#301 — Decision at Thunder Rift by William H. Keith

I recently wrote an article about a fan made update to the classic wargame Battletech, which rekindled my interest in the game. It also rekindled my interest in the lore, and made me want to take a deeper dive into it.

At its core, Battletech is “Game of Thrones IN SPAAACE!” You have a setting which had a distant golden age that is now the stuff of legend, various powerful houses vying for control and all the intrigue that comes with it. Unlike something like Warhammer 40K, which is grimdark to the point of parody, there’s something about the core lore that feels real, even if it’s not realistic.

And that, in essence, is what covers the first official Battletech novel, Decision at Thunder Rift. The first of the Gray Death Legion novels, this series would go on to create a defining point in the game’s world-building, as they are ultimately responsible for some world changing events that affect the game later on.

Books tied into games are nothing new, but I was always wary of them as a kid. However, as I’ve said many times in past reviews, I was a dumb kid who made dumb decisions. I dismissed game tie-in books as fluff and assumed I wouldn’t get anything out of it other than some pew-pew-boom-boom. I dunno, maybe I assumed they weren’t written by “real” authors?

I kind of have to have an open-mind about game tie-in novels these days, considering my latest SF novel, Lost Souls, started life as a tie-in to the game Elite Dangerous… until they chose to stop making those and I decided to make my own SF universe for it (with blackjack and hookers).

Decision at Thunder Rift is written well, though it’s definitely a product of its age. If you think of military fiction of the 80s (written or filmed) aimed at an adolescent or young adult audience, you’ll know what I mean. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something to be aware of.

Interestingly, the setting of this book has something in common with another book I’ve reviewed: the Shadeward Saga by Drew Wagar. Both take place on a planet orbiting a red dwarf, which means the planet has to be very close to it to sustain life. William’s world of Trellwan isn’t tidally locked the way Drew’s world of Esurio is, but it does have extremely long days (like a month long).

While Drew’s book goes into far more detail about his world’s science and ecology, William doesn’t just drop you on a generic earth biome the way you might expect. He provides more than enough detail to make Trellwan feel like a real world, taking into account the effects of a very short year and very long day on the planet and its inhabitants, as well as the close proximity of the sun and solar flares.

But that’s just the setting. As far as the story goes, well, it’s an origin story. A young and untested Mechwarrior, Grayson Carlyle, sees his father killed and his unit destroyed and scattered after they are betrayed during the flashpoint of an invasion. Carlyle is left for dead, and is nursed back to health by a local merchant.

At first, the focus is on personal survival and possibly fleeing the planet, but when that proves impossible, Grayson gets caught up in a battle against some ‘Mechs raiding the local city of Sarghad, and manages to rally the local troops and disable one of them. He ends up being heralded as a hero and is tasked with creating an anti-‘Mech unit to defend Sarghad.

Unfortunately, political infighting, betrayal, and hidden motivations get in the way of things going as smoothly as planned.

This is a formula you’ll see repeated in various games over and over again: being knocked down to zero and building up a fighting force and overcoming incredible odds. But to William’s credit, it’s not just about that. Secret intrigues aside, what holds the interest of any reader is a book’s characters, and I was invested in Grayson enough to want to see what happened next, how he would navigate the next hurdle, and whether he could get people to come onto his side.

However, it is a military novel, so the tech and tactics are going to be characters in their own right. For fans of the game and genre, this is where you end up feeling what it’s like to be in the cockpit, to coordinate with your teammates, to make plans and to improvise when those plans fall apart. The trick is not to let this overwhelm your story. Counterintuitive as it seems, action for action’s sake cannot sustain an action story.

Fortunately, William does not have this problem. Watching Grayson navigate treachery within his ranks and finding unexpected allies is where this story really holds my interest, and makes me want to read the next book in the Saga of the Gray Death Legion.

For those interested in the game, this is a great introduction to the setting in a more grounded sense, focusing not on empires, but a small group of characters just trying to survive in it.

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