Review of The Heretic by Tony Daniel and David Drake
The Heretic (Baen, April 2, 2013) is the newest volume in the General series. In previous volumes, Raj Whitehall had been selected by the sentient battle computer Center to be the father of the future in a revived Federation. Then Raj and Center had succeeded on planet Belleview so they were copied into thousands of probes and sent into space. This volume tells of how they adopt a young local on planet Duisberg to start the cycle again.
The problem on Duisberg is that there is already a computer named Zentrum running the planet and the locals view it as a god. There are priest which worship it, follow its orders and do things to keep innovation from changing the technology level.
The volume is really a coming-of-age story for the young boy, Abel Dashian. At age six, while his father is meeting with the district priest, Abel opens a storehouse door and discovers a trove of forbidden holy objects called nishterlaub (things made of advanced metals and plastics). The probe which brought Center and Raj to Duisberg is among this trove. When Abel enters the storehouse, Raj and Center start talking to him and decide he is possibly the one they need. They enter his mind and adjust things so he can understand references to more modern technology and take him on a virtual experience of flying to show him his world.
Abel is so stubborn that he bashes himself on the head with a rock to get the voices out of his head, but all that does is make Center need to perform some brain-repair on him. While that is going on, Abel’s thoughts are sent inside Center where he can see a visual of Raj. The story follows Abel as he attends school and becomes a military cadet. He is sent out on patrol with the Scouts for the first time when he is twelve. The volume follows his progress to adulthood and higher rank in the military. Raj and Center need him to be in a position that he can change things when Zentrum decides to make a deal with barbarians in order to keep the technology level down.
It is not necessary to have read previous volumes to like and understand this one. It is very plot-oriented and stays focused on Abel with the AIs only occasionally intruding into his thoughts. This volume shares some concepts with previous ones, mainly the Raj and Center influence, the drive to change the society to make it ready for contact and the military battles. Abel is sort of like Raj in the early books, in that his tactics look at a bigger picture than most of the other officers. He usually comes out ahead and sometimes does something totally unexpected by the enemy (Redlanders on this world) because he thinks differently due to the influence of the AIs.
Abel is very likable, interesting and you really care that he is trying to survive in a world where the powers that be are manipulated by a control-freak AI. The supporting characters, particularly the priests who befriend Abel, are also well-rounded and interesting. There are some “becoming-a-man” scenes in a pleasure house which are amusing, and reveal something of the crazy culture on Duisberg as well, so watch for those as you read.
If you like your military SF to have an individual perspective, if you like land battles, or you just like well-written heroic adventures then this book is for you.