Part 1: It’s real, and it’s spectacular!
An Original Review by Atomic Moo Contributor Neko_Bijin
When a mother finally delivers her baby after a long labor you say “congratulations,” whether or not the baby’s ugly. So before I review the new BattleTech resource Handbook: House Kurita, let us first travel in time to the halcyon days of 2006. It was a heady time for BattleTech, known in those days as Classic BattleTech. A new edition of the rules called Total Warfare was released to no small acclaim, and the future looked bright. The House Handbook series was chugging along: House Marik had been released the previous year, and House Davion would be released the next. It was only natural that House Kurita should expect release some time in the next few years. Long-time BattleTech author Ben Rome was tapped and began work.
It didn’t go as planned. The license for the game franchise changed hands a few times, and the Handbooks, though high-quality fan favorites, were expensive niche products and weren’t selling. When House Liao arrived in 2011, it was widely believed that the series would end with each of the Great Houses and the major periphery states represented, except Kurita. Fans resigned themselves to a giant Kurita-shaped hole in their book collection.
So, is the baby ugly or not? Well, it’s hard for me to judge with all these tears of joy in my eyes. Perhaps the hydrocephalic, pixelated image of Hohiro Kurita is a bit startling. (I may have screamed a little.) But the nine-year wait is finally over. Draconians everywhere finally have a House Handbook of their very own!
Part 2: Preamble and History
A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.
The Draconis Combine is a place every bit as alien as the Arrakis of Herbert’s Dune, and our author must introduce the place as though his reader has no knowledge of it. All the while, he must keep his work in harmony with the dozens of novels and game source books that feature the realm of House Kurita. His opening bit of short fiction does just this
Fans of the BattleTech novels will of course recognize the celebrated Theodore Kurita, here Coordinator (head of state) of the Draconis Combine. We are introduced to the sinister O5P (“Organization of the Five Pillars”), which is equal parts priesthood, intelligence apparatus and ivory cartel, through the person of the Abbess Tomade Yamiro. The atmosphere of mutual fear and distrust between Coordinator and the Abbess sets the mood for our 220-page tour. The Combine is a paranoid society from top to bottom.
We also visit a line officer consulting the I-ching in re the naming of his son and another character from the novels, Shin Yodama, undercover among the Unproductives (bottom-most caste). The I-ching is well known to Western fans of Orientalist fiction, a device used most effectively in P. K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.
After glimpsing every tier of Combine society in miniature, we are plunged into the long, long history of this fictitious realm. The first two-thirds are a reprise of material found in the original House Kurita sourcebook; sometimes whole passages are repeated almost verbatim. The remaining material is a synthesis of the dozens of novels and game materials set in the Combine, including at least two by this same author, Brush Wars and The War of 3039.
Perhaps to the uninitiated the material is a bit dry, but for the BattleTech fanatic this is catnip: page after page of courtly intrigue and battlefield maneuver in ships among the stars and on the ground in giant ‘Mechs. The family history of House Kurita plays out like the Old Testament set in outer space: assassinations, poisonings, betrayal on the battlefield and in the bedchamber, and a queer episode with a cherubic doll that drives a man insane. This stuff is right up my alley. Is it up yours?
Part 3: Touring the Realm and the Pillar of Ivory
Every science fiction franchise has its own idiom with respect to planetary surfaces. Star Trek planets look like sound stages or like California desert. Star Wars has one climate per planet. Although the first BattleTech novel, Decision at Thunder Rift, described a tidal-locked world orbiting a red sun, most BattleTech novels take place on planets physically indistinguishable from Earth (called Terra). Many of the worlds described in the House Kurita hand book have been the setting for novels: Galtor, Hachiman, Luthien. You get a good sense of the Combine from a brief visit to these worlds.
The next section gives us the author’s first chance to stretch his wings. He gives us the Sanctum Arcanum, a secret room beneath Unity Palace housing Kurita patriarch Shiro’s sword and five enormous pillars, each of which symbolizes a different aspect of House Kurita society. [Something that confused me at first: the pillars in this room are all of ivory. The metaphorical Five Pillars are of gold, ivory, teak, steel and jade.] The room is under the control of the O5P, the less famous and more interesting of House Kurita’s two intelligence arms.
The author gives very specific codes of conduct for Kuritan society, including a long explanation of the rules for vendettas. We are also given an entirely fearless description of religion in the Combine, with none of the squeamishness or tone-deafness that ruins the fun in most other science-fiction settings. We are told which real-world religions are favored, which are unfavored, and why. We’re also treated to a few new religions, including a few borrowed from other science fiction.
I believe this section of the book was my favorite.
The author is clearly in his element here, taking joy in spinning new cloth out of loose strands. He took special care to work Clan Nova Cat (an ally from a thoroughly alien culture) into existing Kuritan social habits. The potential for interesting friction is high.
More to come!
See more of Neko_Bijin’s stuff at his Serious Blog!