Black and white and read a million times: Jerry Pournelle, Janissaries

Sometimes, not every month, but every few months, I come over all Victorian and have pains in my stomach and want to spend a day lying on the couch reading Jerry Pournelle. When I feel like that there really are very few books that satisfy me—I want black-and-white military fiction with good and bad clearly delineated, guns, obstacles, military training, things blowing up, glory, death, and the good guys definitely winning. Also, it has to be written to a certain standard. I don’t want rubbish just because I’m in that particular mood.

It isn’t only Jerry Pournelle that scratches this itch. He’s the best, especially when he’s writing on his own. He can bring tears to my eyes with lines like “The sergeant survived? Then the Legion lives!” There’s also Piper, Weber, John Barnes’s Timeline Wars books, and more recently I’ve discovered W.E.B. Griffin, whose books are not SF but straight military historical fiction. (“Wow,” I thought when I read Semper Fi, “a whole book about Bobby Shaftoe!”) I can also thank this reading mood for my discovery of Lois McMaster Bujold, who I adore even on days when I don’t want to bite something.

But when I’ve got those cramps and that urge, the canonical most perfect book in the world for me is suddenly Janissaries.

Janissaries would push a lot of my buttons at any time. There’s a planet, Tran, where groups of people from Earth have been taken by aliens at 600-year intervals to grow drugs. So they have brilliant weird cultures, because they came from different parts of the planet and at different tech levels. There are Romans who have copies of Roman books we don’t have. They also have interestingly weird tech, because it’s merged oddly. So when our heroes give them gunpowder, things get interesting. You get new military formations, for instance. And beyond all of that and the good guys and bad guys and the things blowing up, there are fascinating hints of a wider universe and Other Things Going On. Oh, and it’s got a girl. I mean, of course it’s got a girl, even W.E.B. Griffin has girls, but it has a girl who isn’t just there as a prize and a sexual partner—well, it has one of those too, but it also has a major female character who does significant things.

They don’t make military adventure fiction better than this, and you get bonus extra history of tech stuff thrown in for free.

There are some sequels, by Pournelle and other people, or by other people on their own, which I have read once and never felt the urge to pick up again. My original copy of Janissaries has been read so much it’s in danger of disintegration.

A little while ago as I was putting it back, I admired the serendipity of alphabetical order, that allows Marge Piercy, H. Beam Piper, Plato, Karl Popper, Jerry Pournelle, and Tim Powers to sit so peacefully on the shelf together.


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