Monday, 26 March 2012

Freehold by Micheal Z Williamson: A Review

Though it may seem that this blog is becoming something of a review site I am mostly reading books that are interesting and don't exactly conform to my own political views which makes them both interesting reads, and important learning material for an author. It can help an author avoid littering their work with his or her own political beliefs. And while Freehold is an author tract, it doesn't exactly read like one, which is why im comparison to my previous review of the book "Enemies Foreign and Domestic" this stands out as a superb example of how one can avoid serious author tract and write well at the same time. So I feel that it is important to follow up a resoundingly bad novel with a, while not A grade material, a novel that is still miles ahead of the previous work I read. So without further preamble I present to you Freehold.

The Story:

Set in the 26th Century we are treated to the view of Earth after it has been united under the administration of the UN as a one world government. We have a brief, well done and to the point opening describing the main character Kendra Pacelli and her mundane and mainly bureaucratic role in the UN Protection Forces. As the novel begins she has just returned from Mtali (a world divided by a multi-sided civil war) and is returning to her mundane job in the megacenter of Minneapolis. However, she is alerted by a guard and former lover that she is going to be arrested and interrogated regarding a scheme which involved selling millions of dollars worth of war material to the competing sides on Mtali. Kendra, having been involved with the logistics unit which the material was from is going to be rounded up with many others. She flees and in the midst of the investigation decides to run to the only planet where the UN cannot reach her, the Freehold of Grainne. After forcing her way into the embassy she is granted asylum and sent to Freehold where she becomes immersed in the society and deals with both her own struggles of getting used to Freehold and with the looming threat of the UN coming after her and the Freehold itself.

The Good:

The story is reasonably well paced and only drags at some inopportune moments. The characters are well fleshed out and believable and rarely the type of cardboard cut out caricature's that ideological rants usually present (Atlas Shrugged, Enemies Foreign and Domestic) people as. Rob Mckay, the books main love interest, is an interesting example. He is a typical Freehold man who is polite but extremely forward in his approach and has some grope happy moments but is otherwise an ok guy. He is a military veteran and has many friends because he 'saved their ass on Mtali' which shows a connection between society and the military in a pleasant way, Kendra herself has to go through almost 400 pages of a learning curve when she gets to the Freehold and never does get quite used to it and the culture shock is written well and very believable. It is attacked from all angles and it shows you how really alien this society would be. I liked that Williamson emphasized this fact instead of, as many authors do, simply assume that society will always be familiar and much like the 21st Century Western World (or mostly America) as we know it. It made for good friction between the characters and for excellent plot points.

As for its ideological tract the novel is not in your face about it. Naturally the society is portrayed as superior to Earth's for a variety of reasons. But it strikes you as a (somewhat) believable society that is fun to read about and interesting to examine, and might be one that a few people would want to live in. I'm not one of those people, but to each his own.

Then we have the character dialogue which is well done and thankfully actively focuses on the plot as much as it does the ideological talking points. Each character is fleshed out and given some screen time to establish their ideas and views on a particular situation. There is even one heartbreaking scene which shows a soldier from the UN with similar values to Kendra later on in the novel who you can actually feel sorry for and emphasize with, a rarity in most idelogical rants.

Then we have the brilliantly written battle scenes. Williamson puts you right in the thick of the fray and makes each individual firefight a gripping experience and has a well done great big battle near the end. I literally could not put the book down during this point and stayed up a considerable portion of the night finishing it. So points to him there for sure. War is described in the most brutal and unflattering of terms so I enjoy the fact it is not glorified and the intellectual honesty of the author on that front.

The Bad:

Unfortunately the book doesn't get a complete pass. While I understand this was his first novel there were some bits that were completely uncessesary. For instance the middle of the book consists of what seems to be the obligatory boot camp montage in great detail for over a dozen chapters. It was well done but it still seemed needlessly detailed and stretched out. If this were a book completely dedicated to military science fiction (ala Starship Troopers) then I would be more understanding, but it is not and thus the scenes were long, somewhat boring and had effectively little to do with the plot at large. I was irked by these after the swift beggining and pace up till that point. It is stated that this intense training is different from the UN, but this could have been shorter. Similarily with the obligatory sex scenes that seemed to pop up out of no where. Kendra is seduced inside a week by Rob and is having threesomes with another character, Marta, by the end of the first quarter. Kendra has had sex before but is portrayed both as unused to lesbianism and as a practicing Catholic to boot. They seemed more devoted to just pointless sex for emphasising the 'free love' ideology of the Freehold rather than anything else.

Speaking of Marta, this character seems to embody the worst about Freehold society. She is completely intolerant of any society other than her own, has a moral superiority complex, and is extremely naive. Marta, like many Freeholders, is completely convinced of of the moral superiority of her society and many times she seems to stop just short of reffering to other cultures as barbaric. Many other Freeholders hold a notion of themselves as being superior to other cultures and lay ridiculous criticisms on the representatives of other worlds. As author tract goes this is insulting to the reader and is especially annoying when the Freeholders criticize societies for not coming to their aid when they explicitly mention that other planets have no ability to intervene militarily. So any criticism seems hollow at best and petty at worst.

And unfortunately the UN is portrayed as evil almost exclusively for the sake of being evil and antagonistic towards anyone else with values other than their own. While I can agree on the point that too much berueacracy is a bad thing, and to much political correctness would have horrible effects on society I just can't find the incredibly polite, sexually sensitive, and almost pacifist (since most UN soldiers and people respond with horror to the idea of killing people) society as one willing to engage in the kind of imperialism that the UN attempts to enforce. They made for poor villains but it still gave a narrowly defined enemy for the reader to wish defeated. The other villain of the series, Tom Calan is just as poorly characterized and ironically highlights the extreme mercenary attitude that would most likely be prevalent in Freehold society. That of an extremely cuthroat and the ability to hold a grudge. He is simply badly portrayed and is genuinely uninteresting to read about, much like any unsypathetic secondary character.

I could go into other critiques of the Freehold system and various political ideas but that is not really applicable here.

In the end the book is a good read and I did enjoy it minor issues aside. It is good science fiction even with the ideological motivation. Libertarian science fiction would probably describe it best. Although jarring at points it is still a good read and I recommend it to anyone looking for a bit of easily read escapist science fiction. All in all I give it three point five stars out of five.

An aside:
The best part is one does not even have to buy the book as it was published by Baen and can be read for free online or downloaded as a PDF and is available here:

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