In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
One of my favorite science fiction writers has always been Jerry Pournelle. His politics were the polar opposite of my own, and he could be a curmudgeon at times, but he sure could write an engaging adventure story—especially one centered on military characters. One of his enduring creations is the series begun with the book Janissaries, which follows a group of mercenaries kidnapped from Earth by aliens and taken to fight on a far-away world. Author Jo Walton is also a big fan of this book, writing about Pournelle’s work in this review a few years ago on Tor.com, “He’s the best, especially when he’s writing on his own. He can bring tears to my eyes…”
Many fans of military history love to create imaginary battles, often staged with miniature warriors on tables filled with tiny buildings, terrain features, and foliage. They might replay a famous battle from history, or even imagine what might have happened if different forces or different tactics were matched up. The world of Tran, which Jerry Pournelle created as a setting for Janissaries, was a dream come true for those who like to play the game of “what if…” While it has echoes of “modern man uses his knowledge to prevail in a more primitive world” tropes—as seen in H. Beam Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (reviewed here) and L. Sprague DeCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall (reviewed here)—Janissaries added the twist of elements drawn from different eras. Populated by warriors kidnapped from various periods and nations throughout Earth’s history, the planet’s wars were fought by soldiers using a mishmash of tactics, technologies, and weapons.
Pournelle made full use of the possibilities of this setting, pitting medieval knights against Celtic longbows, Roman cavalry against Swiss-style pikes, and troops from the Middle Ages facing off against modern infantry weapons. The book whetted my appetite, inspiring a desire to learn more about military history, and I’m sure that’s the case for other readers as well. At some point, I seem to remember Pournelle recommending the book The Art of War in the Middle Ages by Sir Charles Oman to those who wanted to learn more about the topic. Even if my recollection about Pournelle’s recommendation is incorrect, the book is worth seeking out, as it not only provides a clear and accessible guide to the topic, but is also rich in references to additional sources.
About the Author
Jerry Pournelle (1933-2017) was an author who wrote science fiction and also science and technology-related journalism, and whose solo fiction work often featured military adventures. He served in the United States Army during the Korean War. Pournelle was best known for his tales of John Christian Falkenberg, a colonel who served the CoDominium, a corrupt alliance of the United States and Russia that led mankind’s expansion into space, and began filling nearby planets with colonies, using them as dumping grounds for undesirables. Some of Falkenberg’s adventures were included in the novel The Mercenary, which I reviewed here. This alliance led to the Empire of Man, the setting for the seminal first contact novel A Mote in God’s Eye, a book Pournelle wrote with Larry Niven, which I reviewed here. The novel A Spaceship for the King, also set in the Empire of Man, had some similarities to Janissaries, being the adventures of a mercenary leader fighting on a planet that has reverted to barbarism, who introduces new tactics to achieve his mission. You can find it reviewed here. You can also find additional biographical information on Pournelle in those three reviews.
The Janissaries Series
One of the works spawned by the Janissaries series was an installment in a series of wargaming books, Ace’s Combat Command: In the World of Jerry E. Pournelle. These books combined a “choose your adventure” approach with wargaming, to be read with a set of dice handy to determine the outcome of decisions during battles. That book is notable because it contains an introduction by Pournelle describing the origin of the series. When Jim Baen and Tom Doherty were at Ace Books, they conceived of a line of science fiction books about 45,000 words long (novella length), which would be lavishly illustrated and published in a larger trade paperback format to showcase the art. The book Janissaries was intended to be part of that line, and grew out of conversations in 1979 where Jim Baen challenged Pournelle to come up with a series where there were aliens secretly visiting earth with a plausible rationale for them not openly contacting us…
Pournelle had been writing a series of articles on UFOs, and combined ideas from that research with his love of military adventure, coming up with the scenario of mercenaries kidnapped from Earth to fight wars for aliens on a far distant planet. Pournelle, fortunately for fans, was so taken by this concept that the book grew far longer than originally intended, and spawned several sequels.
I remember being immediately taken by the novel from the moment I saw it on a shelf in a bookstore. I recognized Pournelle’s name, saw that it was a military adventure, read the cover blurb announcing it was “MASSIVELY ILLUSTRATED,” and I was hooked. Since my youth, I have always looked forward to illustrations in books: cover paintings, frontispieces, color plates, chapter headings and the like. This included work by traditional illustrators like N. C. Wyeth, and also the artists I saw in science fiction magazines, notables like Kelly Freas, Leo Summers, and John Schoenherr. The cover of my Ace paperback from 1979 is credited to an artist named Enrich, and the interior illustrations (which really were massive in number), were by an artist named Luis Bermejo. While you could quibble about some of the military details in the illustrations, they are quite handsome and well executed.
The book was followed in subsequent years by two sequels, Janissaries: Clan and Crown, published in 1982, and Janissaries III: Storms of Victory, published in 1987. The second book was also illustrated, but by the third the illustrations were sadly abandoned. These later books were co-written with Roland Green, a competent writer of military science fiction in his own right who was not credited on the covers, but listed on the title pages. The third book ended with a cliffhanger ending, with lots of plot threads unresolved.
Then there was a long drought. There were more Janissaries books published in the following years, but they were all omnibus editions, repackaging the three original books in various ways. On Pournelle’s Chaos Manor website, he mentioned that he was writing the next sequel without a co-author, to be called Mamelukes. But then for years, and eventually decades, the book was listed as being in progress. Pournelle would occasionally update fans on how much he had written and how much remained, but there was still more work remaining before the story was finished and ready for publication.
When he died in 2017, knowing how much of the book had been written, I had hopes that someone would pick up the mantle and finish the manuscript. And I was pleased to discover Pournelle’s son Phillip was working to complete the book, and that noted author David Weber had volunteered to assist in the effort. The newest book was worth the wait, bringing the series to what could be considered a rousing conclusion, but with hints that even more adventures might be in store, and the scope of the series could expand beyond the planet of Tran. And I have heard rumors that, buoyed by the positive reception of Mamelukes, Phillip Pournelle is working on another volume.
The book opens in the days of the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviets were conducting covert and proxy wars against each other around the world. A small band of mercenaries, fighting for the CIA against Cuban forces and local forces somewhere in Africa, is losing a battle. Their commanding officer has been wounded, and is conducting a rearguard action to buy time. They are down to two officers: Captain Rick Galloway, an idealistic young American ROTC graduate, and Lieutenant Parsons, a veteran of the Foreign Legion. Other notable members of the unit are the senior noncom, Sergeant Elliot, the reliable Corporal Mason, and the college-educated and rebellious Private Warner. They call for helicopter extraction, but the CIA has had to pull out its forces and are disavowing the unit, abandoning them to certain death.
A mysterious aircraft, appearing to be a flying saucer, lands and offers to extract the unit. Given a choice between mystery and certain death, they choose mystery and climb aboard. The soldiers soon realize that they are in outer space, and when they reach their destination, the flight time and gravity hints that they are on the moon. Their “benefactors” are alien traders called Shalnuksis. They want the unit to go to a far-off world to fight on their behalf and supervise the growing and harvest of a special crop. The mercenaries are interviewed by a human called Agzaral, who appears to be some sort of law enforcement official. He ensures they boarded the ship freely, that they faced death before being picked up by the Shalnuksis, and will not be missed. The aliens gather gear for the unit from Earth, and before long, they are aboard another spaceship heading toward another world.
We then meet a young college student in California named Gwen Tremaine, who has fallen in love with a mysterious man named Les. He asks her if she wants to come on a trip with him, and she agrees, only to find he is a spaceship pilot, and is transporting mercenaries to a far-away planet called Tran. She is studious, and learns much about the interstellar civilization and their destination. She discovers that in the interstellar Confederation Les serves, humans are soldiers and administrators, like the Janissaries of the old Ottoman Empire on Earth. She also learns the mercenaries will be overseeing the harvesting of illegal drugs, called surinomaz or madweed, which only grows every 600 years or so. Gwen becomes pregnant, and Les immediately wants to use medical gear aboard the ship to give her an abortion.
The viewpoint then shifts to the planet Tran, where the young Tylara, Eqetassa of Chelm, has traveled from her home in Tamaerthon to find that her new husband has been killed in battle with the forces of the ambitious Sarakos. The forces of her new kingdom, along with bowmen she brought from her homeland, fight a brave rearguard action, but soon Sarakos has the castle under siege, and they are forced to surrender. Sarakos immediately disavows the terms of surrender, and brutally rapes Tylara. With the help of the priest Yanulf and her countryman Caradoc, she is able to escape, and the three of them begin to journey back to Tamaerthon. At a nearby crossroads, they see two mysterious warriors.
When the ship bearing the mercenaries reaches Tran, it drops off most of the unit, but Galloway is told to stay aboard, and is let off at a nearby location. And he finds he is not alone. Gwen is with him. She refused Les’s demands that she get an abortion, and because the Confederation does not allow humans to breed in an unsupervised manner, he is leaving her on Tran, and felt she would be safest with Galloway. When the two of them reach the unit, they find Lieutenant Parsons has organized a mutiny. Galloway is given weapons and ammunition, and the unit allows Corporal Mason to go with him, but he is no longer welcome. Gwen does not trust Parsons, and chooses to go with Galloway. They are heading toward a crossroads when they spot two men and a woman ahead of them.
Tylara’s group and Galloway’s group meet, and attempt to communicate. They are set upon by a patrol from the forces of Sarakos and fight together, with Galloway and Mason using their assault rifles. They decide to travel together to Tylara’s homeland of Tamaerthon, and learn that Parsons has decided to help Sarakos in his conquests. Galloway begins to admire the brave and headstrong Tylara, a feeling that is reciprocated, and soon admiration blossoms into love.
He and Mason spend the winter in Tamaerthon, getting to know the language and the people. Galloway learns the time when the madweed grows is also a time of climate disruption, with the close passage of a “demon star,” and food must be stored to allow the inhabitants to live in caves until conditions moderate. The only source of food in the quantities they need is nearby farmland controlled by an empire of Romans. The Tamaerthon bowmen have never been a match for Roman cavalry on open ground, so Galloway decides to introduce them to Swiss-style pikes. Using the pikes in conjunction with bowman, he thinks he can capture the food his new allies need. And then, when he has an army proven in the field, he can think about revenge, and face Parsons and Sarakos.
I won’t go into any more detail, as this is a book I highly recommend you read for yourself, and I don’t want to spoil the fun. It is no wonder Pournelle kept coming back to Tran, as the setting is rich in possibilities for adventure and military matchups of all kinds. He created a world that could have felt like a fantasy adventure, but rooted it in sympathetic characters, most notably the duty-bound Rick Galloway and the courageous Tylara. The novel is full of gritty details that make the setting feel real, as if there really might be aliens capable of transporting us to other worlds lurking just beyond the fringes of our day-to-day reality.
The series that began with Janissaries is one of the most entertaining military adventure narratives in science fiction. And now that the fourth book has finally appeared, readers can begin the journey knowing it will have a satisfying conclusion. Rick Galloway is one of my favorite characters of all time, and if you enjoy high adventure, but also want it grounded in realism, then this series is for you.
And now it’s time to hear from you: If you’ve read it, what are your thoughts on Janissaries, and the books that follow it? And what other military adventure books have you read you would recommend to others? I look forward to your comments.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.