Oct 7, 2014

[Books] Battletech: Mercenary's Star

William H Keith, Jr. is one of the primary architects of the Battletech fictional universe, at least from my perspective. He had the privilege of pretty much kicking off the universe. And he didn't just write a single book, he created a fairly long arc and of course a rather memorable mercenary company. And now that I think about it, a few other Battletech authors who followed in his footsteps and crafted stories around their own mercenary groups.

Mercernary's Star is the first direct sequel novel in the Battletech book universe and it continues the story of the the Gray Death Legion. After barely surviving the events in Decision at Thunder Rift, we now join Grayson Carlyle and his newly formed Gray Death Legion mercenary company on their first contract mission.

I have to admit that this book came together a lot better than the first one. As much as that is to be expected from any second effort at writing a story in the same universe with a similar character set, I think it needs to be noted that the progression between the two novels was rather significant and I feel like Keith had a better understanding of what he wanted to accomplish here. And while still not necessarily a perfect fictional experience, it's still quite the engaging adventure.

Synopsis: Battletech: Mercenary's Star is the third novel written for the Battletech universe and the second in what would become the Saga of the Gray Death Legion novels by William H. Keith, Jr. It is one of the many Battletech books that feature now "unseen" mech designs that are tied up in complex legal concerns over intellectual property.

As part of their larger efforts to become a true mercenary company, Grayson Carlyle and his Gray Death's Legion journey to Galatea, better known as the Mecenary's Star. It's a sort of the go-to place to hire mercenaries for any job with the Lyran Commonwealth and it's pretty much their last hope to actually get hired for a job and to avoid going backrupt even before they can seriously start as a mercenary group.

In their desperation they take a job that almost seems suicidal - to sneak onto the world of Verthandi, now controlled by the Draconis Combine, and train the rebels to fight mechs - even with so few of their own. Verthandi is a largely agricultural world, thus the bulk of the mechs on the planet belong to the occupying Draconis Combine army. But for one reason or another Grayson decides to take on the job together with his fledgling mercenary company. Thus far the Legion consists of volunteers from Trellwan and a few others that they had picked up along the way. But they are hardly a true "company" in terms of number of mechs and this first mission may very well be their last.

The books thus far have largely been about individuals surviving against difficult odds. This novel starts to build on that and features a larger group working together to achieve their goals - a common enough theme in the succeeding Battletech novels. But of course we can't jump from a few salvaged mechs to a host of deadly war machines right off the bat and this book nicely paints the picture of the steady development of this particular mercenary group.

I strongly appreciate the effort Keith put into assembling a rather diverse cast of characters with different back stories and their fair share of past trauma and other complications. We have the mostly professionally and potentially personal relationship between Grayson and his XO, Lori Kalmar. We have the ragtag assembly of mechwarriors and aero jocks that really have no true loyalty to one another apart from sharing the same paymaster. And we also have the complex political landscape on the planet itself whether between the occupying Draconis Combine forces and the puppet government nominally in charge of the planet and even the longtime differences between the different rebel factions. Nothing ever comes easily when humans are involved, after all.

The book features a lot of interesting combat scenes that involve diverse assets including BattleMechs, infantry, aerospace fighters and armored vehicles. This is pretty much the full Battletech gaming experience somewhat captured in a story and things are pretty vivid in how they are depicted. It's easy to say that this character or that one is a master tactician but the book goes a long way to truly demonstrate Grayson's flashes of insight and his propensity for finding a way to win despite significant odds.

Admittedly it felt like a bit of a stretch to consider how Grayson immediately takes to leading his little band of mercenaries right off the bat despite his inexperience and his very limited true combat experience back on Trellwan. But I guess for now we just have to bank on what training he received under his father and his own innate leadership qualities and tactical savvy. And at least the mission was of a limited enough nature to make things plausible for the most part.

Beyond that, I also want to cite my appreciation for how Keith orchestrated the various skirmishes once the Legion gets onto Verthandi. After all, the Legion initially has to cope with insufficient supplies to carry on with a longer campaign and thus they must conserve their ammunition as best as possible. But mech combat is naturally messy and the need to survive will throw out a lot of plans to conserve missiles when you're being bombarded by enemy fire. How the Legion copes with these challenges and yet continue to take the fight to the Kuritans was an interesting enough reading experience.

Battletech: Mercenary's Star is a great addition to the Gray Death Legion Saga and it certainly goes a long way towards making me respect Grayson Carlyle more. It features a lot of good action and good tactics and on the whole is a great adventure. Thus the book gets 5 improvised BattleMechs out of a possible 5.

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