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 (CW: TVTropes link). 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 Anglo-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. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.