Greetings fair travelers of the perilous realm! Grail Quest Books has recently released the second collection in their series of Wars books. These books are based on an old trading carding card series from Decipher about an ongoing conflict between the corporate entities of Earth, the collectivist Gongen of Mars and the cybernetic and hyper-individualistic Mavericks. The Battle of Phobos books are about the very beginning of this conflict. Individually they are short and entertaining reads and well worth the price of admission. And in honor of their latest release, I’ll be re-posting all my reviews of that series. Enjoy and don’t forget to buy a copy!
I recently read the first two books in the Eathers series for the Battle of Phobos books written by Nathan P. Butler and published by Grail Quest Books. And I have to say, I was quite pleased by what I found.
First, a bit of background. These books are based on the trading card game Wars from Decipher. The basic premise of the game is that in the somewhat distant future, humanity has at least begun to colonize the solar system. Mars is fully inhabited mostly by people of East Asian descent (due to some sort of nuclear accident in that region of the world and there are apparently outposts elsewhere, such as Venus, the asteroid belt and apparently as far out as the moons of Saturn. The center of government is of course Earth which is now nationless and controlled by corporate interests. While things were initially peaceful, fissures began to manifest between Earth and Mars as the societies developed in different directions. The Marsians developed a monolithic and centrally planned society which contrasted with the extremely individualistic and pragmatic nature of the Earth’s corporate culture. As a result, the two societies eventually became politically as well as culturally isolated from each other, leading to the Marsians renaming their planet Gongen and declaring independence from Earth.
Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with the Earthers and tensions have only increased in the years since and are nearly at the breaking point at the beginning of the story, with any misstep by either side likely to result in full-scale war.
Beginning with Hunters and Healers we enter into the story meeting not Earthers or Gongens, but Mavericks. These are for lack of a better term, cybernetic space pirates. They are a seemingly rag-tag band of social outcasts/rebels who have rejected the strictures of both Earther and Gongen society. In any case, we meet them helping Dr. Thomason Grayger, a recently outlawed Earther scientist to escape Earther controlled space.
The escape does not go as planned as the doctor’s transport is set upon by a CGC patrol that follows them to the Maverick’s way station in the asteroid belt. At the same time, XeLabs – the megacorp that Grayger had worked for up to that point also sends a team to deal with the doctor, undercover of a mission to rescue the CGC patrol. The result is a sprawling battle for the fate of Dr. Grayger with the XeLabs team and the CGC on one side and the Mavericks, featuring the menacing Joker Danniko and pilot Pepper Tokarates and…a little surprise on the other.
The XeLabs team of Rogan Hallard, Jerlen Krae and Alek Lissen make up the core of the book, with the first two being fine representations of the reluctant but vary capable warrior, which we see mainly through the eyes of Hallard as he struggles with fact that he and his team have essentially been sent to assassinate Grayger. Lissen is essentially the archetype of the young and charming genius, as good with the ladies as he is with the books.
Jannett Yens of the CGC team provides a slightly different perspective, serving under a commander who may or may not be sane in a culture that has no trouble leaving people behind to die.
Despite the fact that the story is very fast paced with a lot of action, the characters are well developed as Butler does a good job of describing their personalities through their actions in conjunction brief internal monologues. I do think some of the ways in which Yens reacts to her situation are somewhat inconsistent, showing her at times to be seemingly unaffected by the obviously traumatizing events that she witnesses. This wouldn’t bother me if one got the sense that she was a seasoned veteran but it just isn’t there.
There are also some points in the battle that don’t seem to flow quite right but these are fairly minor quibbles.
On Red Soil picks up sometime later and takes place primarily on Mars, or Gongen if you prefer. Things begin with tensions between Earth and Gongen higher than ever after the Earther military destroyed a Gongen freighter. Earth’s ambassador Kippli Darnel is trying desperately trying to smooth things over and prevent the incident from precipitating the war that everyone knows is coming when he suddenly comes into possession of important information concerning Gongen’s preparations for the war. Immediately after this, he is informed by a Gongen politician Ito Ryuu that he is being expelled from Gongen. Darnel is floored by this, both because of what it means for relations between the two worlds and because it means that he will be separated from his wife and son who have chosen to remain on Gongen. As a father, I definitely felt Kippli’s pain here. The thought of being separated from my family like that is devastating.
Darnel’s departure is mysteriously prevented though, forcing him to go into hiding, kicking off a search for the missing diplomat. At this point, we meet again the team of Rogan Hallard and Jerlen Krae, arriving in their ship, Shadowsurfer. Through the manipulations of the Machiavellian Jylan Rathe they are also rejoined with Jannett Yens, now working as an analyst aboard the ship Atlantis in orbit around Mars.
Here, Butler shines as he describes the bonds that have formed between the trio, especially Hallard and Yens and how these bonds conflict with and are strained by the duplicitous and manipulative nature of the organizations they all work for.
Of course, the Earther megacorps are not the only entities capable of duplicity as Ryuu amply demonstrates at many points. This is particularly interesting given the strict codes of honor observed in Gongen society. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the book, and I suspect of the Wars universe in general, the contrast between the dominate individualist and pragmatic philosophy of Earth and the collectivist/honor driven philosophy of Gongen. Both are shown at their best and worst through the actions of the different players involved, with neither necessarily being favored over the other. If it does seem that the Earther side is being favored, there a couple of things to remember. The first is that these are both books written from the Earther perspective. There are others written from the Maverick and Gongen perspective as well. The second is that Rogan Hallard is not exactly happy with many aspects of his own culture and his own application of its philosophies are closer to the Gongen mode of thought than that of fellow Earther Jylan Rathe for example.
Yet another intriguing aspect of this book is some of the historical parallels. There are obvious and explicit parallels (possibly too explicit) drawn with the American Revolution in that much of Gongen’s consternation originated when they were cut out of the political process, a process that still results in policies that effect that world. Another is that there has been a split in the Catholic Church as well, with Gongens appointing their own Pope. I would be interested to know if he was chosen by local cardinals (under government pressure) as happened in France during the Great Schism or strictly by the government as has also happened at many points in the past, and even the present.
To wrap things up, both books are good, fast paced tales with likable characters and interesting philosophical and historical undertones. The second is certainly the stronger of the two but I can still confidently recommend the first as well and look forward to reading the author’s other works.
Again, you can find the first Earther novella in the Preludes collection and the second on in the recently released Stretti.