I reviewed Janissaries [Amazon link] by Jerry Pournelle in 2011, but I am going to do so again in preparation for the fourth posthumously published volume in the series. This is another book that made a big impression on me, and I want to do it justice.
First, the physical volume itself is one of my favorites. The cover of my Ace paperback from 1979 is credited to Enrich, and the interior really is massively illustrated by Luis Bermejo. Bermejo’s illustrations make the story come alive, even though as Ken Lizzi notes that often technical details are off. Ken points out that the CIA mercenaries in the book look to be carrying Ruger Mini-14s, even though the text refers to the men as using the H&K G3. I also the men are depicted wearing a shirt and trousers, but they are described as wearing one-piece coveralls.
Don’t let that keep you from enjoying this volume. Bermejo expertly captured the feel of Janissaries with its intrigue and romance. That the book itself feels sturdy in the hand only enhances this.
Jerry Pournelle pretty clearly followed in H. Beam Piper’s steps with Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen when he wrote Janissaries, but Jerry’s interest in cyclical history is visible here, along with the intersection of myth and archaeology. When Calvin Morrison ended up in an alternate version of Pennsylvania, it was a one in a million accident.
Here, Rick Galloway and his men aren’t the first set of mercenaries dumped on Tran by shady business aliens [again, the obvious bad guys in a Pournelle book are businessmen], but it happens infrequently enough that only half-believed legends portent what that really means.
We learn about all this at the same pace as Rick does, which is mostly after it might have influenced his decisions. Much of the key knowledge of what is really going on with Tran and the mercenaries resides with Gwen, a pregnant college student from Earth that Rick finds himself escorting after they are both left on Tran.
I enjoy the miniature intrigues and conflicts between Rick and Gwen, a microcosm of what Rick finds himself involved in with both local and galactic politics. Jerry also introduces a plot element he used several times in the Colonel Falkenberg books, of a woman stubbornly refusing to abort her child, no matter how inconvenient the child might be.
The Catholic themes really ramp up in later volumes, but since this is an event Jerry used frequently in his books, it sets the tone for his moral universe. His heroes are not always men of firm faith or explicit piety, but they usually follow a chivalric code that enables them to fit in well in societies bound by a code of honor. And Rick is a man of honor.
As Rick travels through Tran with Gwen and Tylara, a noblewoman on the run from her enemies, he turns to the second oldest profession, soldier of fortune. This is what he was doing anyway in Africa before he was abducted by aliens, but at least back home he had an institutional sponsor of a sort. This is purely freelance work. Rick of course has an unfair advantage, possessing both mid-twentieth century infantry weapons, as well as a good memory of historical tactics. But his position is precarious, his men few, and his time short, so it still isn’t easy to be Rick Galloway.
The strangely fractured cultures and technologies of Tran do make some sense in the world that Jerry created, but I suspect the ultimate reason is so we can get to see Jerry use his knowledge of military history to put together opponents who could never have met in the real world due to distance or time or both, like English longbowmen versus Roman heavy cavalry. That is much of the fun of Janissaries.
If I have a complaint about this book, it is that Jerry spends the first half just getting all the pieces set up. This was pretty clearly made to be a series, but Jerry died before he finished it, so that may not have been the best model to follow. It is a great book though, and a popular series of his. Given how deep I like to go on a book, I do kind of like this much backstory, but I also think it isn’t the best way to do a book, especially one of this style. That this book works at all is a testament to the inherent interest of the setting and characters.
And the characters are great. Rick is a very different man than Colonel Falkenberg, more of a Cincinnatus eager to get back to his plow than a man only comfortable in war. Tylara and Gwen are very different women, but well realized, strong but still feminine. I suspect that Jerry, like Timothy Zahn, was influenced by his wife in how he characterized women. I think so even more after hearing Roberta Pournelle’s eulogy, how bold and adventurous she was. After learning that Jerry was married to another woman who left him after the death of his second child, before he met his long-time second wife Roberta, gives me something of a clue as to why his male protagonists so often seem to be trapped in situations involving multiple women.
The setting, the characters, the implausible but fun ahistorical matchups, all this makes this book work, and I’m pleased to see I enjoyed it just as much this time through. Things will of course only get crazier as the series goes on, but this one could stand alone if you wanted to see a man go on the adventure of a lifetime. Highly recommended.
Other books by Jerry Pournelle
There Will Be War
Janissaries [first review in 2011]