I originally did not want to read this book.
The book was marketed, quite clearly, as a way of answering the question of whether women could actually fight effectively, in combat, and do the job as well as if not better than men can. Personally, I have experienced about as much of that nonsense as I care to handle through various media that I read, watch, and play- as I've said before, even my beloved HALO universe is heavily steeped in this equalitarian garbage that says that men and women are equally capable of serving in front-line combat with absolutely no loss of effectiveness whatsoever.
The reality, of course, is completely different. The hard fact is that women simply cannot serve in front-line combat with anything like the effectiveness, skill, or esprit-de-corps of men. Women lack the physical strength, stamina, and willpower of men in the field- and far more importantly, they are far less capable of forming the bonds of brotherhood and camaraderie that are so important for men in the field.
Clearly, then, when I started reading this book, I had already made up my mind about the questions that the book was attempting to answer.
It is to Col. Kratman's immense credit, then, that not only did he refuse to duck the hard questions and glaring problems that are presented by women serving in front-line combat units, but he crafted an intelligent, interesting, and entertaining story in the process.
In fact, you are doing yourself, and Col. Kratman, a disservice if you listen to that original impulse and refuse to read this book, simply because of its subject matter.
The Amazon Legion is part of the Carrera series, of course, and is in most ways a sequel, of sorts, to the third book in that series, The Lotus Eaters. Thing is, though, that this book is really in many ways "sandwich filler"- sitting as it does right between The Lotus Eaters and Come and Get Them in terms of plot and storyline.
In the events of the third book, Patricio Carrera and his adopted home of Balboa have setup a powerful, effective government along the lines of a timocracy- built, maintained, and advanced by military veterans who have served in the Balboan Legio del Cid, now greatly expanded into a truly formidable comprehensive military force. In the process, Balboa has inadvertently become a sort of socialist paradise- except that unlike most socialist governments, in this one people have to earn their particular privileges and rights. The Balboans hire out their Legions to other nations and conduct extremely effective, and extremely brutal, anti-narcotic operations throughout the Hispanic states to the south, with the view of destroying the flow of drug traffic through their country once and for all.
Throughout all of this, the ultimate goal of the Legion is always kept in mind: to force an armed confrontation with the tranzis of the Tauran Union, their allies the Zhong, and finally with the Earthpigs orbiting in the UN Peace Fleet above Terra Nova.
Of course, not everyone is thrilled with this turn of events, least of all the corrupt oligarchy of the old government. With the assistance of a traitor in the Legion's midst, the old guard attempts a coup, which is thwarted largely by Carrera's own wife, Lourdes.
And in the background, Balboa marches relentlessly, inevitably, towards the planned war with the TU.
The fourth book starts right in the middle of the action, when that war has already broken out- actually, it starts with a scene that is woven into the fifth book's narrative towards the end of that book. It showcases the women of the Tercio Amazona fighting to take a hill occupied by the Tauran Union's forces in Balboa, with horrific casualties, and then flashes back to the origins of the legion itself.
Of the writing, story, plot, and characters, little more need be said- this is Tom Kratman's work, and Tom has proven three times on the trot now that he knows how to write a damn good novel. This one is no exception. The storytelling is fast and fluid, the characters are interesting without being overwhelming in numbers or voice, and the plot is... well, it's a plot, and it sticks together, and it never gets lost up its own arse. Beyond that, it's a darn good war story, which is about the most that one can say about it.
The true value of this book does not lie in the storytelling, as good as that is. The real meat of the book lies in the way it wrestles with several very thorny questions and attempts to come up with realistic answers.
For instance, the book asks whether or not it would be possible to put together a combat unit of explicitly homosexual individuals, where male homosexual marriage is in fact permitted and even encouraged. The answer is, "yes, sort of"- because the model used for the Tercio Gorgidas is the Theban Sacred Band, which grew to be one of the most respected and feared fighting formations in all of ancient Greece until Philip of Macedon finally broke it at Chaeronea.
There are difficult questions asked about whether or not women could even try to form a cohesive military unit, let alone whether they would succeed. If you don't want to read through the whole book to find out what Col. Kratman thinks, then read the afterword to the book, which is posted as a separate article on the Baen Books forums as The Amazon's Right Breast- the original title posited for this book- and which crystalises the reasons why Col. Kratman wrote this book in the first place. Col. Kratman asks very clearly whether it would be possible to overcome female deficiencies in strength, size, stamina, and especially in their ability to create esprit-de-corps, and thereby create a true fighting military unit that would not be destroyed in its first encounter with the enemy.
Col. Kratman's very frank, meticulously researched, exceptionally intelligent answer is, "yes- IF AND ONLY IF the following preconditions are met". This book is as much about discussing those preconditions as it is about the hell of war.
The book also asks hard questions of the reader in terms of his views about government and individual rights. There are scenes scattered throughout the book about the way that Balboa's government takes nothing for granted, and about how the right to do anything in Balboa is contingent upon earning that right. A natural consequence of this is that the Legion does its very best to allow anyone to serve and to earn the benefits of those rights- up to and including the aged, the crippled, and even the mentally retarded. All that those people have to do is show that they understand and are willing to abide by their oaths of enlistment.
Even someone who like me, who agrees with virtually everything that the author is saying in his book, can find himself questioning his basic assumptions when confronted with some of the hard knotty ideas that are presented here.
It becomes very obvious from reading this book that the author really knows his Heinlein- indeed, it's clear that Col. Kratman knows Starship Troopers at least as well as I do, and I'm at the point now where I'm practically quoting entire passages from the book. Aside from the serious points about citizenship and oaths and whatnot, there is an absolutely hilarious moment in Kratman's book where someone comes up with an idea for a bomb that vocalises its intentions: "I am a thirty second bomb!"- inspired by the one sci-fi book that the female troops were allowed to read in Basic. If that isn't a tribute to the master, I don't know what is.
The bottom line is that this is a book well worth reading- not simply because it is a good book, but also because it will make you question some of your most fundamental assumptions on a number of very difficult, very politically charged questions. If Col. Kratman could convince someone like me, who is absolutely and categorically against mixed-gender units in the military and who thinks that allowing gays to serve openly in the military is a dreadful idea, that there are in fact ways, albeit difficult and costly ones, to surmount these problems, then I would say that he is worth your time and attention.
Didact's Verdict: 4.2/5, an unusually thoughtful novel that forces you to question and to think even while it is entertaining you.
Buy/download The Amazon Legion here.