Book Review: Lancejack by Phillip Richards

Phillip Richards is one of the more interesting hard military S/F authors that I've come across recently. I read his first book, C.R.O.W., with considerable interest, and found it to be really rather good. Richards has a real knack for describing scenes of hellish warfare with the detail, depth, and character that can only be delivered by someone who has actually been there. I thought he did a truly phenomenal job in describing the horrors of war from the point of view of an individual soldier, and I was definitely looking forward to the follow-up to his first effort.

That follow-up comes in the form of Lancejack, which follows young Lance Corporal Andy Moralee, freshly returned from a non-comm officer's training course to the now largely pacified world of New Earth. LCpl Moralee joins his new platoon under a new commanding officer, with whom he doesn't exactly see eye-to-eye, and finds himself second-in-command of a squad whose leader turns out to be, shall we say, less than adequate for the job. Along the way, he reunites with his old friend Westy, but finds himself engaged in fighting a whole new kind of war.

That war is being waged directly against the guerilla elements of the population of New Earth, who are determined to resist foreign invasion from whatever source- whether it be the Chinese, the Europeans, or anyone else. Reading about the New Earth Liberation Front (called "Nellies" by the troopers), one cannot help but think that Richards is basing his writing on his own experiences serving on the front lines against insurgents in Afghanistan or Iraq. These insurgents, however, have one huge advantage that their real-life modern counterparts do not: extraordinary skill with, and complete access to, the same kind of highly advanced technology that the Union itself has. New Earth, it turns out, is a major manufacturing base for the entire Union, and as such its strategic value is immense. For this reason, Andy Moralee finds himself swept up in a much larger anti-insurgency campaign where it is nearly impossible to tell friend from neutral from foe.

Reading this book, it instantly becomes clear that Richards has lost none of his skill in writing very fast-paced, very believable combat scenes. Richards has a real ability to take you by the scruff of your neck and dump you right in the middle of the frantic, frenetic action. You really do understand the raw terror that grips a man when he sees his mates getting shot to pieces around him. You really begin to understand the nature of war in close quarters. You really will start to see the hard choices that soldiers have to make in the field, which the rest of us can clinically dissect later on because we were nowhere near the action.

You also begin to understand something of how soldiers think, particularly in terms of the chain of command. And here there is a valuable lesson to be learned in terms of game and masculinity. Moralee quickly finds himself dealing with a completely incompetent leader, and swiftly decides to step in and take over the role of squad leader when he realises that the man who should be doing the job, can't. This is not, contrary to what one might be tempted to think, an Alpha male behavioural pattern- Alphas don't wait for an incompetent man to show that he is incompetent, they insist on leading from the beginning. This is rather a Sigma male trait. Sigmas are the archetypical lone wolves, who simply wish to be left alone and will actively resist and attempts to infringe upon our autonomy of thought and spirit- and who will readily defer leadership positions to their superiors, right up to the point where our superiors prove to be incompetent. At that point, a Sigma male will simply step in and assume leadership, without bothering to ask permission. Throughout the book, Moralee demonstrates pronounced Sigma traits- his desire to be alone to grieve his fallen comrades; his lack of empathy for many of his fellow soldiers, which sits at odds with his desire to protect his men; and his willingness to say what needs to be said, sometimes heedless of the cost. The game lesson here is simple: if you want to be an Alpha male, you must learn how to lead your men, and that means earning their trust through repeated and concrete demonstrations of your superiority and skills.

Relative to the first book, Lancejack is much more mature, more balanced, more nuanced. It does, however, suffer from one rather annoying defect: the plot is a bit less easy to follow than the previous book's. There is a reason for this. It turns out that one of Andy's former comrades is mixed up with the rebellion, but things are not necessarily as they appear. Corporal Evans, one of the heroes from the previous book who simply absconded at the end of that book, shows up here repeatedly, and the mystery surrounding his presence and his mission on New Earth is slowly unravelled as the book hurtles towards its rather dramatic conclusion. All that said, it is still a much more labyrinthine journey than the one taken in the previous work, and I think the book suffers for it. Because of all of the plot twists, it is actually rather difficult to keep track of exactly who is one who's side, and exactly who should be shooting at what. In the hands of some highly skilled authors, this is not necessarily a problem- I'm thinking of the screenwriters of the legendary classic film "Where Eagles Dare" here- but when you're trying to describe a series of pitched battles deep in enemy territory where the enemy could be the civilian around the corner, it is much harder to keep track of things.

All told, this is still an outstanding work of fiction. Everything that made the first book great is still very much intact. The author describes the technology of the future with serious skill, weaving a very believable world in which you have magnetically accelerated hypervelocity dart rifles spitting out tiny steel darts, with troopers in gel-lined and self-sealing body armour with fully integrated suit bionics and HUD telemetry, and you completely believe all of it. Anyone who is a big fan of the HALO universe will definitely like the way the gadgetry is dealt with here. The combat scenes are described with the power and depth that only a true soldier is capable of delivering. The nature of man's relationship with his fellows, when forged and moulded in the fires of war, is seen in detail here for the complex and difficult picture that it really is. The flaws of this book do not stop it from being an excellent, if rather fast, read. I can't wait for the next book in the series.

Didact's Verdict: 4/5, not quite as brilliant as the first book but still a damn fine hard mil-S/F novel. Well worth reading and tremendous value for money.

Buy or download Lancejack here

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