Prince of Sparta

The final installment in the Raw Feed series on Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium series.

Pournelle’s future history includes other works, but I won’t be covering them right now.

Raw Feed (1993): Prince of Sparta, Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling, 1993.Prince of Sparta

Next to The Mercenary, this is my favorite in Pournelle’s CoDominium series.

The whole imagery and theme of comparing Skida Thibodeau to a wolf – a sociopath beyond moral tradition, custom and law, a creature of pure will and intent, a barbarian, a soulless human animal – is unlike Pournelle’s solo work as is the more in depth characterization. Some stylistic elements – abrupt romances, extensive epigraphs – real and fake – could be Pournelle or Stirling. I suspect Pournelle contributed most of the military knowledge and plot outline and Stirling did the writing and fleshing out of characters. The novel presents a very plausible situation worked out in political, economic, and technological detail. However, Pournelle isn’t usually given, in his works, to giving the sort of social/cultural details that other writers, say William Gibson, would. We learn, for instance, very little of what people do for entertainment in this world.

I liked a variety of things in this novel. Pournelle does a good job showing the complexities and many factors to be considered in waging war. A quote from Clausewitz about war not being the simple thing it looks sets the tone — not just waging a war of counter-insurgency, which was the theme of the preceding Go Tell the Spartans, but other military matters. There is the question as to how to handle rebel leader Dion Croser: let him hide behind the laws of a Republic or stamp out his treason through perhaps extra-legal means? There is the discussion of how the modern troop must be capable of initiative and be highly trained versus the guerilla who is terrorized into following orders. This is well brought out in the book’s set piece – the battle of Stora Mine – in which guerillas are thoroughly disorganized and reduced in effectiveness when their complex battle plan is upset. We’re constantly reminded no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. However, the well trained Brotherhoods of Sparta and Falkenberg’s Legion carry the day in large part through individual initiative of officers. Stora Mine is also used to show that the devious plans of amateur Skida Thibodeau are easily upset which is why professional troops like the Legion don’t try them. The battle also shows the difficulty of coordinating attacks as opposed to defending in a set area. The final battle for Sparta City shows the importance of individual courage and morale as second line militia and ordinary citizens stave off a massive urban assault by Helots. The ultimate defection of CoDominium marines from fighting the Legion to helping Spartans against the Helots shows that victory is not achieved ultimately on the battlefield but when you create the desired psychological conditions in your opponent’s head, break their will to fight, and that will is not always broken by the terror methods of Skilly Thibodeau.

I also liked getting closer to the Ragnarok destruction of the CoDominium than any other book in the series though the fate of Admiral Lemontov – sort of, in a very minor way, the Hari Seldon figure of this series – is not totally settled though it seems bleak. The scrabble of CoDominium officers to choose sides with various CoDominium factions was highly and deliberately suggestive of the collapse of the Roman Empire (though there it was more a case of barbarians becoming incorporated into the Empire and establishing kingdoms after its collapse). Various officers are keenly aware of the value of their knowledge and the men and officers they command and are prepared to be bribed by places like Sparta into helping establish kingdoms after Earth’s destruction. While the exact outcome of events is uncertain at novel’s end, we know from Pournelle’s King David’s Spaceship and The Mote in God’s Eye that Lysander will become the leader of an Empire built on Sparta.

The denouement of the book, Lysander’s coronation at the hands of his military men and CoDominium officers interested in preserving civilization (Skida Thibodeau and her rebellion are seen as a harbinger of the barbarian forces that will soon threaten civilization) was well done and fit in with the book’s opening epigraph from Tacitus (written concerning AD 69’s Year of the Four Emperors) about the secret of Empire being that an emperor didn’t have to be made in Rome. Lysander is a military leader from the colonies. I liked the cordial Legion-Sparta relations. I suspect the presence of Stirling is the reason for an uncharacteristic, for Pournelle, number of subplots and characters. In particular, I liked Lysander’s determination to give Sparta a fleet, so she is no longer at the mercy of the CoDominium and other planets with ships. I also liked Geoffrey Niles moral rehabilitation as he becomes increasingly horrified by Skida’s actions and begins to fear her even more.

While I bought his defection to the Spartans and even his desire to become a citizen, I didn’t quite buy his instant romance with Margreta Talkins nor the others pluck in the face and aftermath of torture. Still, the latter two things are about my only quibbles with this book. Stirling and Pournelle paced this book very well with a good balance in telling us only the details we need to know, never dulling the suspense, only following characters when necessary to further the plot and thematic developments. I liked this book a lot.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.


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