Reviewing “A Pillar of Fire by Night”
I have kept nearly book I’ve purchased or received in the last 17 years. Reading and a love of literature are a hobby my mother taught me, even though she was by no means a fan of reading herself. With extremely rare exception, she encouraged me to read all that I could get my hands on. My father (the real bibliophile in our house) even told me he understood if I read Marx, Hitler, or Mao, so long as I understood what their idiotic socialist theorizing led to- pointless death and starvation.
Across the years, I’ve come to appreciate the joy of reading. When you’re stuck in Helmand province with not a damn thing to do but wait for fire missions, books are a wonderful way to pass the time. They don’t run out of batteries, you can mark your page if you need to stop, and immediately go back to it when you’re done with tasks. Perhaps the most militant of all the authors I’ve read in nearly 31 and a half years has been Tom Kratman. It’s been an amusing evolution to say the least, but in that vein, I get to review his newest piece of work- A Pillar of Fire by Night. We’ll refer to it by its initials (APoFbN) for simplicity’s sake.
APoFbN begins with a fairly short prologue of what has gone before (pages 3-8), followed by a list of important characters. Unlike David Weber’s Safehold novels, the character list only comprises pages 9-15, rather than 75 pages! Kratman’s work carries it with an air of conciseness we would expect from a career infantryman. There is not time for navel gazing and pondering the deep notions of the universe, unless it drives the plot forward. Fans of his work will appreciate this as we’ve been waiting since The Lotus Eaters (2010) for this fight to happen.
The Tauran Union’s collective armies, led by Bertrand Janier, begin what most feel will be the final assault of titular Balboa. Through it all, we see characters acting and behaving as soldiers would. There is friction, reaction and a certain level of ‘fog of war’ in the ongoing events, both in Balboa and elsewhere across Terra Nova. Both sides go through it as well- there is no obvious boon or modifiers given to the hero’s army throughout the novel, until it’s time for the expected counterattack. This gives the work far more authenticity than similar but clumsily hamfisted attempts made by Scalzi with Old Man’s War or The Collapsing Empire.
I’ve reread the entirety of Kratman’s work at least 3 times. Paying me to finish Old Man’s War or Collapsing Empire won’t happen unless the decimal point on your offer is preceded by at least a ‘5’ and six zeros. Part of what helps Kratman ring true for readers such as I is that it does have those elements we can identify as genuine to martial service. You’re going to have junior enlisted who bitch about the quality of the food, or lack thereof, just as much as they bitch, piss and moan about the enemy trying to kill them, You’re going to have an NCO offer to shoot/stab/beat the person bitching. And if you think the NCO won’t follow through, just remember- at night, who’s to say whether Sergeant Biggus Dickus drop kicked Private Shumckatelli as the sergeant came off the back of a 7-ton, or Shmuckatelli tripped and fell because he’s a clumsy idiot? Both are equally believable.
The Carrera series is an epic, much the same as David Drake’s work in the Belisarius series. There, Drake was subtle with certain reveals to the characters and to the fans. Deadly with the blade is Belisaurius sound familiar? There was a point to that. With the Carrera series, we see the plans made across nearly 2 decades of war as the titular character prepares for battles yet to come. There is anticipation in the matter- when are we finally going to see Spathas in battle, or Volcano FAE land mines? APoFbN answers that in adroit fashion. The author’s attention to detail, consistency with ranks, organization and equipment, as well as character development make the series a pleasure to read.
Kratman also gives us the developing relationship between Patricio Carrera and his son Hamilcar as the latter grows into a battlefield commander in his own right, not simply because of his last name. Fathers have to learn to trust sons at some point, and their relationship is no different. Father-son bonding seems to involve much of the martial, like my own relationship with my father, both as a child and teen in his house, and then later as an adult in my own. It’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, but it is genuine. Make no mistake about that. Men bond through fighting (with each other and together). As a father with my own son to raise, Daddy and I bond as we discuss the best ways to help rear that stubborn blond-haired blue-eyed hapa haole son of mine.
A Pillar of Fire by Night is absolutely worth purchasing and keeping. I bought it at my local Barnes & Nobles on Wednesday night and read it Thursday morning before I went to classes. Putting it down before completion was not on the agenda- it’s the second to last book in the series! I don’t want to miss a damn thing. And I didn’t. I’ll be rereading it as soon as I get done with finals next week (graduation is less than 5 months away!).
A note here is necessary- I am friends with Tom Kratman. Have been for a good while. I read his work before I enlisted in the USMC and read it through both deployments. I disagree with him at times, because friends can do that and still remain friends. I enjoy his work, both for the authenticity and what he says about our contemporary culture. I identify with the characters and the experiences they go through because it is true to life in the Armed Services. This review is as honest an assessment of his work as I can make it. I praise it because it has earned that. Had it sucked, I would’ve damned it in equal measure. But Kratman has made the effort to write a great piece of literature, and it shows. Really, the only people who won’t enjoy this are transnational progressives, dictators, bigots that can’t see past “a white man wrote something” and everybody encountering his work for the first time who now have to go back and read the rest of the series to get caught up. The latter will be fine once they get finished reading all 7 novels presently in print. The rest of those named? Who gives a damn about them? Certainly not me.
Tom, thank you for writing this series, and seeing it through to completion.