Regular readers will know that I wasn’t a fan of Heinlein’s seminal novel Starship Troopers. I found it an unquestioning love song to the military. But, despite some superficial similarities, James Barclay’s Heart of Granite (review copy from Gollancz) is a much better and more enjoyable read.
Heart of Granite follows the exploits of Max Halloran. He is an arrogant, risk-taking pilot in the armed forces of United Europe, a futuristic power-bloc engaged in endless war. But in Barclay’s world, the people of Earth have harvested alien technology and DNA to create new weapons of war. Max pilots Martha, a fire-breathing drake, as part of Inferno-X, an elite squad of pilots based with others on a giant lumbering lizard (the titular Heart of Granite). In a post-fossil fuels world, war is being fought over land, which has inestimable value in growing food and biofuels. The challenges of aerial combat require minimal alteration to drake DNA, and a strong telepathic link between drake and pilot. This puts their human pilots at eventual risk of a career and life-ending phenomenon when dragon-senses and intelligence overwhelm those of the pilot: The Fall. But despite the risks, the thrill of flight and combat means there is no shortage of those seeking to become drake pilots.
Unlike the Heinlein, Barclay uses this set up to examine questions about expediency, and whether and how we value people as individuals in military hierarchies, rather than treating them as expendable resource, and the difficult trade-offs that sometimes have to be made. The military hierarchy have to make a hard decision about whether or not to introduce a drake upgrade. If successful, it could shorten the war and save the lives of many, but doing so will hasten The Fall, thereby shortening the lives of pilots. There are parallels here with WW2 fighter pilots, where scarcity of materials and construction challenges made the planes more valuable than the pilots. And echoes of Anne McCaffrey’s genetically-engineered dragons on Pern, with their close telepathic imprinting on their riders.
But over and above all that, Heart of Granite is a rollicking adventure story of dogfights, heroism, loyalty and cameraderie.
Goodreads rating: 4*