There are two philosophies when it comes to tie-in, franchised fiction. The first is a progressive view, where the story is part of the stream of greater events. The second is a more isolated tale that lends itself to the creation and development of original characters and places. But there’s always a unique middle ground for the first of such installment. Such is the case with today’s review of William H. Keith Junior’s Decision at Thunder Rift, the first of the once popular BattleTech book series.

Set on the desert planet of Trellwan, the novel follows young Grayson Death Carlyle. The son of the military unit’s captain, Grayson becomes a refuge after Carlyle’s Commandos are betrayed and destroyed. The attack occurs during talks with Bandit King Hendrik, whom Captain Carlyle hoped would become the planet’s new garrison. But as Hendrik is a hated name among the people of Trellwan, the population feels Grayson’s people had betrayed them.

Alone, penny-less and stranded, Grayson’s chance of salvation comes when the bandits assail the capital. Desperate, Grayson joins the local militia as they fight off the invading ‘Mechs. But triumph only brings more complications and politics into the young MechWarrior’s life. Grayson soon enlists characters like Sergeant Ramage and POW Lori Kalmar, valuable allies in the fights to come.

Mr. Keith’s novel is packed to the gills with an overwhelming sense of authenticity. One stops short of classifying it as hard science fiction because it’s less about any scientific theories. Rather, it’s more about engineering: mundane problems like oil and spare parts, replacement circuit boards and wiring. Logistical needs, like food and water, bedding and ammo for a few hundred men. There is no awe in a 20-ton bipedal weapon, but the 1,001 headaches that anyone with a clunker understands well. Sadly, these tiny, world-building considerations were sometimes lacking in later BattleTech releases.

Spies, both local and interstellar politics, conspiracies and military challenges, firefights, assassins, stealth operations and mecha battles. Decision at Thunder Rift succeeds on so many levels. And yet during this cocktail of excitement is the personal story of a young man trying to earn his place as an adult. And it is likely people of Grayson Carlyle’s age that the story was written, around the new adult age. 

Decision at Thunder Rift proved popular enough to see four more books before William H. Keith hung up his hat. That’s a shame, given how the novels of other authors focused on less personal, larger picture conflicts. It’s not as though these franchises will ever end, as the strife between nations and factions persists indefinitely.

And that’s the key to Decision at Thunder Rift as a novel. More than a damn good read, it ultimately gave us someone we can root for.

About James Fadeley

James is a short story author and novelist who spends way too much time playing video games. His first novel, The Gift of Hadrborg is based on The Banner Saga universe. If you think yourself insane, he can be followed on Twitter @JamesFadeley.