The Rods and the Axe: two reviews

DB is the first to review Tom Kratman’s THE RODS AND THE AXE.

This is the latest book in the ‘Carrera’ series by Tom Kratman. The story covers the activities leading up to and the beginning salvos of the second stage of the war between the Tauran Union (the EU) and Balboa (Panama). Now for those of you who wonder how the hell Panama could be in a war with the EU much less how it could manage to be kicking the EU’s sclerotic, bureaucratic ass you really have to read the ‘What has gone before’ section. Trust me when I say it is necessary there’s a lot that has happened to get the action to this point and a whole mess of characters that are important to the plot. When reading Tom Kratman you never know who is going to be an important character and who is going to wind up killed so you better pay attention.

So to the story itself. It is a good military adventure yarn. That should be no surprise by now, Kratman writes military adventure and whatever he does he does well. It is just barely science fiction. Yes it is set on a different planet, yes there is marginally advanced technology, but this series is really just an alternate history of what could have been done following September 11th. It could just as easily been set on Earth beginning Sept 11, 2001.

The story is well written and for me the easiest of the series to read and follow. I was never left wondering ‘who is this and what are they doing’. The action is realistic and of course plenty gritty. The characters were as usual interesting and drawn just as finely as they needed to be for the part they played in the story. Most of the book is taken up with behind the scenes type of political wrangling and espionage but there still are big meaty chunks of combat and conflict.

The Good: “The Rods and the Axe” is well written, the prose is clear and clean without anything extraneous getting into the way. The people, places, and activities on ‘Terra Nova’ are presented in well crafted brush strokes. Even the characters that are seen once and will never be seen again were easy to envision. Some would say Kratman makes good use of stereotype but I prefer to think of his bright-line characterization of minor characters as solid use of easily understood motifs.

The characters are easy to connect to and visualize. Motivations fit the characters and the actions they take except for one really jarring scene (more about that later), are never forced. The actions feel like they are the real actions of the characters and not something that Kratman has decreed for the characters to do everything feels very organic. One thing that Kratman is very good at is people and he easily acknowledges that every side can have heroes. The enemies can be just as well intentioned, heroic as Carrera and his Legion and are certainly as well written.

The organizations of Terra Nova are realistic and Kratman does a good job of describing them. Of course, that is not a huge stretch because Terra Nova is really just ‘Earth’. Every nation and organization has its counterpart on Terra Nova.

Not much to say about Kratman’s gift for writing military action that has not already been said. The action whether it is a bar fight with broken bottles or a naval gunnery barrage with 150mm guns is all well written. The pacing of the action is particularly good and will keep you reading (I read the book in one sitting). Kratman is a master of his craft and belongs with Drake or Pournelle when discussing good military science fiction.

One thing and perhaps this is just a matter of personal taste but I like that while Kratman’s characters are fully adult and human and have sex the sex is all ‘off screen’ and fade to black type of activities. I find that refreshing.

The Bad: Here’s the good news; nothing ‘bad’ about this novel. The story is first rate, the characters are well written and interesting and the action is realistic and visceral. But there is that one scene I mentioned earlier and that’s ugly.

The Ugly: First let me say that I know Kratman is one sneaky bastard (I mean that as a compliment) and that he knows where his stories are going a long way a head, however, Carrera makes a really jarring bonehead move that stood out like a green stick fracture. At one point he has Carrera going into a major conflict zone for (at this point in the story) no damn good reason. It is such a bad decision that I had a hard time getting past that. It was like Ike landing with the grunts at Utah Beach. I know Kratman is probably just setting us up for something that requires Carrera to be where he is but the action itself was double-stupid and his aides should have sat on him until he regained his senses. I won’t say anything more about that because that would give away too much of the plot.

All in all I cannot recommend this book enough. If you at all like military fiction you’ll like this book and if you do like military fiction and haven’t found this series yet you are in for a treat. Kratman has stepped up his game with this book and is now firmly in the top tier of military fiction not just military science fiction.

And JW has already read it and finished his review as well. The speed with which these gentlemen blew through the book should also tell you something about whether Tom Kratman’s latest is worthwhile for fans of military science fiction.

Tom Kratman has out his sixth novel in the Carrera series, and it’s a worthy addition indeed. The Legion del Cid, with Patricio Carrera in command, has kicked the Tauran Union forces occupying the Balboa transitway out, in bloody fighting. In Book 6 they are concerned with the final preparation for the invasion of the Taurans and their Zhong allies, and, then the beginning of an epic battle for the tiny country of Balboa.  The Taurans are providing air cover and a blocking force in the neighboring country of Santa Josefina and  the Zhong providing the landing force attempting to take the Isla Real, the immense and heavily fortified island commanding the transitway. There are time references both backward looking and forward, starting with the Amazon Legion, continuing in the fifth novel Come and Take Them. I would highly recommend reading the whole series. It’s more than worth it.

Many of the characters from the previous novels are here with some added fleshing out particularly concerning the High Admiral Wallenstein and her latest relationship and some truly funny plot elements revolving around Carrera’s son Hamilcar and his domestic difficulties. Lesson there: you don’t really need twelve wives, lad.

There are new characters, of course, notably among the Zhong Imperial Marines and their bloody sacrifices on the beaches of Isla Real. The battle action starts about 45 percent into the book with an interesting taste of things to come in the Prologue, and continues until the book ends with a not-so-subtle cliff hanger pointing to Book 7. Personally, I can’t wait until the Legion takes on the UEPF, the United Earth Peace Fleet, in orbit around the planet and providing from orbit intelligence gathering for the Tauran forces.

I can’t give you metrics of prose competence, plot flow, etc. All I can do is tell you this a real page turner and a long awaited addition to the series. I loved it. Enjoy!

If you enjoy keeping up on the latest in SF/F, I would encourage you to begin following the Castalia House blog on a daily basis, where our SEVEN bloggers are now posting regular reviews of both conventional and independently published SF/F books. Mascaro has posted a review of AS I WALK THESE BROKEN ROADS by DMJ Aurini and Jeff’s review of SHADOW OF THE STORM by Martin J. Dougherty is a must-read for any TRAVELLER aficionado, as it sounds like Marc Miller has found himself a good writer who is respectful of the game canon.

And don’t miss Daniel’s intriguing take on the Tesla-Edison divide among science fiction writers.