Book Review: Come and Take Them III

RW provides the third review of Come and Take Them by Tom Kratman:

Tom Kratman’s Come and Take Them is the fifth book in his Carrera series.  This review of C&TT is based on this particular work alone since I have not read any of the previous four books in the Carrera series, which obviously influences my perception of key elements such as major characters and ideas, since many of these were most likely developed thoroughly in the thousands of pages that precede C&TT but only touched upon here.  With that caveat in place, I conditionally give a high recommendation for C&TT.  There are tradeoffs that the author made that weaken particular elements of the work when analyzed individually; but these decisions were made to forcefully drive the story forward, and the overall effect is that the work holds together very strongly.  Personally I enjoyed the book and plan to read the others in the series, but it is not hard to see where some people would not like Kratman’s style or opinions.

Characters (4/10)  Character development is sparse in C&TT.  One reason is that many among this “cast of thousands” (think Spartacus) serve little purpose other than to catch bullets (recommendation:  wait until a character has been mentioned in at least three chapters before becoming emotionally invested).  Kratman portrays these minor characters just enough so that the reader senses their humanity, then he shows them dying either heroically or cowardly, and usually gruesomely, very reminiscent of the realism found in Homer’s battle scenes.  For the major characters who were introduced earlier in the series, there is just enough description within either the introduction or from the context of their actions and thoughts to be able to reasonably infer what motivates them.  Occasionally the author will spend a brief moment elaborating on a character, particularly if it helps explain the actions that the he will take shortly, and less frequently as a bridge to other works in the series.  A third group, important characters who first appear in C&TT, lead to the rather poor review, as their introduction is little more than the author filling in a basic template.  Males are introduced with name, country of origin, and military rank or organizational position.  Females get the same introduction, but also with the vital statistics of hair color, eye color, breast size, and sexual orientation (somewhat comically, a woman’s first thought when meeting someone in this world is about sex).  Granted, these descriptions are more than adequate if the target audience is male, but this is one of the tradeoffs that Kratman makes: providing the bare minimum character development necessary for the story to proceed.

Prose (6/10)  Kratman’s perspective as narrator is very masculine, very militaristic.  This is not a criticism; it is very clean and direct and perfectly complements the tone of a book primarily about war.  A couple of notes about the structure of the book that I began to appreciate: the chapters are almost uniformly ten pages in length, and chapters do not end with the forced contrivance of cliff-hangers.  In other words, Kratman allows the reader to reach a good stopping point in short order, and also he has enough confidence in his storytelling that he doesn’t need to string you along to keep you interested.  The scoring for this element is mid-range for three reasons.  First, it is a warning to readers who prefer a more florid tome – I recall seeing only one metaphor in the entire 563 pages.  Second, and probably more important to readers of science fiction, is the description of the landscape of Terra Nova, which is essentially Earth’s geography physically and politically, except where the author says it’s different.  If you are looking for new worlds to explore, then move along.  Likewise, Kratman gives sufficient yet concise descriptions of the military technology employed, so readers will not confuse him with Clancy when it comes to details.  Similar to the final assessment of character development, each of these three criticisms represent tradeoffs that the author made to keep the story on track.

Plot (8/10)  The briefest of summaries is that Balboa defends itself against an attack by the elitist Tauran Union (change the names to Panama and European Union and you’ll be up to speed).  Carrera is the main protagonist, who makes most of the military decisions for Balboa, rightfully so, seeing how it apparently is his money that purchases the military equipment and supports most of the economy.  Over half of the book is about the preparations that he engages the country in to make it ready for the imminent battle.  An interesting, though not fully developed, parallel thread is Carrera preparing his son Hamilcar for adulthood.  This appears to be an arc that plays out over the series, with some issues brought up in C&TT that will probably be instrumental in later volumes.  Similar arcs are passed through while potential new storylines are introduced, but primarily the story takes place within the boundaries of Balboa and is mainly contained to the time around the preparation for and execution of the battle.  Even though a substantial portion of the book is about preparing for battle, Kratman keeps the story flowing by building tension as events escalate.  He efficiently provides enough detail of the military equipment along with strategies and tactics to keep the story interesting but not overburdened.  When the battle finally commences, Kratman switches gears to short blurbs, very briefly describing battlefields all across the countryside.  Who is winning individual battles is fairly clear, but who is winning the overall war, not so much.  Overall the storyline was thoroughly engaging.

Ideas (8/10) 
There appear to be continuously developing themes over the series regarding national identity and political structures which are continued in C&TT.  Other ideas briefly discussed include whether measurements of intelligence correspond to leadership aptitude and whether it is ethically acceptable to include physically and mentally handicapped and also children in the military.  Though apparently discussed more thoroughly in the fourth book of the series, the Amazon Legion, there is a discussion of how military units comprised exclusively of women, or homosexuals, would function in battle.  But the overarching idea of this book goes back to the title: “Come and Take Them” (if there were any doubt as to the reference, “Molon Labe” on the front cover should dispel it).  There are essential elements that must be true for that quote to have any backbone.  First is whether you should possess “them.”  Kratman addresses this by contrasting militarized Balboans to their pacifist neighbors to the east, the residents of Santa Josefina, who rely on the goodwill and peaceful intentions of the rest of the world.  They are overrun by the Taurans and don’t even recognize it.  Second, you must possess “them” prior to the time you need them.  Balboa procures various weapons, from heavy artillery and armaments to their own navy and small air force, while recognizing that there are opportunity costs.  Third, you must know how to use “them.”  Carrera sets up a three-tier military of highly trained regular, reserve, and militia units, along with establishing multiple military academies across the country.  Finally, you must be willing to use “them.”  After the Balboans decide to go all in, now the Taurans must determine how committed they are to victory – is it worth the cost to them as much as it is to Balboa?  These questions are pertinent to both the preparedness of a country as well as to individuals and families.