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BattleTech: Threads of Ambition
Loren L. Coleman
Roc Books, 278 pages

Bruce Jensen
BattleTech: Threads of Ambition
Loren L. Coleman
Loren L. Coleman has written other BattleTech novels. They include:
BattleTech 31: Double-Blind,
BattleTech 32: Binding Force
BattleTech 45: Killing Fields.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Don Bassingthwaite

The time: March 3, 3060 (which, if the calendar I consulted is to be believed, would be a Saturday). The place: the Capellan Confederation, a stellar nation somewhat spinward of Terra in the zone of human-occupied space called the Inner Sphere. The man: Sun-Tzu Liao, Chancellor of the Capellan Confederation and First Lord (for now) of the recently reborn Star League. His plan: to... well, that's a little harder to figure out. Sun-Tzu is one sneaky guy.

Threads of Ambition is part of the extensive BattleTech line of novels and is the first book of a new duology. What, just two?? Yes indeed -- a refreshing change, especially from a line that has just wrapped up the eight (ouch!) volume Twilight of the Clans series. Mind you, when you step back and look at the breadth and detail of the BattleTech universe, a big series (30 novels in the line) barely puts a dent in things. Threads of Ambition is a good place to get into it all, though some aspects of the plot might seem a little bit distant -- but more on that anon.

BattleTech is, at its heart, a combat setting. The prime moving and shaking (a lot of shaking) is done by BattleMechs, giant robots piloted by MechWarriors. Big guns is only one part of a combat setting though. Strategy is another and BattleTech has it aplenty. The primary story arc of the line recently has been the invasion of the Inner Sphere by the Clans, fierce warriors descended from an idealistic army that struck off into deep space generations before. The Twilight of the Clans series describes the heroic battles and campaigns that eventually lead to the driving of the Clans out of the Inner Sphere and back to their home territories... and, of course, all of the other politics that happens around those battles and campaigns. Politics and treachery never take holidays. Threads of Ambition centres around some of that political manoeuvring.

While Victor Steiner-Davion leads a unified strikeforce against the Clans, things are afoot in the Capellan Confederation. The Confederation has been enjoying a renaissance under Sun-Tzu Liao and his Xin Sheng, or rebirth, movement. But Sun-Tzu wants more, specifically the recapture of worlds lost to the Confederation over the years and one cluster of worlds in particular: the St. Ives Compact was torn out of the Capellan Confederation by its ruler, Sun-Tzu's own aunt. And now it's time to get it back.

The story of Threads of Ambition unfolds slowly, played out over the course of a year as the narrative shifts between half a dozen protagonists. Sun Tzu is one of these protagonists, of course. His aunt, Candace Allard-Liao of St. Ives is another. The others are warriors of various ranks, temperaments, and affiliations.

Normally, I wouldn't necessarily expect such a collection of viewpoints to work, especially with gaps of weeks in the narrative. Loren Coleman, however, pulls it off with exceptional style. All of the characters are unique and memorable -- some more than others, of course. Sun-Tzu is suitably interesting and devious, but it's actually some of the lowlier characters that captured my fancy: Li Wynn, newly-made warrior and citizen of the Confederation; Maurice Fitzgerald, a St. Ives warrior hell-bent on success as a MechWarrior; and, later on, Ni Tehn Dho, a Confederation veteran brought back into service to command an occupation garrison on a recaptured St. Ives world. All of these characters have flaws and strengths that truly make them individuals and I'll be looking forward to seeing more of them in the second book of the series.

Coleman also shows an excellent balance in Threads of Ambition between story and game mechanics. One of the great dangers of game tie-in novels is an over-attention to the rulebooks. I recall reading a review of a game novel with the description "you can practically hear the dice rolling." This is the sort of thing that tends to limit the appeal of game novels for non-gamers. Threads of Ambition doesn't show that at all: game terms are no more intrusive than technical terminology in a general science fiction novel. The exception might be that while various models of BattleMech are named throughout the novel, there's not really much to distinguish one from another. A few line-drawings at the back help, but are really little more than teasers. Still, readers will certainly get the point -- these are great, giant whoppers of robots with a lot of weapons and tons (literally) of armour. Further description would just be gravy.

A little bit of something similar happens when characters (particularly Sun-Tzu) reflect on events happening in the greater BattleTech universe, drawing in threads of narrative that may delight long-time readers and gamers but might just leave new readers confused. As I mentioned before, Threads of Ambition nestles in among the other events of the setting and is to a certain extent dependent on them for some of its tension and motivation. Still, the exposition at the beginning of the novel and strategic points throughout cover pretty much everything the reader needs to know with a minimum of fuss.

Without a doubt, the most astonishing part of Threads of Ambition is the strategy of Sun-Tzu's plotting. To go into it would give away too much of the novel, but I think it's a sign of the strength of the strategic element of the storyline that at least three of the main characters are not among the ubiquitous MechWarriors. Everything in this plot seems well thought out. There's a strong sense that every action has a consequence with nothing left to chance. Sun-Tzu is presiding over a chessboard of planets and BattleMechs, playing so masterfully that his opponent doesn't have a chance. Set Coleman's characters against this kind of elegantly manipulated background and you get a really great book: the situation reinforces the immediacy of the characters and the characters reinforce the drama of the situation. "What happens next?" becomes a very important question.

Fortunately, you don't have to wait too long to find out. The Killing Fields, book two of The Capellan Solution, is due out in August.

Copyright © 1999 by Don Bassingthwaite

Don Bassingthwaite is the author of Such Pain (HarperPrism), Breathe Deeply (White Wolf), and Pomegranates Full and Fine (White Wolf), tie-in novels to White Wolf's World of Darkness role-playing games. He can't remember when he started reading science fiction, but has been gaming since high school (and, boy, is his dice arm tired!).

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