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The Excalibur Alternative

The Excalibur Alternative

3.5 8
by David Weber

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Editorial Reviews

The 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)

Publishers Weekly
In the latest SF adventure novel from the creator of Honor Harrington, Weber (On Basilisk Station; Ashes of Victory; etc.) expands a short story, "Sir George and the Dragon," which appeared in the David Drake anthology Foreign Legions (2001), to good effect. The novel adheres to the story's basic plot: aliens of the Federation abduct 14th-century Englishmen to serve as mercenaries on planets where only low-tech weaponry is legal. But the author extends these events in several directions, with his usual mixture of apt characterization and historical sophistication (here regarding medieval weaponry and tactics). The Englishmen liberate themselves with the aid of the "dragon-men" (the Ternaui) and "Computer" (renamed Merlin), as well as the obstinate stupidity of their opponents. The narrative then leaps ahead several centuries to an ending that surprises both humans and aliens as they learn of the Empire of Avalon. The slam-bang action leaves little room for developing subplots beyond tantalizing hints, though this approach also means a streamlined story, in contrast to Weber's normally rather sprawling narratives. Newcomers to the author's work will do fine without having read previous books in the series. This novel makes an honorable companion to the late Poul Anderson's classic The High Crusade, which uses a similar plot idea. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
In this excellent entry in the sub-genre of military SF, a 14th-century army, led by Sir George Wincaster, is miraculously rescued from drowning at sea by a spaceship. But the rescuers are not altruists; George and his men (and families and camp followers) have been taken aboard to serve as a "barbarian" army, fighting for a far-future guild on low-technology planets for the greater glory of their masters. With certain death as the alternative, the army fights with great skill and deadly efficiency, but the mantle of slavery chafes. Can their native intelligence and human compassion help them to conquer their oppressors before it's too late for them...and for all of humanity? The author believes that good military strategy is good military strategy, whatever the century, and his readers will certainly agree. Buy where military SF and space opera are popular. KLIATT Codes: SA;Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Baen, 346p., Root
Library Journal
An alien spacecraft from the Galactic Federation rescues Sir George Wincaster and his army of knights and longbowmen from death at sea and forces the Englishmen to act as slave-mercenaries to fight intergalactic battles against other "primitive" species. When the captive soldiers discover allies in unlikely places, they embark on a bold uprising that leads to a surprising and fitting reentry into the history of their home planet. One of the genre's most accessible and skilled writers of military sf, Weber ("Honor Harrington" series) now delivers a lively and well-told tale of displaced warriors maintaining their courage and honor in the most difficult of circumstances. Based on a short story previously published in David Drake's Foreign Legions (LJ 6/15/01), this sf action adventure belongs in most libraries. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In this stupefyingly adolescent battle fantasy, bestselling Weber (March to the Sea, p. 906, etc.) kicks off a new series casting English bowmen into battles overseen by aliens from the intergalactic Federation. Back in the 1340s, Sir George Wincaster finds himself in a ghastly storm at sea. Half the fleet sinks; then the black clouds overhead break open, and lightbeams from a vast spaceship pluck up the nine remaining vessels. Oversized, double-jointed, emotionless aliens with two mouths, three eyes, and no noses impress the very large English army still left alive into serving their purposes. Sir George's men, superbly outfitted by Computer with unbelievably light but resistant plate armor and equipped with cloned horses, are ferried from one blood-soaked extraterrestrial battlefield to the next. Over the next 356 years, Sir George does not age, and his men remain physically at peak performance. But eventually the job of endlessly butchering natives for the starship Commander sickens Sir George, who is invaded by a dragon-man's intelligence and persuaded to help the dragon-men and save mankind in the bargain by taking over the ship from the Commander.

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Read an Excerpt

The Excalibur Alternative

By David Weber

Baen Books

ISBN: 0-671-31860-8

Chapter One

Demon wind greeted pallid daylight with hell howl fury. It was no true daylight, although somewhere above the clouds of seething black the sun had heaved itself once more into the heavens. It was only the devil's own twilight, slashed with body-smashing sheets of rain and spray, the rolling concussion of thunder, the bellow of wind, and the endless keen of rigging, all punctuated by the sodden percussion of torn canvas flailing to destruction.

Sir George Wincaster, Third Baron of Wickworth, clung to a stay, feeling it quiver and groan with strain while he kept to his feet by raw, hopeless force of will alone. The lifeline the vessel's captain had lashed about him when the hideous gale first burst upon them yesterday morning had ringed his chest in bruises, salt sores stung his lips, and rain and spray had soaked into his very marrow. He felt as if heavy horse had charged over him and back again, and despair was a leaden fist about his heart. He had been too ignorant to understand the captain's terror when first the weather broke, for he was a soldier, not a sailor. Now he understood only too well, and he watched almost numbly as the battered cog, creaking and groaning in every frame and stringer, corkscrewed down yet another mountainous, slate-gray wave, streaked with seething bands of spray and foam, and buried its round-cheeked prow deep. Water roared the length of the hull, poison-green and icy as death, plucking and jerking at his limbs and groping after every man on the staggering ship's deck. The hungry sheet of destruction smashed over Sir George, battering the breath from him in yet another agonized grunt, and then it was past and he threw his head up, gasping and hacking on the water which had forced itself into his nostrils and eyes.

The cog fought her way once more up out of the abyss, wallowing as the water cascaded off her deck through buckled rails. Broken cordage blew out, bar-straight and deadly as flails on the howling torrent of wind, and he heard the hull crying out in torment. Sir George was a landsman, yet even he felt the ship's heavier motion, knew the men-and women-laboring frantically at the pumps and bailing with buckets, bowls, even bare hands, were losing ground steadily.

The vessel was doomed. All the ships of his expedition were doomed... and there was nothing he could do about it. The unexpected summer gale had caught them at the worst possible moment, just as they were rounding the Scilly Isles on their way from Lancaster to Normandy. There had been no warning, no time to seek shelter, only the desperate hope that they might somehow ride out the storm's violence on the open sea.

And that hope had failed.

Sir George had seen only one ship actually die. He was uncertain which, but he thought it had been Earl Cathwall's flagship. He hoped he was wrong. It was unlikely any of them would survive, but Lord Cathwall was more than the commander of the expedition. He was also Sir George's father-in-law, and they held one another in deep and affectionate respect. And perhaps Sir George was wrong. The dying ship had been almost close enough to hear the shrieks of its doomed company even through the storm's demented howl as it was pounded into the depths, but the darkness and storm fury, broken only by the glare of forked lighting, had made exact identification impossible.

Yet even though it was the only ship he had seen destroyed, he was grimly certain there had been others. Indeed, he could see only one other vessel still fighting its hopeless battle, and he ground his teeth as yet another heavy sea crashed over his own cog. The impact staggered the ship, and a fresh chorus of screams and prayers came faintly from the men and women and children packed below its streaming deck. His wife Matilda and their son Edward were in that dark, noisome hellhole of crowded terror and vomit, of gear come adrift and washing seawater, and terror choked him as he thought of them once again. He tried to find the words of prayer, the way to plead with God to save his wife and his son. He did not beg for himself. It wasn't his way, and his was the responsibility for bringing them to this in the first place. If God wanted his life in exchange for those so much dearer to him, it was a price he would pay without a whimper.

Yet he knew it was a bargain he would not be permitted. He and Matilda and Edward would meet their ends together, crushed by the soulless malice and uncaring brutality of sea and wind, and deep within him bitter protest reproached the God who had decreed that they should.

The cog shuddered and twitched, heaving in the torment of over-strained timbers and rigging, and Sir George looked up as the ship's mate shouted something. He couldn't make out the words, but he knew it was a question, and he shook himself like a sodden dog, struggling to make his mind function. For all his ignorance of the sea, he had found himself doomed to command of the ship when a falling spar killed the captain. In fact, he'd done little more than agree with the mate's suggestions, lending his authority to the support of a man who might-might!-know enough to keep them alive a few hours more. But the mate had needed that support, needed someone else to assume the ultimate responsibility, and that was Sir George's job. To assume responsibility. No, to acknowledge the responsibility which was already his. And so he made himself look as if he were carefully considering whatever it was the mate wanted to do this time, then nodded vigorously.

The mate nodded back, then bellowed orders at his exhausted, battered handful of surviving sailors. Wind howl and sea thunder thrashed the words into meaningless fragments so far as Sir George could tell, but two or three men began clawing their way across the deck to perform whatever task the mate had decreed, and Sir George turned his face back to the sea's tortured millrace. It didn't really matter what the mate did, he thought. At worst, a mistake would cost them a few hours of life they might otherwise have clung to; at best, a brilliant maneuver might buy them an hour or two they might not otherwise have had. In the end, the result would be the same.

He'd had such hopes, made so many plans. A hard man, Sir George Wincaster, and a determined one. A peer of the realm, a young man who had caught his monarch's favor at Dupplin and the siege of Berwick at the age of twenty-two, who'd been made a knight by Edward III's own hand the next year on the field of Halidon Hill. A man who'd served with distinction at the Battle of Sluys eight years later-although, he thought with an edge of mordant humor even now, if I'd learned a bit more then of ships, I might have been wise enough to stay home this time!-and slogged through the bitterly disappointing French campaign of 1340. And a man who had returned with a fortune from Henry of Denby's campaign in Gascony five years later.

And a bloody lot of good it's done me in the end, he thought bitterly, remembering his gleaming plans. At thirty-five, he was at the height of his prowess, a hard bitten, professional master of the soldier's trade. A knight, yes, but the grandson of a commoner who had won both knighthood and barony the hard way and himself a man who knew the reality of war, not the minstrels' tales of romance and chivalry. A man who fought to win... and understood the enormous changes England and her lethal longbows were about to introduce into the continental princes' understanding of the art of war.

And one who knew there were fortunes to be made, lands and power to be won, in the service of his King against Philip of France. Despite the disappointments of 1340, last year had proved Edward III his grandfather's grandson, a welcome relief after the weakness and self indulgence of his father. Longshanks would have approved of the King, Sir George thought now. He started slow, but now that Denby's shown the way and he's chosen to beard Philip alone, the lions of England will make the French howl!

Perhaps they would, and certainly Edward's claim to the throne of France was better than Philip VI's, but Sir George Wincaster would not win the additional renown, or the added wealth and power he had planned to pass to his son, at his King's side. Not now. For he and all the troops under his command would find another fate, and no one would ever know where and when they actually perished.

* * *

The corpse light of storm-wracked afternoon slid towards evening, and Sir George realized dully that they had somehow survived another day.

He was too exhausted even to feel surprised... and though he tried to feel grateful, at least, a part of him was anything but. Another night of horror and fear, exhaustion and desperate struggle, loomed, and even as he gathered himself to face it, that traitor part wanted only for it to end. For it to be over.

To rest.

But there would be rest enough soon enough, he reminded himself. An eternity of it, if he was fortunate enough to avoid Hell. He hoped he would be, but he was also a realist-and a soldier. And Heaven knew that even the best of soldiers would face an arduous stay in Purgatory, while the worst...

He brushed the thought aside, not without the wistful wish that he and Father Timothy might have argued it out one more time, and made himself peer about. The second ship was still with them, farther away as darkness gathered, but still fighting its way across the heaving gray waste, and he could actually see a third vessel beyond it. There might even be one or two more beyond the range of his sight, but-

Sir George's stumbling, exhaustion-sodden thoughts jerked to a stop, and his hand tightened like a claw on the stay. A cracked voice screamed something, barely audible over the roar of wind and sea yet touched with a fresh and different terror, and Sir George clamped his jaws against a bellow of matching fear as the shape burst abruptly and impossibly through the savage backdrop of cloud and rain.

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.

He stared at it, too amazed and astonished to think, the terror of the storm, even his fear for his wife and son, banished by sheer, disbelieving shock as that vast shape hung against the seething cloud and rain.

And then it began to move. Not quickly, but with contemptuous ease, laughing at the gale's baffled wrath. It drifted over the more distant of the cogs he'd seen earlier, and more light appeared as portions of its skin shifted and changed.

No, they're not "changing," Sir George thought numbly. They're opening. And those lights are coming from inside whatever it is. Those are doors, doors to chambers filled with light and-

His thoughts stuttered and halted yet again as more shapes appeared, far smaller this time, but with that same unnatural stillness as the storm howled about them. Some were cross shaped, with the grace of a gliding gull or albatross, while others were squat cones or even spheres, but all were of the same bronze hue as the huger shape which had spawned them.

They spread out, surrounding the half-foundered cog, and then-

"Sweet Jesu!"

Sir George turned his head, too shocked by the lies of his own eyes to wonder how Father Timothy had suddenly appeared there. The snowy-haired Dominican was a big man, with the powerful shoulders of the archer he'd been before he heard God's call decades before, and Sir George released his death grip on the stay to fasten fingers of iron on his confessor's arm.

"In the name of God, Timothy! What is that thing?!"

"I don't know," the priest replied honestly. "But-"

His voice chopped off abruptly, and he released his own clutch on the cog's rail to cross himself urgently. Nor did Sir George blame him.

"Holy Mary, Mother of God," the baron whispered, releasing Father Timothy and crossing himself more slowly, almost absently, as an unearthly glare of light leapt out from the shapes which had encircled the other ship. Leapt out, touched the heaving vessel, embraced it...

... and lifted it bodily from the boiling sea.

Someone aboard Sir George's own vessel was gibbering, gobbling out fragments of prayer punctuated by curses of horrified denial, but the baron himself stood silent, unable to tear his eyes from the impossible sight. He saw streams of water gushing from the ship, draining straight down from its half-flooded hold as if in a dead calm, only to be whipped to flying spray by the fury of the wind as they neared the sea below. Yet the shapes enfolded the cog in their brilliance, raising it effortlessly towards the far vaster shape which had birthed them, and he winced as someone aboard that rising vessel, no doubt maddened by terror, hurled himself bodily over the rail. Another body followed, and a third.

"Fools!" Father Timothy bellowed. "Dolts! Imbeciles! God Himself has offered them life, and they-!"

The priest broke off, pounding the rail with a huge, gnarly fist.

The first plunging body struck the water and vanished without a trace, but not the second or third. Additional shafts of light speared out, touched each falling form, and arrested its deadly fall. The light lifted them once more, along with the cog, bearing them towards those brilliantly lit portals, and Sir George swallowed again. A mile, he had estimated that shape's length, but he'd been wrong. It was longer than that. Much longer, for the cog's hull finally gave him something against which to measure it, and the cog was less than a child's toy beside the vast, gleaming immensity that rode like a mountain peak of bronze amidst the black-bellied clouds of the gale's fury.

"Were they fools?" He didn't realize he'd spoken-certainly not that he'd spoken loudly enough for Father Timothy to hear through the crash of the sea and the wind-shriek, but the priest turned to him once more and raised an eyebrow. Even here and now, the expression brought back memories of the days when Father Timothy had been Sir George's tutor as he was now Edward's, but this was no time to be thinking of that.

"Were they fools?" Sir George repeated, shouting against the storm's noise. "Are you so certain that that...


Excerpted from The Excalibur Alternative by David Weber Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Weber is a science fiction phenomenon. His popular Honor Harrington & Honorverse novels—including Mission of Honor, At All Costs, and Torch of Freedom — are New York Times bestsellers and can't come out fast enough for his devoted readers. He is also the author of the Safehold series of books, including Off Armageddon Reef and By Schism Rent Asunder. His other popular novels include Out of the Dark, the Dahak books and the Multiverse books, written with Linda Evans.

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The Excalibur Alternative 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book isnt deep, but if your looking for entertaining sci fi, and if you like both space battles and sword fighting, this book has it all!
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