TITLE: The Chosen
AUTHORS: David Drake, S.M Stirling
SERIES: Raj Whitehall Series
The Chosen is a book that I like much, much more than it probably deserves. Objectively speaking, it’s a perfectly-decent science fiction book, with all the strengths and flaws of both authors present. But personally? I love this book. I have found myself returning to it time and time again. I’ve owned it for less than a year and I’ve probably reread it at least three times by now. This blog post is an attempt by me to work exactly what it is that makes this book such a good fit for me. Fair warning, I’m calling it a ‘Book Review’ because it’s my blog and I can do whatever I want but this is going to be a deeply self-indulgent article. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, come back next month. We’ll have something about Napoleon up. Probably.
(BTW: SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING)
The actual plot of The Chosen is simple. On the planet Visager, two brothers with preternatural abilities must help rally the Free World to fight against the Chosen, a nation of basically just-straight up Nazis. The context for this, however, is…….complicated. The Chosen sits at the intersection of two very weird series. First is the Raj Whitehall Series (also known as the General Series), also by S.M Stirling and David Drake. The plot of the General Series is that on the planet Bellevue, long after the collapse of the Generic Space Federation, civilization is slowly collapsing.
The remnants of the old Civil Government are under siege from barbarian hordes, and are stagnating, losing innovation and vitality and worshiping what technology they have without understanding it. Raj Whitehall is a general in the service of the Civil Government. One day, he stumbles upon a supercomputer from the Old Federation, which anoints him the Reunifier of Bellevue and Savior of Civilization. Over the next five books, Whitehall uses the knowledge and skills the computer (Center) grants him, reconquers the planet for the Civil Government, and reverses the decline of civilization. It’s pretty great. And it was pretty popular, so the authors decided to write a series of sequels. In the followup books, Bellevue has rediscovered Space Travel and is rebuilding the Federation. To aid in this, they make cybernetic copies of Center and Raj Whitehall’s personalities, load them into rockets, and seed them throughout the galaxy, with the intent of them helping other planets restore civilization. And in the same way that the first five books were a loose retelling of Justinian’s reconquest of the Western Roman Empire and the rise and fall of Belisarius (Yes they were, no, I don’t have time to explain), the spinoff books would each be based on a historical moment as well. Except The Chosen. That one’s weird.
While other books in the series are based off on the Fall of the Roman Republic and Ancient Egyptian Civilization, respectively, The Chosen is based off of S.M Stirling’s Domination of the Draka series. Now, THIS is a very weird alternate history series where Hessian mercenaries, Tories, and Confederate refugees settle South Africa, form a highly-militarized slave-holding caste society and eventually conquer the world. It’s pretty darn good, super depressing, and relentlessly grim. And The Chosen is just a straight-up retelling of that story, with the Chosen in the place of the Draka and the Republic of Santander standing in for the Alliance for Democracy. Which is bizarre? It’s an author rewriting one his most famous series but inside of another series? I just don’t know, man. Anyways, on to the self-indulgence!
WHY I LOVE IT:
- It’s a retelling of the Domination of the Draka but with a happy ending and you cannot imagine how cathartic that was. I love the Draka books but they are horrifically depressing. Over the course of the series, the Draka attack and conquer Europe, enslave and subjugate its people, and then finally destroy the United States in a cataclysmic nuclear apocalypse. There are elements of hope at the end, but even so, the books conclude with virtually all of Earth’s population going ‘under the yoke’. It sounds silly but the fact that the ‘Republic of Santander’ beats ‘The Land of Chosen’ in this book was such a palate-cleanser after wading through the darkness of the Domination.
- It’s a retelling of the Domination of the Draka but more realistic, which sounds like a crazy thing to say about a book that features the cybernetic ghost of a dead general but it seriously corrects some of the more ridiculous aspects of the Domination. The annoying thing about the Draka is that they are perfect. They have the world’s best-organized military, they’re the world’s best fighters, they lead the world in technological development, and they never ever have slave revolts. The Draka are portrayed as being such masters of subjugation that it takes them only a few decades to effectively stamp out all organized resistance in Europe. Those born into slavery are shown as having basically no conception of freedom. In The Chosen, the Chosen are shown having constant, ongoing issues with even their most “loyal” slaves. Foreign intelligence serves have huge networks of informants, there’s constant problems with sabotage, and when the Chosen start to lose the war they face mass mutiny and open insurrection. The Chosen have an excellent military but with serious strategic shortcomings. They have a fine technological research establishment but are held back by their own pride–they refuse to give up even on obvious dead ends. It’s pretty clear that both the Draka and the Chosen are based off of Sparta, another society that consisted of 90% slaves. But Sparta had slave revolts CONSTANTLY! It’s so nice to see Stirling revisit this theme, but with a less worshipful tone towards the Master Race.
- The war in The Chosen is very, very clearly based off of World War I, and as a Great War buff that alone got me interested. ESPECIALLY since a significant part of the book involves the naval war, and pre-dreadnaught battleships HAPPEN to be a particular favorite of mine. Seriously though, I just love the whole milieu of that era of warfare, and The Chosen takes it up just to the edge of Steampunk without ever indulging in the excess of that genre. We get zeppelin aircraft carriers and massive tanks the size of large buildings but it remains pretty firmly tied to plausibility. It ends up with this very weird style of warfare to be honest, as during the course of the book the WWI-level armored vehicles and aircraft they’re using are advanced to the bleeding edge of modernity. You end up with what a blitzkrieg of the 1920s might have looked like. Also, the Premier of the Republic of Santander is 100% explicitly based off of Georges Clemenceau, which is an Easter Egg that I’m pretty sure no one but me appreciated.
- The cultural ‘feel’ of Visager is very Latin, which I find a really interesting choice. I mean, to an extent, that’s a generalization. The Chosen all have Teutonic names (Gerta Hosten, Horst Raske, etc), and their language, Landisch, is written as German. The Republic of Santander is pretty clearly based off of England, in that’s a industrialized, democratic, mercantile, naval power, but even there the name ‘Santander’ invokes Spain more than anything else. As for the other major powers, there’s the Union del Este, where they speak ‘Fransay’, and have cities with names like ‘Nantes’, ‘Borreaux’, and ‘Marsai’. It’s obviously supposed to be France, though the politcal situation as described is much more analogous to 1930s-era Spain. Then there’s the Sierra Democratica y Populara. They speak Ispanyol there, and their capitol is Nueva Madrid. Finally, the largest country on Visager and the former hyper-power is the Universal Empire, which is very clearly based on Italy. Cities have names such as ‘Corona’, ‘Milana’, and ‘Napoli’, and characters have name like Pia del Cuomo and Arturo Bianci. I don’t know why I like this so much, but it lends a really interesting feel to the whole world that makes it stand out.
- The Chosen features two of my all-time favorite genre tropes. (1) People With Future Knowledge Must Modernize The Past. You usually see this in time travel stories; people get sent back in time and then must build a new, modern society out of the remnants they brought back with them. In The Chosen, the main characters aren’t time travelers but Whitehall and Center confer upon them the knowledge of mankind’s former history and technological heights. Much of the book consists of them clandestinely introducing new ideas and concepts into society. I don’t know why but I love this. (2) Preparing For The War. I always love stories about preparation. Stories that start with “you have ten years until the Aliens arrive, now do what you can to prepare”. The desperate, frenetic attempts at building up industry and assembling forces and laying the groundwork for the inevitable struggle are often more interesting to me than the actual war itself. In The Chosen, the final war doesn’t begin until 70% of the way through the book. Everything before then is diplomatic maneuvers, proxy wars, guerilla conflicts, and espionage as the two great powers glide towards war. As you can probably tell, these tropes fit together quite well, and it results in a book that may as well have been written specifically for me.
- Finally (at last!), I love that this book has a sense of historicity. This is something I say a lot about book I like, and what I mean by it is that I could imagine reading about the events of this book in a history book and I would believe that they happened. The Chosen are not defeated by a small strike force destroying their super-weapon at the 11th hour, or by defeating their King in single combat. The Republic of Santander bates them into overextending their advance, and then fights to a standstill in the bloody trenches of the Confrontation Line while using guerillas and air power to devastate their supply lines. Once they’re overstretched, Santander naval forces seize control of the sea lanes, trapping their armies in the continental interior, far from their homeland. As word of this disaster spreads, mutinies and slave revolts destroy the Land from within. It’s a plausible description of how a war between two super-powers might proceed. In fact, it bears some similarity to how the Allies defeated Germany in WWI, relying on the blockade to destroy the Kaiserreich’s army from within.
WHAT I DON’T I LIKE:
- You may have noticed that I never once mentioned either of the main character’s names. (Jeffrey Farr and John Hosten, for the record). They are perfectly fine. They exist. They do plot stuff. I have no complaints about either of them, but if you’re looking for a character-driven book this is not it.
- There’s a fair amount of torture and sexual assault in this book, which to be honest, is a bit of an issue with S.M Stirling’s writing in general. This book isn’t as bad as Draka, but it can still be off-putting.
- The book isn’t that long and it covers a period of about twenty years. This means the storytelling is quite brisk but that sometimes it can rush through stuff too fast. I wish it had more time to breathe.
WILL YOU LIKE IT:
I have no idea. Did you like the Domination of the Draka? You’ll probably enjoy this. It has some fun callbacks to the Raj Whitehall Series, though you don’t need to have read any of those books to understand this one. If you have a weird fascination with the naval warfare of the late 19th-early 20th century, you should read this, or if you’re a fan of either trope I mentioned above. But seriously, I can’t really defend this on the merits. It’s a book that may as well have been written specifically for my enjoyment. On that metric, it works splendidly. On any other, I’m not sure how well it would fare.