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The Wagner Incident

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue.

The Wagner Incident. Matthew Kerwin
Original publication: 2021 (Arcanic Fortress Publishing)
Current availability: print and ebook

Traveller or Travelleresque novels don’t come along very often and it’s always exciting to see a new one. That’s often matched a little later by a certain disappointment when they turn out to be ‘workmanlike’, or so-so, or even downright poor. They tell a story, certainly; they show a bit of the Traveller universe that might be new; they may even have interesting ideas or plots. But somehow they fail to engage and ultimately aren’t very memorable. I write this with some trepidation attempting my own effort in the genre, so feel free to quote the above back at me should I ever finish.

It was, therefore, with mixed feelings I heard the announcements regarding The Wagner Incident from a long time Traveller fan, Matthew Kerwin. Delight at a new novel; worry that it wouldn’t live up to expectations. However, I’m ever the optimist and ordered a print-on-demand copy, and eagerly awaited its arrival. With a spot of unexpected and rather unusual spring sunshine trying to warm a chill south coast of England in April, I thought it would be just the thing to get me out in the garden after a year of working from home and a winter of lockdown in a study that is only warm first thing in the morning.

I started on Friday. One chapter in and I feared the worst. There seems to be a fair amount of military SF about and I’m often tempted by the interesting blurbs on the back or the fact that it is recommended by someone who thinks I’ll enjoy it or ‘ought to’ read it for whatever reason. I’m certainly not against military SF; I come from a naval heritage and there are some great novels of that kind out there, but all too often I come across examples that are lost in their own cleverness of knowing the Nth detail of real world combat or gear or discipline or jargon and fail to remember that a good story and good characters are required as well.

The first chapter of The Wagner Incident with a self-propelled howitzer in action, however, sets up the rest of the novel and isn’t indicative of the whole – although there is an exciting – and rather brutally deadly – combat as a climax to the whole. I’m writing on Monday having devoured the book in some three sessions. I think it’s fair to say I enjoyed it! One thing the book isn’t is more ho-hum warfare without soul. Indeed, I rather liked the slight fun that was poked at the different pronunciations of the word ‘lieutenant’ that crop up.

It certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome at 208 pages although there are an additional eleven pages of Library Data for the main planet of the story and another ten pages of glossary. However, these last sections add to the book and give a better understanding of it to both long-time fans and those completely new to Traveller rather than just padding out the volume with interesting but unnecessary detail. The glossary however does make some interesting choices about what it includes or misses. ‘Oytrip’ and ‘Millennials’ would have been helpful additions; or perhaps the latter belongs in the Library Data section as it’s not generally applicable to the wider universe of Charted Space.

The plot itself concerns the sudden and rather violent outbreak of war on Wagner (or Askyat, Zarushagar 0140 B665836-A) between the local populations of ‘demons’ (Droyne) and humans. The two races are coming into conflict after centuries of peace and stability. A human artillery officer, seriously injured in battle, and an Imperial Marine lieutenant both become entangled with an outcast family (or tyafelm) of Droyne. With various helps and hindrances such as the Imperial ambassador, a battledress wearing marine platoon, and a bag of coyns, the ‘family’ must make their choices, face their own demons, and attempt to find out what the problem is and see if they can resolve it. Three main (human) characters are well-drawn enough that they’ll live with you for a while after closing the book. The main Droyne characters are more of an enigma but perhaps that’s how it should be with these aliens. Having said that there are a couple of rather moving scenes which I won’t reveal here as spoilers. There are some great moments in the book, some interesting technology which is well described and well used, and some moments of humour as well.

What I particularly liked about the book was getting a good glimpse of Droyne in action and their use of coyns. I feel I’ve both encountered them in more detail and seen how they might be used in adventures, both of which are welcome. As for the coyns, I enjoyed their use in the novel so much I’m wondering if I can buy a nice set or just make do with the cardboard versions GURPS put out. I also appreciated that it’s firmly rooted in the Traveller universe, both astrographically as noted above but also in using familiar ideas, technology, races and so on. Meanwhile, I also rather liked a sort of pause at the half way mark that suggested almost a two part book (although it’s not), and that the proof-reading of the text is top notch. I don’t ever recall being brought up short by typos or errors. Not that I was looking for such things but I’m relatively sensitive to them.

The print-on-demand is serviceable enough with a solid paperback, attractive easy to read text, as well as an excellent and atmospheric cover by Emrys Ryan showing a Droyne warrior against a city and moon backdrop. If I had any complaint it would be the back cover blurb being in all caps with a bordered font that’s a bit tiresome to read and isn’t particularly attractive. It does look ‘modern’ however, whatever that might mean, and seems to fit into the Traveller universe well. The book is also available as a PDF file and an EPUB if you prefer the electronic versions. I have not compared the three texts for any differences. Having said that, I did notice in passing that they’re not strictly identical as – for example – the PDF does not include the back cover text but does include the acknowledgements and ‘about the author’ in the contents listing which are missed from the contents page of the print volume. The front cover Droyne and the fabulous blues look absolutely glorious full screen on a backlit device.

The author note at the end reveals a long time Traveller fan and this book shows it. For those who like their Traveller in longer fictional form occasionally, this is definitely worth the time, money or shelf space. It’s one I’ll remember five minutes after closing it and look forward to coming back to. I sincerely hope there’s more to come following this first novel. And if I’ve seen too much sun these last couple of days, I’ll know what to blame.