In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to recommend five books based around a common theme. These lists aren’t intended to be exhaustive, so we hope you’ll discuss and add your own suggestions in the comments!
In this edition, Adrian Tchaikovsky looks at five fictional armies you definitely don’t want to join…
Don’t join the Black Company
(Chronicles of the Black Company—Glen Cook)
At first glance this is a cushy option. You’ve signed up for a mercenary company that has regular employ with the local ruler. Sure, the locals might not like you much, but the main fighting’s already been and gone. You even have a competent healer on the squad, and that’s rarer than you might think.
Only, as time goes on, you’ll start to notice something slightly odd about the fear and loathing you get from the locals – does that not go somewhat beyond what’s normally reserved for a peace-keeping force? Don’t those rebel fighters seem just a bit more committed than you were expecting? And how come none of the veterans is exactly keen to talk about past engagements and the history of the company?
Except the medic, and, believe me, you don’t want to get him started. And as for your employer, well, she’s a sight, to be sure, but some of the things she does, and that’s nothing to what people say she has done, back when there was more fighting. And eventually you’re left with that really awkward question to ask your superiors. You sidle up to your sergeant in the middle of the night watch and you whisper, “Sarge, are we the bad guys?” and he just looks at you, with that hollow, traumatized look you’ve gotten used to, and you have your answer. You’re the villains after all. You work for the Dark Lady. Was that really what you wanted, when you took their coin?
Don’t join the Vordanai army—or if you do, don’t get posted to Khandar
(The Thousand Names—Django Wexler)
Who wouldn’t take pride in the smart blue uniform of the Vordanai army? And Khandar’s a soft posting, surely? Yes, the climate’s not congenial, but all you have to do is make a showing on the streets to prop up the local despot. It’s not as if the prince is a complete ass and there’s going to be some enormous popular uprising to drive you back into the sea, eh? What’s that, there is? Well then it’s just onto the boats and back home, surely. I mean, nobody back home’s going to decide that you need to stay and fight against overwhelming odds, for someone else’s country, and for a prince who really is, all things considered, an arrogant idiot.
But it gets better! Because there’s obviously some ruckus going on back home, and now you’re not really sure just who your orders are coming from, and whether the real enemy are the Khandahari outside, or some of your fellows right beside you. And of course Khandar was a penal posting for ages, the dregs of the dregs, but surely, with all this other trouble going on, nobody’s going to start talking about mutiny…
Don’t sign on to defend Dros Delnoch
Well, you think, this is the life. Dros Delnoch, the most impregnable fortress of the Drenai. Who could want a better posting? It’s not as if all these walls, all this monumental masonry, any of it’s really necessary. You don’t know why they even built it here – there are only the Nadir beyond, and they’re savages, not even a credible threat to the nation.
But wait, what’s that on the horizon? It looks like the Nadir after all. Actually, it looks like all of the Nadir. All those warring tribes united under a single banner. My, what a lot of them there are, and how very determined.
But you’ve got all these walls, and you’ve got Druss the Legend, and surely the enemy will just break against all those vaunted defences, give up and go home.
Some days later and they’re not going home, and there are noticeably fewer walls between them and your homeland, and there seem to be more and more Nadir, and lord knows there are fewer of you, and they just keep coming…
Don’t get drafted by Lascanne
(my own Guns of the Dawn)
What’s that, Miss? I’m not the first soldier to ask, ‘Are there any more at home like you?’ Unfortunately this time it’s for a different reason. Luthrian IV, by the grace of God King of Lascanne, has decided that what the war against Denland needs right now is a Woman’s Draft. Is that because the war is going badly, you ask? No, Lord no, in fact it’s because the fight is going so well, despite all the able-bodied men already taken for the war effort, and the fact that the newspapers have got very cagey, recently, about just how far the Denlander forces have got. Really, it’s just that the king feels we’re so very, very close to victory that you women should get the chance to take up a musket and see it for yourselves. And you believe the king, don’t you? And one woman from each household isn’t too much to ask, surely?
And, yes, the noble families are all sending maids and kitchen girls in their place, but it doesn’t look like you’ve got spare servants hanging around, and so if you don’t go that means your mother or your kid sister, and we can hardly ask them.
And don’t worry about where they might send you. Almost everyone goes to the western front where the ground is nice and open for our cavalry – our gallant Lascanne cavalry is so much better than the Denlanders’ – and it’s dry and pleasant, just like a holiday. Almost nobody gets sent to the Levant front, to the swamps, where the mist is so thick you can’t see your hand in front of your face at midday, and you get eaten alive by the bugs and the snakes. And the natives, the swamp-people… or not even people, they say. But don’t worry, surely they won’t send you there, and even if they do, everyone says they war’s almost over. Mind you, they’ve been saying that for years…
Don’t join the Night’s Watch
(A Song of Ice and Fire—George R R Martin)
Well of course nobody in their right mind would join the Night’s Watch. It’s full of criminals, and it’s stuck up on a wall made of actual ice, and there are thousands of wildlings on the other side of that wall that would like nothing more than to cut your throat. And there are giants, I’ve heard. Actually, I’ve heard there are worse than giants.
Admittedly, you might want to think twice about signing on with the Starks, because I hear they’ve had some reversals recently. Or, well, reversals is probably a bit of a mild term, and besides, it’s cold in the north. Better sign on with Stannis. Although I understand that can get uncomfortably hot… And it’s not as if you’re going to do better carrying a spear for the Ironborn or Daenerys Targaryen, because these days everyone’s campaigns seem to be a history of losing battles, and if even Jaime Lannister is leaving pieces of himself behind, you think what it’s like for the common soldiery…
But of course, if we’ve got as far as discussing the Night’s Watch, then it’s more than likely that nobody’s offering you the choice of who to join, or at least the choice you’re facing is pretty stark (just my little joke there). So, yes, nobody in their right mind would take the black, but after what you did, it’s the only option you’ve got that will keep you breathing…
Originally published in February 2015.
Adrian Tchaikovsky is the author of the acclaimed Shadows of the Apt fantasy series and the epic science fiction blockbuster Children of Time. His latest novella, The Expert System’s Brother, is available from Tor.com Publishing. He has been nominated for the David Gemmell Legend Award and a British Fantasy Society Award. In civilian life he is a lawyer, gamer and amateur entomologist.