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The Excalibur Alternative    by David Weber order for
Excalibur Alternative
by David Weber
Order:  USA  Can
Baen, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by Theresa Ichino

David Weber shows again his mastery in The Excalibur Alternative. A group of 14th-century English knights, archers, and retainers is kidnapped by aliens to serve as 'enforcers' on technologically unadvanced worlds. Lost in a bewildering new world, the English manage to preserve their sanity in order to preserve their lives. They are balanced on a dagger's edge, for they will live only so long as they are useful - and victorious - as they fight battle after battle on world after world, forcing the unfortunate natives to bow to the will of their new master.

In Weber's stories, a belief in honour, courage, and discipline is evident. Sir George Wincaster, Third Baron of Wickworth, commander of the exiles, is a remarkable personality. He is all that a knight should be: brave, honourable and loyal not only to his liege but to his responsibilities, which include even the lowliest of his people. His unswerving determination to protect them in the alien world in which they now find themselves is his guiding principle. The 14th-century soldier is an intelligent protagonist, who observes, learns, and adapts, never forgetting the precious lives that depend on his leadership.

His people are equally remarkable. Weber creates strong female protagonists, and Lady Matilda Wickworth is no exception. Women of her time and station were not fainting damsels. When their husbands went off to war, they were responsible for governing and defending their estates and the people whose lives were entrusted to them. Additionally, Matilda's indulgent father permitted not only that she learn to read, but to read whatever she chose. Despite the mad new circumstances, Matilda continues to stand strong at her husband's side. Father Timothy, priest and ex-soldier, maintains an unwavering belief that God has not forsaken them. With such leaders, Sir George's people rally to meet the challenge of staying alive and sane.

The characters are immensely likeable. Sir George's gift for warfare does not blunt his awareness of its cruelty and stupidity. He mourns for the dead of the four-armed aliens he is forced to kill, even as his hatred for his callous masters rises. A millenia-old Federation has several iron-clad rules, one of which forbids the use of their futuristic weapons on primitive worlds; hence the English, and before them a similarly kidnapped Roman legion. The technologically advanced aliens routinely enslave less advanced species, using them as callously and thoughtlessly as tools. They are ruled by commercial self-interest and care as little for the environmental havoc they wreak on their victim worlds as for their slaves.

Years, even centuries pass. The humans have spent much of this time in stasis, travelling between worlds. Additionally, they are kept youthful and healthy by the near-magical medical technology of the Federation. Sir George has not given up hope of eventually winning their freedom. In the meantime, his fighting force has been battle-honed to an impossible degree, for his men learn from experiences that would mean certain death on Earth. Curious and adaptable, Sir George is a graver threat than his alien masters realize, especially when he wins the trust of another slave race, dragon-like aliens who have never forgiven their own centuries-long enslavement. He and his new allies plot to seize the ship and find a new home world for both species, a necessity for human survival. The 'dragons' warn Sir George that Earth will probably be slated for destruction, once the Federation realizes how quickly humans learn. Above all things the Federation fears a change in the status quo. And indeed, events on Earth are reaching crisis point.

This is grand, sweeping action, with duty, honour, and sacrifice as threads that anchor the human spirit. Weber's optimism about humanity, pulse-pounding action, and a wealth of fascinating characters make for a wonderful read. For a history buff and an SF fanatic, it doesn't get better than this. Like Keith Laumer, Weber presents tales that engage our moral passions as well as our interest.
Note: This novel is a lengthier version of a short story by Weber, Sir George and the Dragon, published in FOREIGN LEGIONS in 2001, editor David Drake.

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