war isn’t over.  The Pashtali will regroup, concentrate their forces and resume the offensive … if they have time.  And they will win.  The balance of power is firmly in their favour.”

“Perhaps,” the chairman agreed.  “But what does this have to do with us?”

Yasuke wasn’t sure if the chairman hadn’t read his report, or if he was merely getting the matter on the official record, but he wasn’t inclined to waste time worrying about it.  If the chairman wanted to play games, that was fine as long as Yasuke got what he wanted out of the deal.

“The Pashtali are a Great Power,” he said, calmly.  “If they succeed in enslaving humanity, or even occupying their worlds and banning them from spaceflight, they will be on our borders, in a position to threaten us.  They have already cracked the secret of slipping in and out of multispace without a crossroads.  What else do they have?”

“I was informed their crossroads tech is inferior to ours,” the chairman said.

“Yes,” Yasuke agreed.  “But that doesn’t mean it can’t be effective.”

He leaned forward.  “But if we assist the humans now, we will have a friendly power on our border, the Pashtali will be weakened and we will have fewer problems in the future.”

“The humans cannot win,” the chairman said.

“The Pashtali have already poured out a vast amount of blood and treasure,” Yasuke countered.  “Sooner or later, even they will cut their losses.”

“They may,” the chairman agreed.  “But will that be in time to save our former clients?”

“Our allies,” Yasuke said,  “We aren’t their masters any longer, but we can be their allies.”

“And they will draw us back into the mainstream,” the chairman said.  “We need time to consolidate.”

“Which we can only gain by assisting the human race,” Yasuke insisted.  “The Pashtali will not rest on their laurels, once they have crushed humanity and occupied their worlds.  They will come for us.  They must.  They want to rule the known universe and the only way to do that is to defeat us, before we rebuild and return to the galactic mainstream.”

If we ever do, his thoughts added, silently.  We don’t want to admit it, even to ourselves, but we may have given up.

It was hard to keep his face impassive.  They’d ruled the known galaxies for centuries.  The thought they could be defeated, that they could accept de facto decline, was unthinkable.  And yet, the idea haunted him.  The Pashtali wanted to build an empire.  They had a vigour Yasuke’s ancestors had shared, one their descendents had lost.  And they might never find it again.

“The humans must win,” he said.  “And they cannot do it without our help.”

“So you have said,” the chairman said.  There was a long chilling pause.  “We have debated the issue.  We will assist the humans.  But only to a point.”

He leaned forward.  “Remember that, Ambassador.  Only to a point.”

Yasuke bowed, hiding his relief.  “Yes, Mr. Chairman.  I will not forget.”

Chapter One

Trojan, Deep Space


Captain Leo Patel looked up from his datapad, keeping his face under tight control.  The sensor operator looked too young to be a responsible adult and he kept thinking, at times, that the navy had raided the nurseries and junior schools for recruits.  It was going to hurt the Solar Navy badly, in the months and years to come, that far too many military recruits and training officers had been pulled out of the pipeline and sent to the front, but there was no choice.  Too many officers and crewmen had died in the Battle of Sol, too many ships destroyed or damaged beyond immediate repair.  The human race had never been so close to absolute defeat.

“Yes, Carola?”

The sensor operator glanced at him.  Leo signed inwardly.  Sensor operators were meant to keep their eyes on their consoles at all times, just in case something changed so quickly their original report was no longer accurate.  Leo had been in the navy long enough to know a situation could go from controlled to absolute chaos in the blink of an eye, then be made worse by an officer responding to the first reports and not realising things had already slipped out of control.  He made a mental note to discuss the situation with the academy officers, when they returned home.  They could reduce their focus on spit and polish and concentrate, instead, on honing the skills the recruits needed to survive.

“Captain,” Carola said.  “I picked up a brief flicker of sensor distortion, closing from the rear.”

Leo sucked in his breath.  They were on a well-travelled shipping line, running through the Occupied Zone – the former Occupied Zone, his mind whispered – and leading straight to Terminus.  There’d been surprisingly little traffic when they popped out of the last crossroads and set course for the next, something that bothered him.  There should have been a lot more starships ploughing the spacelanes.  And the fact everything was so quiet suggested … what?

Everyone might be keeping their heads down and hoping to remain unnoticed, he thought, rather drolly.  The independent shippers tried to remain politically neutral, although – with a handful of wars burning through the galaxy – that wasn’t always possible.  Or someone might be deliberately suppressing unwanted trade.

He studied the display, refusing to allow his concerns to show on his face.  The Pashtali had kicked the human race out of the Occupied Zone, before driving on Earth in a desperate bid to win the war before humanity could rally and fight back.  They’d come far too close to suceeding before their fleet had been forced to surrender.  And now … his eyes narrowed as the sensor flickers grew stronger.  The Pashtali had been ominously quiet for the last six months.  The intelligence crews hadn’t known what to make of it.  Leo suspected he knew, now, what the spider-like aliens had been doing.

“Captain?”  Carola looked up, again.  “Should I do a sensor focus?”

“No.”  Leo didn’t have to think about it.  Whoever was coming up behind them didn’t know – yet – they’d been detected.  A regular merchantman wouldn’t have picked up even the slightest hint of their presence until they were well within firing range.  Trojan’s sensors were the finest money could buy and even they hadn’t noticed until it was too late to evade contact and pretend it was just a coincidence.  “Let them think we haven’t spotted them.”

His mind raced.  He knew better than to think there was no contact.  It wasn’t uncommon for random energy flickers to trigger alarms, but the contact was too solid – too artificial – to him to cling to the delusion.  Anyone creeping into attack position was almost definitely hostile … hell, the rules of engagement laid down by the Alphans, and enforced by the rest of the Galactics, would be on his side if he opened fire first and asked questions later.  There was no obligation to let a hostile ship get into point-blank range, not when the first salvo might be the last.  Better to protect his own ship by opening fire on the enemy and swearing blind he’d never seen their ship.

Which might not be possible, he reminded himself.  The rules are for little powers.

He scowled.  He’d been forced to take a course in galactic law before he’d been granted his shipping licence and his instructor had made it clear the rules only applied to those without the power to stand up for themselves.  The Galactics – the Alphans, the Pashtali, the other races that commanded immense military power – could do whatever they liked, while the smaller powers had to follow the rules to the letter.  Even now, the Pashtali were mounting a savage public relations campaign against humanity, insisting the human race was cheating … never mind the immense disparity between the two powers.  Leo ground his teeth in frustration.  The Galactics weren’t stupid.  He doubted any of them really believed the Pashtali.  But the lies provided an excuse to sit back and do nothing while the galactic superpower ground Earth into the dust.

And now someone is coming up behind us, he thought, coldly.  It has to be an enemy ship.

They’d timed it well, he noted.  Trojan couldn’t reach the crossroads and escape before the vectors converged and the enemy ship opened fire, nor could she dart back to the previous crossroads or break contact.  If Trojan had been a proper freighter, if her IFF signal hadn’t been nothing more than a set of artfully-crafted lies, she might be in some trouble.  The freighter was huge, easily twice the size of the average cruiser, but she was as ungainly as a wallowing pig.  There was no hope of breaking contact, not unless the enemy ship chose to let them go.  Leo was fairly sure it wasn’t going to happen.

“Tactical,” he said.  “Run preliminary activation programs.”

“Aye, Captain,” Lieutenant Walker said.  He was an older man recalled to the colours, half his body replaced by cyborg implants that made him look like a patchwork man.  The Solar Navy normally disapproved of such heavy augmentation, but the Solar Navy was too desperate for manpower to care.  Besides, Walker was on a modified freighter, not an actual warship.  “Activation program coming online … now.”

The lights flickered.  Leo gritted his teeth.  The freighter’s design called for two fusion cores – she could operate with one, in a pinch – but the engineers who’d converted her into a Q-Ship had installed four more.  Powering up their main weapon still drained their power reserves, something he’d believed impossible until they’d put their ship through her paces a few short months ago.  It was disconcerting … hell, the risk of suffering a sudden power failure wasn’t the worst of it.  The groundhogs might write books where incoming ships had sensors so capable they could tell when their target was powering up its weapons, but it was impossible … normally.  This time, there would be flickers of radiation when they brought their weapon online.  The radiation shielding should provide some cover – he’d tested the armour thoroughly, during the trials – but it was hard to be sure.  The Pashtali sensors were reputed to be good.  Better than Alphan sensors?  No one knew.

“Beginning charging procedure,” Walker said.  His voice was flat, betraying nothing of his inner turmoil.  They’d get one shot, just one.  If it worked, they’d be heroes; if it failed, they’d be dead.  “Countdown begins … now.”

“Hold fire until they are well within range,” Leo reminded him, as if they hadn’t drilled endlessly for this moment.  “Wait for my command, unless they fire first.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Leo nodded stiffly, keeping his eye on the display.  The enemy ship was closer now, entering missile range.  Too close for his peace of mind, yet too far away for a guaranteed kill.  They had the edge, if they opened fire … what did they want?  Who were they?  Pashtali?  Vulteks?  Pirates?  Or perhaps even scavengers, the last remnants of races who’d been driven from their homeworlds and forced to live on the edge of galactic society?  It was a chilling thought.  If the war was lost, the human race might be reduced to nothing more than a handful of survivors, roaming the galaxy in search of a new home.  And if they found one, their tormentors would be quick to snatch it …

No, he told himself.  That isn’t going to happen.

His eyes never left the enemy ship.  She was still cloaked, her identity hidden behind a masking field, but the tactical computers were slowly putting together a picture of her true nature.  Carola was very good at her job.  The power curves suggested a light cruiser, perhaps an oversized destroyer … Leo wondered, if their opponent was a cruiser, why they were sneaking around rather than simply charging up and opening fire?  It struck him as a little pointless.  Did they suspect Trojan’s true nature?  They might … no, if they did, they’d have held the range open and blown his ship away well before he could retaliate.  His lips twitched with grim amusement.  In hindsight, calling his ship Trojan might have been a mistake.

But then, our naming conventions make no sense to the Galactics, he reminded himself, dryly.  Any more than their naming conventions make sense to us.

“Captain,” Carola said.  “The enemy ship will be in position in two minutes.”

“Three minutes to full charge, sir,” Walker added.  “She might see something …”

Leo nodded, curtly.  His ship’s exterior was no different from the thousands of other human-designed freighters working the spacelanes.  The interior … if they were boarded, they’d have a lot of questions to answer.  Not, he suspected, that they’d ever have the chance.  If a major power realised what they were carrying, they’d probably be disappeared; the ship going to the nearest military shipyard for analysis, while the crew vanished into a black interrogation chamber.  His heart twisted.  He was a brave man, but the thought of having his mind slowly dismantled by alien mind probes was terrifying.  It was never easy to calibrate the probe for different races and a single mistake, committed by aliens with little experience with human minds, would be enough to reduce him to a drooling wreck.  And … he shook his head.  It wouldn’t happen.  He had strict orders to destroy his ship if there was even the slightest chance she’d fall into enemy hands.

And our mysterious friend does want us intact, he thought, grimly.  It wasn’t all bad – it gave him an edge, if the enemy was reluctant to destroy his ship – but it was worrying.  They’d have opened fire by now if they wanted us dead.

His heart thudded as the range continued to close.  The enemy ship was dangerously close.  They were too close for anyone, even the insanely snooty Galactics, to believe they hadn’t been spotted.  The Galactics might think the younger races didn’t know how to get the best out of their borrowed technology, and in some cases they were even right, yet … they were so close that even a simple automated program, with no more adaptive intelligence than a pre-invasion computer, would be sounding the alarm.  And if they picked up a hint of the weapon being aimed at them …

“Captain!”  Carola’s voice rose with alarm.  “They’re decloaking!”

“Calm,” Leo murmured.  “There’s no need for panic.”

He leaned forward, bracing himself, as the enemy ship took shape and form on the display.  A light cruiser … Pashtali in design, although old enough she might have been handed down to the Vulteks or simply sold to a younger race.  The Pashtali could hardly be blamed if their outdated ships eventually wound up in pirate hands, after passing through so many owners they had no way to know where they would eventually land.  He scowled, even though he knew he should be relieved.  Earth was buying every ship it could, without asking too many questions, and toughening up the laws on starship transfers would actually make it harder to defend the homeworld.  But, at the same time, too many ships wound up in pirate hands.  They were a regular plague on the spacelanes …

The console bleeped.  “Sir,” Carola said.  “They just ordered us to heave to and prepare to be boarded.”

Leo raised his eyebrows.  “Did they give us their IFF?”

“No, sir,” Carola said.  “The communication was in GalStandard Two.”

“Interesting,” Leo said.

He considered it for a moment.  The Pashtali used GalStandard Two, and the fact the mystery ship used it suggested she was a Pashtali vessel, but it wasn’t conclusive.  There were quite a few other races who relied on the same artificial language to communicate … his lips twitched.  The Alphans might have made a mistake, when they’d designed languages to allow cross-racial communication.  There was no longer any ambiguity about insults that might, under normal circumstances, have been smoothed over.  And that meant …

“Send them our IFF and manifest,” he ordered.  It was unlikely either would deter the mystery ship, but if they made themselves look a bigger prize the enemy would be reluctant to destroy them.  “And request they allow us to proceed without further ado.”

“Aye, sir,” Carola said.  There was a long pause.  “They’re repeating their earlier command and … missile!  Incoming missile!”

“Aimed to miss,” Walker grunted.  “But close enough to prove they can put a warhead in our hull.”

“Of course.”  Leo watched the missile lance past the hull and dart into the distance, before detonating.  It was a clear warning there was no way the freighter could get out of range, even if she were given a head start.  “Carola, request guarantees our cargo will be unharmed.”

Carola grinned.  “What cargo?”

Leo smiled back.  The manifest was made up out of whole cloth, but he’d put it together with malice aforethought.  If someone accepted it at face value, they’d believe Trojan was carrying valuable goods from Alphan Prime to Terminus, goods already sold to powers capable of making one hell of a fuss if they were stolen or destroyed in transit.  The Pashtali – if the ship was Pashtali – might not dare blow his ship away.  Sure, it would reduce faith in humanity’s ability to ship supplies safely from one side of the galaxy to the other, but if someone worked out what they’d done it might widen the war.  The safest choice, for them, was to capture the ship, then deliver the supplies themselves.  And it would give them all the incentive they needed to keep closing the range.

“They’ve offered their guarantees,” Carola said.  “Sir?”

Leo keyed his console.  “Bring us to all stop, then power down the drive and transfer all power to the main gun,” he ordered.  The range would close rapidly once his ship was seemingly dead in space.  The enemy would reduce speed at once, just to keep from overshooting, but it would take several seconds for them to do it.  “Tactical, are we ready to fire?”

“One minute, Captain,” Walker said.  “The gun is nearly charged.”

“Prepare to open the gunport,” Leo said.  “And order all non-essential crew to the shuttle.”

“Aye, sir,” Carola said.  He could hear the sudden trepidation in her voice.  The shuttle might get away, if the gambit failed, but she would remain on the freighter to the bitter end.  “They’re on their way.”

“Good.”  Trojan’s crew was tiny, compared to a proper warship’s crew, but it had its advantages.  They’d have no difficulty evacuating the crew if the shit hit the fan.  “They are to disconnect as soon as the hatches are closed.”

“Aye, sir.”

The tactical console bleeped.  “Sir,” Walker said.  “The gun is ready to fire.”

“Angle us into firing position,” Leo ordered.  “And open the gunport.”

His heart raced.  The armour had kept them safe, for the moment, but that was about to change.  The radiation spike would be impossible to miss, once the gunport was open.  How quickly would the enemy react?  If they had their weapons dialled in on his hull, the best he could hope for would be a mutual kill.  If …

“Energy spike,” Carola snapped.  “Captain, they’re preparing to fire!”

“Fire,” Leo snapped.

Walker tapped his console.  The light dimmed, again, as the burner unleashed a hellish storm of energy into the enemy hull.  It melted like snowflakes in hell, the ravaging fury stabbing through layers of armour and ripping through the vessel’s interior as though it were made of paper.  He sucked in his breath as the enemy drive field destabilised, an instant before the burner sliced through the fusion cores, depowering the ship.  He was mildly surprised the ship hadn’t exploded.  The sheer power he’d unleashed was terrifying.

No wonder the Alphans ruled the galaxy for so long, he thought, morbidly.  They had the biggest sticks in the known universe.

“Check for survivors,” he ordered.  There was no time to waste.  They’d just lit up the entire system.  If there was someone watching from a safe distance, they’d know what had happened.  “And then prepare to resume our course.”

“No survivors, as far as I can tell,” Carola said.  “What about their datacores?”

Leo shook his head.  Datacores were hardened, but not that hardened.  Besides, the enemy interior had been turned into a melted nightmare.  The odds of finding a datacore in good condition were roughly akin to his odds of winning the intergalactic lottery and living long enough to claim the money.  There might be something remaining, if they had time to go through the wreckage with a fine-toothed comb, but they didn’t.  The enemy ship was a dead hulk.  Better to leave her death a mystery, rather than reveal what he’d done.

“No point,” he said.  He was tempted to search for genetic samples, in hopes of determining who’d flown the ship, but it was pointless too.  The interior was too badly scorched.  There’d be nothing of the crew left, not even atoms.  “Helm, resume course.  We’ll report in when we reach the next relay station.”

His lips twitched.  It wasn’t much, not in the grand scheme of things, but it would hopefully convince the Pashtali they needed to either stop harassing humanity’s shipping or devote more ships and resources to prowling the spacelanes.  Hopefully … he felt a sudden surge of hatred as his ship got underway, leaving the dead hulk behind.  The Pashtali had jumped on a weakened human race and come very close to winning outright.  Even now, the war remained in the balance …

… And he feared, despite everything, the end could not be long delayed.

Book Review: Tearmoon Empire (Vols 1-7)

19 May

Book Review: Tearmoon Empire (Vols 1-7)

Surrounded by the hate-filled gazes of her people, the selfish princess of the fallen Tearmoon Empire, Mia, takes one last look at the bleeding sun before the guillotine blade falls… Only to wake back up as a twelve-year-old! With time rewound and a second chance at life dropped into her lap, she sets out to right the countless wrongs that plague the ailing Empire. Corrupt governance? Check. Border troubles? Check. Natural calamities and economic strife? Check. My, seems like a lot of work. Hard work and Mia don’t mix, so she seeks out the aid of others, starting with her loyal maid, Anne, and the brilliant minister, Ludwig. Together, they strive day and night to restore the Empire. Little by little, their tireless efforts begin to change the course of history, pushing the whole of the continent toward a new future. And why did the selfish princess have a change of heart, you ask? Simple—she didn’t. She’s just terrified of the guillotine. Dying hurt like hell, and Mia hates pain more than work.

-Book One Blurb

My opinion of light novels and manga has always been a little mixed.  Some of them are very good – Death Note, for example – while others, I suspect, don’t translate very well.  I enjoy Ascendance of a Bookworm, but there’s something about the style that makes it hard to read and I can’t put my finger on it.  They also shift between formats.  The Ascendance of a Bookworm light novels work very well, but the manga comics aren’t so detailed; Death Note woks much better as a manga than an animated or live-action show.  I stumbled into the Tearmoon Empire books more or less by accident and found myself hooked.  They may be based in a fictional world, but they are definitely of interest to alternate history fans.

The basic concept of the series is that Princess Mia, a rough expy for Marie Antoinette, is dethroned by a revolution (following a major famine) held in prison for several years and then meets her end under the guillotine.   And then she wakes up as she was in her early teens with an opportunity to do it all again.  She remembers the final moments so clearly that she is willing to do anything, anything at all, to avoid being executed again.

This is a difficult task, because the problems facing the empire are vast and, in the original timeline, Mia’s personality flaws made them worse.  She was – and still is, to a degree – ignorant, lazy, greedy and selfish.  She did come out of her shell a little, in her last few years, but it was far too late to do more than struggle before the end.  The crop failures and famines led to disease, deprivation and eventual revolution (led by someone who Mia bullied harshly at school)  Mia knows this to be true, but can she stop it?

She doesn’t know, but she’s determined to try.  This time around, she makes allies both at home – including Ludwig, this world’s counterpart of Jacques Necker – and at the school, which is more of a meeting places for aristocrats and a handful of commoners.  She’s afraid of some of the students who will turn on her, in the first timeline, but somehow she finds herself making new friends and allies.  She does this so well, partly by accident, that she earns the title of Great Sage of the Empire.  Her insights into people – spurred by the first timeline – give her a reputation for perceptiveness that is simply not true.

Indeed, most of the humour of the books comes from the discrepancy between Mia’s true thoughts and how her friends and allies (and even some of her enemies) perceive her.  Mia reaches a pedestal too high for any of her closest allies to lose faith in her, even when she is clearly driven by selfishness.  They are, in a sense, gas-lighting themselves.  (Although, to be fair, it is a very practical kind of selfishness; she’s aware of just how easy it is to make enemies and goes out of her way to try to avoid it.)  It also leads to some amusing moments when her romantic letters to her crush are intercepted and read – the spies assume the fluff is a secret code, rather than soppy exchanges between two youngsters in love.  The narrator is the only person who is aware of this discrepancy and regularly highlights it.

These books are not too deep, to be honest, but they do make a lot of good points.  The kingdom is in serious danger of a famine, at least in part because the aristocracy look down on farmers and refuse to assign more than the bare minimum of land to growing crops.  The public health system is non-existent – Mia shames the aristocracy into funding a orphanage and hospice for the poor – and education is terrible.  She works hard to try to fix the problems, while ducking other problems; somehow, she blunders through the world and does things, in a manner that reminds me of Darth Jar-Jar, that have astonishingly positive results.  And in this case it is luck.

The romance is fluffy and, at least at first, rather silly.  OTL’s Mia was in love with a prince who disliked her, because of her entitled personality.  The second time around, she falls for a young prince who is a much better match, but the relationship is often cringe-worthy because most real-life teen romance is cringe-worthy.  It gets a little annoying at times.

The side characters are also fleshed out, with hints of what they were like in the original timeline contrasted with the new.  Some characters see dreams of themselves as they were and find them disturbing, even wrong.  There are also suggestions the future timeline is constantly changing, with each of her improvements leading to different timelines … some more worrying than the rest.   

The series does have a weakness, and that is the introduction of an ancient conspiracy to tear down the empire and civilisation itself.  I understand the temptation to blame everything on evildoers, but it is a mistake.  A great many problems are caused by incompetence, short-sightedness and a simple failure to ensure good leadership.  Blaming one’s woes on shadowy figures merely deflects one from solving the real problem.  The empire brought most of its problems on itself, as did the real-life France of Louis and Marie Antoinette.  There was no one else to blame.

A somewhat lesser weakness is that there is no real tension.  Mia has a knack, in this timeline, for winning people over and making her enemies into friends.  There’s no real sense she’s ever in any major danger, even when she thrusts herself into situations that should threaten her. 

Overall, though, the series is very good, if you like light-hearted books which don’t take themselves too seriously.  (The manga comics are less good, because you don’t see innermost thoughts and suchlike.)  If you want to try, you can find them on Amazon or direct from J-Club. 

Out Now: Endeavour (Ark Royal XVIII)!

14 May

For generations, the human race has feared an encounter with an alien race so advanced their technology might as well be magic.  And yet, no such alien race has been encountered …

… Until now.

During the Virus War, human explorers discovered proof of alien technology that was beyond human understanding, technology so strange it was impossible even to guess at its function.  Now, in the aftermath of the war, HMS Endeavour embarks on a mission to the core of the alien civilisation …

… And discovers a mystery older than the human race itself.

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