Phil Parker (tigertoy) wrote,
Phil Parker

Book review: Freehold

Today's book review is Freehold by Michael Z. Williamson.

The only reason I bought this book is that I've known the author for years. Mad Mike, as he's known in fandom, is well-known for selling sharp pointy things (some of which he makes himself), and formerly for running Moderation parties. I had not been aware that he wrote novels too. This is his first published book, unless I've been more securely under my rock than usual, so I decided to support him.

The story takes place a few hundred years in the future. Interstellar travel is commonplace, and Earth has several dozen colonies. Earth itself, along with most of the colony worlds, are dominated by an authoritarian bureaucracy called the United Nations. Other than easy interstellar travel, Williamson's technology is pretty similar to what we have today.

Given Mike's outspoken political views, it's not a total shock that the first chunk of the book is mostly a Libertarian tract. At the beginning of the book, the heroine Kendra Pacelli discovers that she's been implicated in a military procurement scandal. She knows she's innocent, but also knows that she won't have a chance of proving it; since she's been tipped off in the nick of time by a friend, she runs to the embassy of one of the independent colony worlds, the Freehold of Grainne. After putting Kendra through serious security, the Freehold people decide to give her asylum and allow her to emigrate. The first third or so of the book is devoted to showing off the Libertarian utopia that is Grainne and Kendra's culture shock. If you're of the Libertarian persuasion already, you'll probably see a society as working just the way a society should and would if only the evil government weren't in the way; if you think the Libertarians are dangerous kooks, you'll see a crazy pipe dream that wouldn't hold together for five minutes populated with real human beings; and to the extent that you're somewhere in the middle, you'll probably see a society that sounds awfully nice, but have serious misgivings that it would really work out that neatly and easily.

At this point, the focus of the story turns military. Kendra ends up joining the Grainne army. Starting with a training program that strikes me as way beyond what humans could succeed at, and going on to actual military campaigns, much of the rest of the novel is devoted to exploring the difference between an elite military that is genuinely respected by its society and a mediocre military held in contempt by its society. This involves plenty of people getting shot and things getting blown up; if you don't enjoy military SF, you won't want to read the book.

Because I don't want to give away any more of the plot, I don't want to go into any more details. Williamson does bring up several moral points about war that are worth thinking about, and has his characters reach conclusions that they live with without trying to present those conclusions as universal truth.

On a page by page basis, Williamson kept me entertained and engaged. While not deathless prose, it's well enough written that I didn't have to struggle to tell what was going on. There's a coherent plot through the whole book, the things that happen are mostly plausible, and Kendra at least is a sympathetic and interesting character. The problem with this book is that Williamson has a lot that he's trying to say, and while he only falls into blatant lecturing in a couple of passages, he does beat you over the head with his message. If you're sympathetic to the message, or at least willing to listen, it's readable, but if you either disagree with what he's selling or insist on a more subtle vehicle, this book is not for you. If the publishing industry gives him the chance, Williamson just might mature into a Libertarian David Weber.

I'm having trouble giving this book a rating, because I *did* enjoy it, but I also found a lot of flaws, and I know the flaws will bother a lot of people more than they did me. I guess I'll give it an 8 out of 10 -- but if you're deciding whether to read it or not, please read the review and not just the rating.
Tags: book review, michael z williamson, sf
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