science fiction reviews

Review: Freehold by Michael Z. Williamson

"Freehold" by Michael Z. Williamson - cover photo by Baen Books

“Freehold” by Michael Z. Williamson – cover photo by Baen Books


On the plane back from LibertyCon I was able to finish up Freehold, first in the series by Michael Z. Williamson.

Looking over the reviews at Amazon, I see many five-star reviews (completely justified) and lots of one-star reviews apparently motivated by hatred of the book’s libertarian bent. One review starts out, “I really wanted to like this book, but it quickly became a tired repetition of Libertarian fantasy…” — that review’s not marked as verified purchase, so I suspect it’s just anti-libertarian axe-grinding.

What’s amusing is that Williamson’s “libertarian paradise” of planet Freehold, a breakaway colony of an Earth ruled by a micromanaging UN, is far from a paradise — it’s just different, relying on individualist philosophy, much as in the US Blue Tribe urban areas are politically very different from rural Red Tribe areas. These differences are exaggerated in this future, but neither Earth under the UN or Freehold under its minimal government are portrayed as perfect. Those negative reviewers illustrate exactly the issue addressed in the book — the collectivist Earth government can’t tolerate even the peaceful co-existence of a civilizational cousin that shows them up by thriving and outdoing them in growth and technological progress without the endless regulatory bureaucracy they believe in. People who believe in the One True Church of Government cannot tolerate even a fictional exploration of alternatives, where every individual is held accountable for their actions and those who don’t work, don’t eat. Heresy!

Aside from the politics, this tale of conflict is superbly-written and engrossing. Kendra Pacelli is a UN Forces worker in logistics, framed for embezzlement and forced to escape to Freehold. Williamson spends the first half of the book detailing Kendra’s escape, exposure to the individualist culture of Freehold, and training for the armed forces of Freehold. She goes through old-school boot camp, contrasted with the soft training she had received on Earth for the much less disciplined UN force. She also meets two attractive love interests and loosens up enough to enjoy Freehold’s casual nudity and permissive attitudes toward sex, which are contrasted with Earth’s prudery and acceptance of rape as something that happens but is no big deal.

So there is more on Williamson’s mind here than libertarian politics. Some action-oriented readers will find the first half slow as he builds up detail about Kendra’s character and contrasts her military training with Earth’s (and we are seeing this relaxing of training standards going on right now in the US.) But this buildup pays off in the second half, as UN forces invade Freehold and the surviving Freehold forces fight back with guerrilla warfare and incredible sacrifices to free their planet.

The lack of respect for liberty and military mindsets is an increasing problem with the academic, government-reliant culture of the pampered urban citizenry in the US. If you are unable to identify with Kendra, who is one of the best active female characters I’ve seen in fiction, you need to get outside your bubble more. Government schools no longer teach the history of Western civilization, and it shows when supposedly educated people recoil in horror at realistic depictions of war and frontier society.

Williamson is an increasingly rare type — the fully-civilized man, capable of violence and aggression when called for, but also a well-read student of history capable of great emotional sensitivity. Some passages brought me to tears, and he keeps the political commentary incisive and plot-driven.

Genre Reviews and Commercial Reviewers

Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews


I normally just pay for one review from Indie Reader, who are the indie version of a Kirkus or Publishers Weekly-style institutional reviewer. These institutional reviews are typically paid for by the publisher, but because their reputation as unbiased reviewers is what keeps the review companies in business, they are valued as neutral reviewers, though there are hints of bias — one could speculate they shade their reviews to avoid crossing the Big 5 publishers, and so will tend to go easy on “big books” that a publisher intends to push hard. But any favoritism to heavy advertisers is light enough that you can be sure that a truly bad book won’t be recommended, and a recommended book will be at least competent.

If I’m a publisher of reviews, I have several goals that sometimes conflict. If I’m the New York Times Book Review, I know my reviews will be read for entertainment by a readership that skews high in literary education and income, so my reviews will tend to play to that audience, which is why genres like science fiction and romance have a hard time even getting reviewed there, and often starting with two strikes against the book. If I’m running a SF&F website, my audience is readers of the specific genre, and the review will assume familiarity with the conventions of the genre and compare the book with other similar works, rather than being based on how the average literary fiction reader would view them. And in narrower niches, like mil-SF or zombie fantasy, it is assumed the readers of the review start out liking this sort of story, with these sorts of characters.

So I was leery of spending my publisher’s money to get a Kirkus review done. The review was glowing, but without the coveted star that tends to get notice from other reviewers and purchasing agents. I was interested in how they had treated other genre books, so I did a quick survey.

It appears that in the past, Kirkus assigned reviewers who were less than sympathetic to the book’s genre and intended audience. This review made me laugh:

GHOST by John Ringo

Mindless, misogynistic military slaughterfest, a change of scene from the author’s usual military SF beat (When the Devil Dances, 2001, etc.).

A middle-aged ex-SEAL with creaky joints, a bad back and a wrecked marriage, Mike Harmon retired on 50% disability and opted to return to college. But when Mike—codename: Ghost—observes a young co-ed being expertly snatched off the street, he investigates, and discovers a warehouse from which Islamic terrorists are shipping kidnapped girls off to the Middle East. Mike frees two girls and kills many opponents. As another consignment of girls leaves, Mike hops into the plane’s wheel well and ends up inside a terrorist base in Syria, where the bad guys are preparing to rape, torture and kill the girls in front of a video camera on the theory that this will induce the U.S. to withdraw from the Middle East. Fortunately, Mike has a GPS phone, so he calls in. Decisive President Cliff orders a SEAL team to the rescue. But girls are already dying, so Mike goes in himself, kills bin Laden and what seems like half the Syrian army. Despite being shot full of holes, Mike hangs in until the SEALs arrive. For his bravery, he receives a monetary reward and later gets to indulge his sexual fetishes (bondage, dominance) with a couple of co-eds in Florida. In the Bahamas, he kills many terrorists, gets shot full of holes and receives much money. In Eastern Europe, he indulges his taste for rape, kills many terrorists, etc.

Disturbing and disgusting. An incentive to never read books again.

But other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? This is Ringo. His books aren’t likely to be accidentally considered for reading by people like the reviewer, so the review is useless for deciding which violent testosterone-infused male fantasy adventure book to buy for people who enjoy that sort of thing.

One of the best writers of science fiction and fantasy, Lois McMasters Bujold, never got a starred review from Kirkus. Here’s the summary of their review of middle Miles Vorkosigan in Mirror Dance: “A well-conceived series, solidly plotted and organized, though heavy going in places and, finally, lacking that spark of genuine originality that would blazon it as truly special.” Kind of missing the point, no?

I was talking to my husband about this, and he commented that he discounted all science fiction movie reviews in major media until recently because most were so biased against the genre. The situation is changing as more younger reviewers who are steeped in genre get into reviewing positions, but it’s still hard to get respect for even the finest SF&F writing unless it comes with New York-style literary credentials.