BattleTech

Werthead

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The Warrior Trilogy Book 1: En Garde by Michael A. Stackpole

The year 3027. Three hundred years ago, the great Star League, which united all the worlds of humanity in a peaceful, golden age of technology, fell into ruin. From the chaos emerged the five Successor States: the Lyran Commonwealth, the Draconis Combine, the Federated Suns, the Free Worlds League and the Capellan Confederation, each ruled by a Great House. At the centre of them all and controlling ancient, holy Terra is ComStar, a mercantile consortium turned religious institution and the arbiters of interstellar communications. Political intrigue is rife, and warfare is conducted by vast, towering war machines called BattleMechs. The period of chaos known as the Third Succession War has come to an end and the Great Houses are rebuilding, but stability is no guarantee of safety. The Allard family, in noble service to House Davion of the Federated Suns, is placed in the centre of huge events when one scion is disgraced and sent into exile on the game world of Solaris VII and another joins the legendary mercenary army known as the Kell Hounds.

BattleTech is the franchise that stubbornly won't die. Starting life in 1984 as a tabletop miniatures game, it quickly spun off a series of over one hundred novels and more than a dozen popular video games (most famously, the MechWarrior and MechCommander series) before petering out in the late 2000s after an ill-advised reboot (the Dark Age setting). After a few years in the doldrums, it suddenly spun back into life with a new edition of the tabletop game and two well-received video games: 2018's turn-based BattleTech and 2019's real-time simulator MechWarrior 5 (which is getting a wider release this month on Steam and Xbox). Capitalising on the moment, franchise-holders Catalyst Game Labs have started making the immense backlog of novels available again vie ebook and Amazon's print-on-demand service.

Arguably the best-known and regarded of the BattleTech authors is Michael A. Stackpole, whom in later years would gain much greater fame and success as a Star Wars author (particularly of the X-Wing series, alongside the late, great Aaron Allston). Stackpole has built a career on writing fast-paced but also character-based military SF and fantasy. Like Dan Abnett (his Warhammer 40,000 counterpart, or the nearest equivalent), Stackpole knows that writing good military SF isn't just about the action and explosions, but creating interesting characters and telling the story through their eyes.

En Garde, the first book in the Warrior Trilogy, was the fifth-published novel in the BattleTech line but is widely regarded as the best novel to start with. The earlier books were published when the details of the setting were still being worked out and are prone to bouts of early-installment weirdness. They were also not as well-written as Stackpole's work, and tended to be smaller in scale. In contrast, En Garde is a book at times so epic it becomes dizzying.

The novel packs more storylines and characters into its modest 320 pages than some 1,000-page epic fantasy novels. At the start of the book it appears that we'll be following Justin Allard as he tries to clear his name after being wrongfully exiled as a traitor. However, Allard's experiences rapidly turn him into an apparently rage-fuelled antihero as he murders and backstabs his way through the crime-ridden underbelly of the gladiatorial world of Solaris VII. His much more sympathetic brother Daniel, a member of the Kell Hounds, finds himself on the front lines when his mercenary company is targeted for extermination by the ruthless intelligence agency of the Draconis Combine. Elsewhere, very high-level political intrigue unfolds when Princess Melissa Steiner of the Lyran Commonwealth has to travel incognito to the Federated Suns to discuss an alliance with Prince Hanse Davion, a prospect bitterly opposed by the other three Great Houses and many factions within their own empires. Yet another subplot follows a dishonored MechWarrior of the Draconis Combine who is offered the chance at redemption by forming and training an elite new military cadre (a fascinating idea which, unfortunately, mostly happens off-page). On top of all that, there is a framing story revolving around the priest-businessmen of ComStar, who preach neutrality and serving all of mankind's needs but, predictably, are up to their elbows in everyone else's business and trying to pull everyone's strings.

Stuffed to the gills with political intrigue and crunchy, mech-on-mech action, En Garde moves fast. As Stackpole's first novel and written under an unholy deadline (the entire trilogy, totalling north of 300,000 words, was written in under ten months), the novel lacks the polish of his later works. There's a noted prevalence of exclamation marks, especially in Justin's storyline: Justin is a big fan of making threatening speeches to his enemies, which are sometimes icily effective and sometimes feel like a five-year-old on the playground explaining why he's so tough and about as intimidating. Dialogue favours exposition, which is often clunky but at least does a good job of explaining what the hell is going on. I do feel like an appendix of in-universe terms and maybe some head-of-chapter preambles explaining the factions (like those in Frank Herbert's Dune) could have been a more elegant way of getting this information across to the audience, rather than a few too many "As you already know but I will explain anyway..." style conversations.

But Stackpole makes many of the characters complex and interesting: Gray Noton is initially presented as an antagonist but becomes a much richer character as the novel progresses, whilst expertly flipping Justin's storyline from a predictable "clearing his name" narrative to a more elemental story of utter vengeance makes for a much more morally murky storyline. A few characters do get short shrift, but hopefully they will rise more to the fore in the succeeding volumes of the trilogy.

There are a couple of other issues stemming from the background material more than Stackpole's writing. The Capellan Confederation and Draconis Combine are fairly obviously based on China and Japan, and a few wince-inducing stereotypes ensue, such as House Kurita's warriors being obsessed with honour, relaxing in tea houses and sometimes inexplicably wielding katanas against enemies with assault rifles. To be fair this actually plays a key role in the storyline, with Justin's half-Capellan heritage marking him out for racist abuse, but it's unsurprising that later iterations of the BattleTech franchise beat a retreat from these kind of stereotypes, with the Confederation and Combine receiving a great deal more nuance. It doesn't help that they are presented as the "bad guys" at this stage, whilst Houses Davion and Steiner, more European-American in inspiration, are the "good guys." Very fortunately, Stackpole upends this idea as soon as the very next book in favour of the setting's more familiar equal-opportunities moral murkiness, with all the factions having good and bad elements to them.

Warrior: En Garde (***½) is a slightly dated but still readable slice of pulp military SF, with interesting characters and a fascinating universe (very much Game of Thrones meets Pacific Rim, with a light dusting of Dune). Some clumsy exposition and iffy dialogue are offset by a relentlessly readable pace and some very enjoyable action set-pieces.
 

Rodders

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Interesting. I've heard to BattleTech, but i just thought it was a RPG and didn't realise that there were so many books.
 

Werthead

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Interesting. I've heard to BattleTech, but i just thought it was a RPG and didn't realise that there were so many books.
It started life as a tabletop wargame in 1984 - think Warhammer 40,000 but with only 4 miniatures per side rather than dozens - and later spun off a tabletop roleplaying game called MechWarrior, which was also the name of the spin-off video game series (of which the best-known is 1995's MechWarrior 2, used as a graphical showcase for Windows 95 and then the very first graphics cards; MechWarrior 5 came out in 2019).

The background lore/fluff was just there to explain why people were stomping around in giant mechs, but the writers went way, way overboard in creating the background material. Around the time the game launched Dragonlance had become a huge success through a mixture of gaming modules and novels and the FASA guys realised they could do the same thing, so launched the novel line which wound up being way more popular than the actual game itself (as is often the case). At their height the novels were selling hundreds of thousands of copies per book in the late 1980s (around the same time that the various D&D novel lines were doing the same thing, and Robotech as well). They fell way back from that but even in the early 2000s were reliably selling several tens of thousands of copies apiece. The line eventually petered out less due to poor sales - the recent novel relaunch in the wake of the new video games has been successful - and more due to the licencing rights getting tied up between multiple companies (Topps, WizKids, Microsoft, Piranha and Catalyst Game Studios), though that seems to have been straightened out now.
 

G.T.

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I've read a decent number of the Battletech books over the years, I like the stompy mech action I guess. I agree some authors are much better than others, it's the same with the Warhammer books. I particularly enjoyed the Legend of the Jade Phoenix series and the Gray Death Legion books.

I've played most of the games too. The recent Battletech by Harebrained Schemes is pretty good. Next on my list is to try out the Mechwarrior 5 from Piranha.

My all-time favourite in the games series is Mechwarrior: Mercenaries.
 

Werthead

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I've played most of the games too. The recent Battletech by Harebrained Schemes is pretty good. Next on my list is to try out the Mechwarrior 5 from Piranha.

My all-time favourite in the games series is Mechwarrior: Mercenaries.
MechWarrior 5 is excellent but the game has some flaws in AI and spawning which have been fixed by the modding community. The vanilla version of the game is okay, but modded up it becomes one of the best games in the series.

Hopefully they're going to allow modding for the Xbox version, because without it they're going to run into problems.
 

Rodders

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How do these compare to other books with similar themes?

I've read Dan Abnett's Titanicus and thoroughly enjoyed it, although i suspect that such a comparison might be a little unfair.
 

Werthead

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Stover is certainly the Abnett of BattleTech, though he's not quite as accomplished. I'd say he's similar in the general depiction of characters living in a time of warfare, though Stover's perhaps a tad clunkier with his dialogue.
 

Werthead

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The Warrior Trilogy Book 2: Riposte by Michael A. Stackpole

3028. The Inner Sphere has been rocked by the news that Prince Hanse Davion, ruler of the Federated Suns, is to wed Melissa Steiner, the Archon-Designate and heir to the Lyran Commonwealth. This union will unite almost half of the human race under one banner. The Draconis Combine, the Free Worlds League and the Capellan Confederation are opposed to the union but, after a failed assassination attempt on Melissa's life risks open war, seem powerless to stop it. As the governments of humanity gather on Terra for the wedding of the century, former enemies find themselves united in common cause as they begin to realise that ComStar, the priesthood-conglomerate that rules humanity's homeworld, has been keeping a dark secret from them...

Picking up after the events of En Garde, Riposte continues Michael A. Stackpole's Warrior Trilogy. Set in the BattleTech universe - think Game of Thrones meets Pacific Rim - this trilogy is a wildly ambitious work which sets to tell the stories of both individuals and cultures clashing a thousand years in the future, when wars are fought with building-sized robotic war machines called BattleMechs. En Garde was a fun but extremely busy novel which had more storylines and character arcs going on than most thousand-page epic fantasies, making for a novel with a cracking pace but on occasion could feel rushed,

Riposte calms down that pace and has a bit more time to smell the roses. There's still a lot going on but it's mostly a continuation of the first book's storylines rather than introducing new ones, allowing the story to breathe a lot more.

The book is divided into two general sections. The first section, before the wedding, is mostly setup as we rejoin the characters. The Kell Hounds mercenary group are recovering from the tough battle they fought in the first volume, Andrew Redburn's meteoric career rise is continuing and Justin Xiang (formerly Allard) has been recruited to serve in the Capellan Confederation's intelligence division, where he now directly contests the plans of his father, the Federated Suns' intelligence chief. This section is low on action but high on intrigue, and is mostly well-handled.

The wedding is the centrepiece of the novel and shows how you can use a wedding in an SF novel to completely upend the balance of power in a story without murdering everyone present (cough). The wedding arguably remains the most notable gamechanging moment in the BattleTech universe (or maybe the second, after the events covered in the subsequent Blood of Kerensky trilogy), even being live-reenacted at GenCon 1988 as a clever way of kicking off the BattleTech miniatures battle tournament. It's a fun scene which, oddly, we don't get to see the full events of, with Stackpole choosing to cut away at the key moment to events elsewhere and we only see the aftermath in flashback, which is mildly disappointing. It does make the second part of the novel much more of an all-out war novel, with major characters in action on the front and setting things up for the concluding part of the trilogy.

Some of the weaknesses of the first novel remain - the book veers at times towards melodrama and pulp, entertainingly realised but old-fashioned by today's standards - but others are solved. The first novel made it appear that Houses Steiner and Davion (based on European powers) were the "good guys" and Houses Liao and Kurita (based on Asian powers) were the "bad guys" (House Marik continues to mostly be ignored at this stage), This book throws that into considerable doubt and makes the setting more morally grey across the board, which is more interesting, and instead encourages readers to sympathise with individual characters rather than their polities. Another weakness is that some key characters from Book 1, most notably Melissa Steiner, all but vanish in this second volume, making their storylines feel curtailed.

Still, Warrior: Riposte (***½) is a fun action-SF novel set in a well-realised universe of giant stompy mechs fighting other giant stompy mechs.
 

Werthead

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Stover is certainly the Abnett of BattleTech, though he's not quite as accomplished. I'd say he's similar in the general depiction of characters living in a time of warfare, though Stover's perhaps a tad clunkier with his dialogue.
Stover? Sorry, I meant Stackpole. Stover (Matt) is a better writer than either Stackpole or Abnett.
 

Werthead

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The Warrior Trilogy Book 3: Coupé by Michael A. Stackpole

The Inner Sphere has erupted in the Fourth Succession War. The forces of the Federated Suns have launched a devastating assault on the Capellan Confederation in reprisal for an attempt to assassinate the ruling prince, whilst the Federation's allies in the Lyran Commonwealth have launched spoiling raids to stop the Draconis Combine and Free Worlds League from coming to the Confederation's aid. Whilst Capella's defences crumble and recalcitrant member worlds take advantage of the chaos to declare independence, Chancellor Maximilian Liao has developed plans for a bold strike far behind the lines to halt the offensive in its tracks, but endanger the entire economic future of the Inner Sphere in the process. Whilst the Federation rallies scratch units to fight a final, desperate battle, the Kell Hounds and the Genyosha agree to an honourable duel to end their long-running feud.

Following up on the events of En Garde and Riposte, Coupe concludes the events of Micheal A. Stackpole's Warrior Trilogy. The first major "core" work in the BattleTech universe, this trilogy redraws the borders of the five major powers and advances the timeline through the first major military conflict to take place during the setting's "present day" timeframe. Stackpole is juggling a lot of factions, characters and stories here, as he has throughout the entire trilogy, and manages the admirable job of retaining a core focus whilst also telling an epic story on an enormous scale.

It's also a book with a lot of variety in the storytelling: Andrew Redburn and his mercenaries fighting on the front line, Justin Xiang walking a political tightrope at the heart of the Confederation's intelligence network, Prince Hanse Davion having to retain sympathy and support whilst he undertakes an effective war of aggression, the struggles of the Genyosha as they debate their loyalty to the sometimes-duplicitous House Kurita with the demands of honour, and Morgan Hasek-Davion's struggles to balance his desire to fight on the front lines with the needs of his family, to which he is the only heir.

Stackpole orchestrates this enormous story with impressive grace, knowing when to focus on a storyline and when to back away. There is still too much story here for one volume or even one trilogy, and other books and authors fill in some details which are skipped over here: Robert Charrette's Heir to the Dragon explains why Theodore Kurita is suddenly such a big deal, for example, whilst the hard-to-find Wolves on the Border explains why Wolf's Dragoons have such a hate-on for the Draconis Combine, enough for the highly-reputed honourable company to betray their former employers and plunge their border into chaos (the Dragoons themselves have some oddities which aren't fully explained until Stackpole's subsequent Blood of Kerensky trilogy). This is both a way of letting other stories get filled in whilst making people buy more BattleTech books, which was a great idea for the publisher in 1989 but is not as effective in 2021, when many of those other books are unavailable.

There are other weaknesses: a few characters are killed off whom I think we were supposed to feel quite bad about, but because they only got a fairly nominal amount of development through these three very busy-but-short novels, these don't always land very well. There's a few eyebrow-raising coincidences, and the whole thing is of course old-fashioned space opera pulp, which some may feel has dated more badly than others. Fortunately, this novel increases its predecessor's achievements in rolling back the stereotypes and increasing the complexity and nuance of the factions.

Overall, Warrior: Coupe (***½) matches its predecessors in being a solid novel which delivers on political intrigue, splendid action sequences and fun characters.
 

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