Monday, 10 May 2021

Warrior: 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. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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