Tom Kratman’s new book Carnifex is a sequel to A Desert Called Peace which was published only a few months ago. It continues the story of Patricio Carrera on the war-torn planet of Terra Novo where history and the political forces of the world bear a not entirely coincidental resemblance to our contemporary world. Kratman continues his theme of using the science fiction setting to explore issues and events from the real world, and ends up producing insights and making strong political statements which are sometimes jarring but often right on the mark. Along the way he also manages to tell a pretty good story.
Carnifex picks up where A Desert Called Peace winds down, with Carrera and his Balboan mercenaries having swung the tide in the war in Sumeria and opened the door for a stable government under the sympathetic government of his local ally General Adnan Sada. The action now moves to two main fronts, the internal struggle for control of Balboa and the protection of the Legion’s homebase from Tauran Union ‘peacekeepers’ bent on maintaining the corrupt Balboanregime in the face of an electoral challenge from Carrera’s ally retired General Raul Parilla, and the mountainous nation of Pashtia where the last leaders of the Salafi Ikhwan terrorists are hiding out and regrouping their forces.
There’s a lot of very satisfying story in these two plot lines, between the political machinations in Balboa and the concerted effort to neutralized and subdue the terrorists in their home ground in Pashtia. But what I actually found most interesting was a third plot line involving Carrera’s development of a small naval force to deal with terrorist-allied pirates. The tactics and technology involved were intriguing in an aspect of terrorism and law enforcement which has a rich history but is little considered today, even though it certainly still exists.
Inevitably the book culminates with Mustafa ibn Mohamed ibn Salah (Terra Nova’s answer to Osama bin Laden) cornered after a pitched battle in the caves between Pashtia and Kashmir, and ultimately captured by Carrera’s Legion. It’s a nice bit of wishful thinking to see the chief architect of terror brought down in fiction in a way which has not happened here in our world. The final campaign also leaves Carrera a virtual husk of a man, almost destroyed by the megalomania which drove him to go to any lengths to avenge himself on the terrorists. In addition to all of its other themes, the book contains a strong message on the price one must pay for vengeance.
Throughout the book other plot-lines continue to be developed, including some exploration of the process by which Terra Nova was settled and the historical degeneration of society back on Earth. One rather satisfying element is getting to see the reprehensible Terran High Admiral Martin Robinson brought low along with a new despicable terrestrial oligarch, Marchioness of Amnesty Lucretia Arbeit. Seeing these symbols of corruption hoist by their own petard is rather satisfying. Kratman continues to explore the theme of the inevitable corruption and decadence which socialist rule decays into, and the abuses inherent to entrenched bureaucratic institutions. He also lays some groundwork for subsequent books in the series which might take the fight for freedom from Terra Nova back to Earth.
There is, of course, a strong element of ideological polemic in the book. Most of the time it fits in pretty well. Occasionally it’s a bit ham-handed. Examples with obvious real-world parallels become familiar and fairly easy to relate to. Some of the measures Carrera condones are extreme and unappealing, but understandable. The reliance on torture and assassination as means to an end can be troubling, but it makes sense in context. Kratman wants us to see what a real war on terror would be like and the degree of ruthlessness it would require, and that’s valuable, even if it makes the reader uncomfortable. His attacks on the transnational progressive elites of both Terra Nova and Earth still aren’t terribly subtle, but they’re well thought out and pretty convincing in context. Only a couple of the cheapest shots ring false, such as a brief dissertation on hostile alien plantlife like the Tranzi Tree and Progressivine which bear fairly contrived relationships to the groups he targets for criticism. Kratman’s first-hand familiarity with the real-world cultures and regions on which he bases his settings helps make the whole book more convincing.
Reading the book as I did, while controversy was breaking about Blackwater’s involvement in Iraq, added an interesting twist. The news was revealing the important role which mercenaries played in the real war at the same time that they played an even larger and more glorious role in Kratman’s book. Carnifex also brought home to me even more than Kratman’s previous book, the guilt which attaches to those organizations and individuals who for their own political advancement are willing to tolerate the barbaric behavior of terrorists and tyrants when they share a common enemy, especially when that enemy is individual liberty.
On the whole, Carnifex is a good read. It will offend some readers, but those readers probably wouldn’t have made it through the first book anyway. For the rest of us it’s a valuable combination of literary entertainment and thought provoking exploration of thinly disguised recent history. Kratman should get to work on a sequel, because I’m eager to see how Carrera and his followers deal with the decadent oligarchs of old Earth.