Back when I was a kid haunting the aisles of Waldenbooks, there were just absolute piles of licensed IP books—Star Trek, which I bought and read because I loved Star Trek; but also other ones that I didn’t know anything about, like the Forgotten Realms and DragonLance and Battletech. I eventually read the Forgotten Realms and DragonLance ones, essentially out of a misguided belief that popular things must have something meritorious to them (and hey, I like fantasy stuff); having learned that this was wrong, I abandoned that section of the bookstore for good.

Until now, because I just read William H. Keith Jr.’s Saga of the Gray Death Legion and Michael A. Stackpole’s Blood of Kerensky Trilogy, both early trilogies in that Battletech universe. I knew these books weren’t going to be good, but I read them because I bought the rulebooks and minis for the Battletech board game, and while the game seems interesting, it quickly became apparent that it was going to feel cold and sterile without some narrative connection to the setting. And to be honest, there was a part of me that was curious what was lurking on those Waldenbooks shelves, these long decades past.

And so, knowing what I was getting into and looking for dated nostalgia, the books were enjoyable enough that I burned through six of them quickly enough. (I picked the Gray Death ones because they were the very first ones published, and I figure they would give me the baseline sense of what the game was during its “Succession Wars” timeline; the Kerensky ones are the pivotal early novels of the “Clan Invasion”, which is a big deal in game terms.) But I want to emphasize all those qualifiers about “knowing what I was getting into,” because by any objective measure, these are terrible books.

The first three are particularly weak. This Keith guy isn’t a good writer (or at least, he wasn’t in 1988, maybe he got better over time), and the books are amateurish on every level from prose style to characterization to plot structure. The biggest problem the books have is that Keith really wants his hero (whose name is, for real, “Grayson Death Carlyle”—yes, the Gray Death legion is named after him and it’s purely a coincidence that it’s a bad-ass name) to be an underdog, and so he puts him into a position where he doesn’t have any mechs at all, and needs to attack a superior force.

Which is problematic, because the whole point of Battletech is that mechs are super-cool and ultra-powerful and awesome and that normal infantry or vehicles have no chance against mechs at all… but here’s a book that’s just showing mechs getting their asses handed to them by a smart kid with a flamethrower and a Jeep, even while it insists that they’re super-powerful and unbeatable. It’s silly, which is really just a good description of everything in the book, from battle strategies to romances. But it’s great at giving you a visceral understanding of what the different mechs are and how a Locust is different from a Phoenix Hawk, so purpose served for me.

Stackpole’s trilogy suffered for me by being apparently the fourth trilogy of Battletech novels written, and already being hip-deep in backstory, such that I constantly felt like I was missing references, because of how I was. Everyone in this book is either a major character from a previous series, or their kid. This would be less of a problem if this book weren’t just jam-packed full of plot, with a sprawling cast of characters who spend like a whole book just maneuvering around clumsily so they can be in the right places for the setpiece battles and campaigns of the next two books.

(One fun thing is that the setting is super-weird. Partly this is because it’s a future from 1988, so whenever they specifically envision computers, they’re primitive and pathetic… but every other tech just has permission to be magical, apparently. But then also partly it’s because it’s a setting designed to set up mech combat, because that’s what the whole goddamn game is about, so you need to have incredible materials science and neural interfaces, but also totally shitty wireless communications or e.g. targeting computers. The amount of handwaves you need to make the setting plausible enough for gameplay turns out to be way lower than the number you need to make it suitable for a novel.)

Anyway, in addition to all the other ways these books are terrible, they’re also from the 1980s, so like… you will be shocked to learn that the space faction that is obviously based on Japanese culture is big into honor and falling on your sword and so forth. There’s nothing that I remember as being grossly offensive (and despite a lot of focus on eugenics, it’s eventually proven out to be a stupid, untrue idea), but it’s obviously not how you’d write any of this today.

Ultimately, I can’t recommend these books to anyone unless you want to get into the right mindset to play a big ol’ game of fighting mechs from the ‘80s, in which case, they will do exactly what you want done.


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