Soldier of the Republic
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue.
Soldier of the Republic. Ben Slythe
Original Publication: 2015 (Yellow Plank)
Current Availability: Paperback and eBook
A branch of science fiction I can’t say I’m particularly drawn to for the most part is military SF. Not because it doesn’t have interesting ideas but because it can often get a bit bogged down in the author’s interest in military technology and operations at the expense of character and sometimes even plot. It’s not always like that, but frequently enough to be a little off putting.
So it was with some wariness I came to Soldier of the Republic by Ben Slythe. You may recognize the author from my After-Action Report on North Star V; he’s the dulcet-toned referee of the Boys from the Baltic Star and if you’ve spent any time watching their Twitch stream you’ll find it nearly impossible to read this novel without hearing Ben narrating it in your head. This is no bad thing. I’d buy an audio book of this novel, read by the author, in an instant! It’s not just the tone of voice but the word choice and images he conjures – see, for example, the quote to the right. The book is currently available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon. The paperback is a good solid, probably print on demand, volume which holds up well after a couple of readings. The Kindle version is much as you’d expect and as there are no maps or illustrations there are no problems with their reproduction in the ebook format. Perhaps that’s why some material, that in other hands might have become appendices, have been kept to web pages.
The story – divided into three roughly equal sections – concerns Taeris, an up-and-coming soldier who has been locked away for ‘re-education’ by a stellar empire that’s despotic and almost all-powerful. It becomes clear that the re-education is unlikely to ever end and merely makes life imprisonment a mental torture as well as a physical one. Taeris has committed an unforgivable crime in the Republic: independent thinking. One doesn’t have to look far around present-day countries of the world to see regimes that do exactly this. Even more sadly, it seems to be coming ever closer to the approach taken even by western democracies in some ways. This gives the novel an edge in relevance and engagement that I particularly enjoyed. Indeed, given that it was written seven years ago, it’s beginning to feel somewhat prescient. Or perhaps it simply reflects leaning into the common condition of mankind and history.
Taeris, however, may be the solution the Republic is looking for when it faces an existential threat from a rebellion it is failing to deal with. He’s taken out of his savage asteroid prison and restored to rank as a colonel being set to work with his innovative mind set. As the story unfolds it becomes clearer both to Taeris and the reader exactly what he’s fighting for and where his loyalties ultimately lie. The section titles speak of redemption but one can’t help feeling this is just the start of Taeris’ journey.
All of this takes place in a republic that could, in the hands of a lesser author, simply be a knock off Roman Empire mixed with Orwell’s Oceania in 1984. Here, however, it becomes something which, while obviously taking some inspiration from both of those – in the Romanesque character and planet names if nothing else – creates a thoroughly believable and quite terrifying future possibility. Almost all of the novel is from the viewpoint of Taeris but a couple of times there is a switch which is interesting but makes its reason and the deception involved a tiny bit predictable. On the other hand, I can be rather slow and often don’t see things coming three pages before they happen, so I quite liked knowing what was on its way on these brief occasions.
The military aspect is mostly ground warfare with some space combat thrown in. Only once or twice was I at a loss as to what exactly was going on in the heat of battle but generally it is very clear and the warfare is in service of the story, not vice versa as is often the case. 24 pages on the subject.There are odd moments of getting into TOEs of armies or fleets but it’s so minimal as not to be a problem and perhaps fans of military SF would have actually liked more of it*. The novel is quite brutal and punches are not pulled. It’s not gratuitous however and again, serves the ongoing plot. There are fragments of a non-Republic language I’d have liked to see more of, but perhaps there’s about the right amount for the typical audience of a book such as this. It’s not delved into in any great depth if you’re looking for grammar lessons. One could guess there was more to it, however, so I wasn’t particularly surprised to find after finishing the novel the first time that there’s
I have a feeling that in an alternative universe, the author and I would have got on very well indeed.
Could this be Traveller? If you imagine your Third Imperium considerably darker than it’s usually portrayed, you may well lap this up. The technology is certainly within Traveller’s usual range and there are some good descriptions of powered armour and the formidable Tyrant grav tanks. (They are actually orbital landers as well.) There’s definitely some ‘alternative’ technology in here but it’s described where necessary such as the end of the first chapter with its ‘explanation’ of jump*. Travel between worlds is not the week of Traveller but its fudged just enough that a week of Jump would just about be reasonable if you wanted to adapt it. This isn’t Traveller, but it’s possible to see some influences and referees certainly could mine this for both plot and other ideas. There are some great locations such as the Education Facility at the start of the novel and certain features such as the portrayal of too long in zero-g and returning to standard gravity fields, along with life after antibiotics which were quite brilliant. And perhaps even more worryingly, perhaps that last is another example of the author’s prescience?
The characters generally in the novel are rather undeveloped and come across as mere ciphers with the standout exception of Taeris himself who comes alive with faults of his own, mixed feelings about what he’s being faced with and what, as events go on, he’s going to actually do. It would be fun to make some guesses at potential future titles in the series, but that might be considered spoiler territory, so I’ll refrain. A couple of other characters, Adrael and Laesa for example, have hints that there could be more to them and perhaps its planned for future volumes but more was needed here.
It’s a little bit worrying, coming to the novel earlier this year, to notice the cover declaring ‘Republic Series – Book 1’ and the publication date of 2015. I’d definitely like to see more of this story and setting but am concerned that it might be a long wait or a fruitless one. It’s not that this isn’t a complete novel, it is, and it doesn’t leave you hanging as do any number of shorter ebooks which are often given away very cheaply or free in an attempt to get you to buy what turns out to be the rest of the novel. But this is an interesting setting one suspects could go in interesting directions. It is certainly told by an author with ideas and a voice I want to hear more of. The back cover proclaims “The first book in the Republic Series, this is a story of a future war told by a future warrior.” Let’s just hope the telling of the tale isn’t too far in the future.