J. Steven York,
Fortress of Lies

(Roc, 2004)

Those still unhappy with the changes the Mechwarrior: Dark Age sagas have wrought to the original Battletech universe cannot help but warm up to new efforts such as this one by J. Steven York, the eighth novel in the new series. Fortress of Lies is not heavy with actual Mechwarrior combat, but its plethora of political intrigue offers further illumination on the weakening of the Republic. It also boasts some compelling, complex characters in the form of two different generations of the legendary Sandoval family line (as well as a somewhat stereotypical but very entertainingly independent ship's captain).

The destruction of the Hyper Pulse Generator has seen the Republic start to fracture; with instant communication among the worlds no longer possible, ambitious men exploit the situation to make power-plays of their own. Duke Aaron Sandoval, Lord Governor of Prefecture V, is one such man. The insurgency of the House Liao faction of the Capellans has provided the Duke with the opportunity to build a coalition of his own, as he has been hard at work promising neighboring worlds the stability the Republic is no longer able to guarantee. Due in no small part to the heroics of his nephew Erik Sandoval, the Duke has achieved an important victory on the world of New Aragon. He needs allies and, more importantly, the war materiel they would bring to his coalition in order to further his plans, however; only then will he feel emboldened enough to declare his loyalty to the House of Davion rather than the weakening Republic.

After the abrupt end of unsuccessful negotiations with the leaders of New Canton, the Duke's plans are almost waylaid permanently by the work of an assassin, but Sandoval is a survivor in the best Swordsworn tradition. If anything, the brush with death inspires him to accelerate his plans. He sends his nephew Erik to Shensi to secure an alliance with a reluctant but militarily strong potential ally; it's a tough deal to sell, as the Shensi seem likely to seek peace with House Liao. Aaron has a few cards up his sleeve, however, including a staged attack by the "Capellans" in the midst of Erik's negotiations. Erik, like the Shensi, believes the Capellans are attacking, and he is none too happy to find out later that his uncle sent him into grave danger without informing him of the attackers' true identity. This incident of deception on his uncle's part marks a turning point in Erik's life, as the seeds of mistrust for his uncle begin to sprout solid roots. His eventual self-interested move must wait for a later day, however, as the Swordsworn suddenly face the prospect of a back-breaking defeat on another pivotal world.

Mechwarrior fans will most likely wish for longer and more detailed Mechwarrior battles, as the one extended fight seems to end a little too abruptly. Somewhat offsetting this deficiency, though, is the added insight one gets into the state of the Republic in the new interplanetary communications dark age. It is hard to overstate the significance of Standoval's formal rejection of the Republic and public statement of loyalty to House Davion. Fortress of Lies sheds much light on the state of growing factionalism that is quickly replacing the peace achieved under the central leadership of the Republic.

York's first Mechwarrior novel is an absorbing read full of fascinating, well-developed characters. On the surface, it would seem that Erik is the noble character wronged by the evil Duke, but I actually liked and respected the Duke more than I did Erik. I had particularly ambiguous feelings toward Erik's new mindset at the end of the book, as his actions fell slightly short of noble. Still, he is a Sandoval, and he is beginning to live up to his heritage. It is obvious that there is quite a story left to be told about the future of the Swordsworn, and I personally hope that J. Steven York is the writer chosen to tell it.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 27 November 2004

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