Janissaries by Jerry Pournelle
Captain Rick Galloway and the soldiers he commands were surrounded by hostile enemies when the flying saucer arrived and offered them a way out of certain death. They had to take it. Now they’re on a planet called Tran where they’re expected to oversee the growth and harvest of a marijuana-like plant which their alien “saviors” collect and distribute on the black market when it ripens every 600 years. A human woman named Gwen has also been dumped on the planet after her boyfriend, who was working for the aliens, talked her into coming aboard the flying saucer.
Tran is not uninhabited. It is home to several ancient civilizations who were also delivered from Earth to Tran each time the harvest was nearing readiness. Galloway and Gwen, reluctant heroes, must somehow lead the locals to fulfill the aliens’ demands, or they risk being eradicated. This involves gaining power, allying with local governments, educating the people of Tran, and figuring out how to efficiently harvest the drug.
Janissaries , named after the elite soldier-slaves of the Ottoman empire, is just the first installment in this (unfinished) epic quest. After the arrival on Tran, most of the plot involves a mutiny and division of Galloway’s forces and the attempt to gain an alliance and educate the people. The most modern civilization on Tran is a Roman culture which arrived during the last harvest 600 years earlier. While I found the idea of modern people essentially being dumped into the ancient Rome Empire to be a great premise, I had a hard time believing that their society had not advanced at all in 600 years. There is an explanation for this — the aliens destroy advancing cultures to keep Tran subdued — but I found this explanation to be more fun than believable. Also unbelievable is that there isn’t an easier and less convoluted way for the aliens to get the drugs off Tran. I can think of several options that would work better than abducting humans and watching to make sure they don’t progress.
But, of course, Pournelle’s real purpose here is to mix modern and ancient humans together, a plot device that’s not new but is usually entertaining. We get to watch while Galloway and Gwen set up a school and teach the locals such things as germ theory, the importance and practice of mapmaking, how to make paper and writing instruments, farming, math, weapons and military tactics. Surprisingly, though the ancient Romans were excellent engineers, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on Tran who has the brains to figure out some of these things without help from modern Americans.
After the arrival on Tran we don’t see much of the aliens (they don’t live there) so, for the most part, Janissaries actually works as a fine historical fiction. The setting is essentially ancient Rome and there’s all of the political intrigue, barbarian invasions, and romance you might expect from historical fiction set in that period. I expect that at some point the humans will band together to confront the aliens. At least I hope so. This series has been in progress since 1987….
The original print version of Janissaries (1979) was illustrated, but I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version. It’s just over seven hours long and read by Keith Szarabajka whose performance I loved. His voices and pacing are excellent and he gives the story just the right amount of passion.
It makes me think of David Drake’s Foreign Legions “series” (original book/story, anthology, and Weber’s followup).
Is that series any good, David?
I’m not sure! I only read Weber’s “The Excalibur Alternative” (I think an expansion of one of his stories in the “Foreign Legions” anthology). I haven’t gotten around to reading “Ranks of Bronze” or the other short stories. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever read a Drake-only book; only his collaborations for the General series and the Belisarius series (both of which I really liked, but that might be for the coauthors than Drake himself).