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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
David Weber's The Excalibur Alternative is one of those rare novels that has an absolutely unexpected ending. When I finished this book -- totally stunned and incredibly delighted -- I felt like I was in one of those shampoo commercials, shouting, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" While I was reading this book, I kept wondering to myself, "What exactly is the Excalibur Alternative?" With just a few chapters to go, I found out. Wow. Because this is such a great ending, I'm not going to divulge anything else about it. You'll have to read the book to find out.
What I can say is that The Excalibur Alternative is based on a novella entitled "Sir George and the Dragon," which Weber wrote for an anthology, edited by David Drake, called Foreign Legions. The collection of stories was based on Drake's 1975 short story -- and later novel -- Ranks of Bronze. The story was based on an actual battle that occurred in 53 B.C., when Marcus Crassus led his Roman army into Parthia and was soundly defeated. Crassus was killed, and his tens of thousands of legionnaires were sold into slavery or used as mercenaries. In Drake's story, the legionnaires are sold to aliens, who use them as galactic butt-kickers. It seems the aliens are part of a United Nations type of organization that has outlawed the use of modern technology against primitive races. The aliens make the soldiers almost indestructible and use them to fight their wars.
Weber's novel takes place in the early 14th century. Sir George Wincaster and his father-in-law, Lord Cathwall, are leading a 17-ship expedition to France when a powerful storm hits. Many of the expedition's ships have already sunk, and as Sir George futilely tries to keep his ship afloat, he is forced to come to grips not only with his own impending death but also the death of his wife, Matilda, and young son, Edward, who are also on board.
But then something unbelievable happens. A huge aircraft appears in the blackened sky. "He couldn't grasp it, at first. Couldn't wrap his mind about it or find any point of reference by which to measure or evaluate it. It was too huge, too alien...too impossible. It could not exist, not in a world of mortals, yet it loomed above them, motionless, shrugging aside the fury of the gale as if it were but the gentlest of zephyrs. Gleaming like polished bronze, flickering with the reflected glare of lightning, a mile and more in length, a thing of subtle curves and gleaming flanks caparisoned in jewel-like lights of red and white and amber."
The remaining nine ships are effortlessly pulled from the water and lifted up inside the mile-long alien craft. Although more than 1,000 people are saved from certain death, George's father-in-law isn't one of them. Now, as leader of the ragtag group of men and women, George must figure out a way to keep his people alive. The commander of the aliens, a feathery, three-eyed dictator known as the demon-jester, informs George that he and the rest of the barbaric humans are now the property of the demon-jester's guild. Their purpose is simple: to defeat any primitive cultures that resist trading with the guild. If they do not succeed, they all die.
The demon-jester has other alien races on the spacecraft that act as bodyguards and security. George, who calls the other aliens dragon-men and wart faces, believes all the aliens are one big happy family. But when he learns the dragon-men are telepaths enslaved by the demon-jester's guild, his dream of freeing his people seems a little less impossible...
If you're a fan of alternate history novels like S. M. Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time and Harry Turtledove's Darkness series, will you enjoy this book? "Yes! Yes! Yes!" (Paul Goat Allen)