Along with Copernick’s Rebellion (a short, early book about bioengineering), Leo Frankowski’s Cross-Time Engineer series1 remains one of my favorite science fiction series, trumped perhaps only by the exquisite Doom Series by Dafydd ab Hugh and Brad Linaweaver. Certainly, Frankowski’s epic dwarfs the proof-of-concept piece by L. Sprague de Camp2. I found the first four books on my father’s bookshelf was I was naught but a child, and was thrilled, several years later and with the help of Amazon.com, to find a fifth book. I was even more thrilled—and slightly disappointed, after reading it—with the arrival of a sixth book in the series.
Frankowski was so quiet for much of the mid and late 90s that the glut of books he put out around the turn of the century really caught me unawares. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t learn of Lord Conrad’s Crusade, the 7th book of the series, until several months after it was published, but that might also be because Frankowski basically self-published. In an entry from his website, Frankowski claims that Jim Baen (the head honcho at Frankowski’s usual label) called it “bad writing.” That’s both true and not.
Certainly, this “Great Author’s Online” version is little more than an uncorrected manuscript, riddled with spelling and typographical errors, and in serious need of some editing to tighten up Frankowski’s wandering engineer prose. What’s more is the alarming tendency of Frankowski’s recent work to exaggerate heretofore forgiveable callousness towards women and minorities—but especially women—into downright opprobrious sexism and racism (you’ll find yet more polygamy and uses of the word “rag heads” in this book). To some degree, the technical and logistical writing that made the original four or five books of the series a pleasure to read has been preempted in favor of Frankowski’s fantasy-fulfillment narrative, something that is neither entertaining to begin with, nor a particular skill of the author’s.
The gist of the novel is that Conrad, bored with overseeing the smooth machinations of his mighty military-industrial complex in mediæval Poland, goes on vacation, only to be shipwrecked and enslaved along the western African coast. Does he die, ending the series? Does he get rescued by a group of his men? Does he raise a 30’000-strong army of freed slaves and conquer entire cities, setting up an entirely new military-industrial complex to thrive in his wake? If you’ve read Frankowski before, you know that answer to that.
Oh, to be sure, there were many times when Lord Conrad’s Crusade brought me back to the first time I ever read about Conrad—the storyline is so rich that even the worst of episodes would likely be bought, read, and to some extent enjoyed by me. The core is still there, but Frankowski definitely needs to rein in his misogynistic tendencies and overblown narrative, focus on what made the Cross-Time Engineer so great in the first place, and get an editor to hack it into something presentable. Here’s hoping that Great Authors Online has offered us little more than a pre-publication version, and that Lord Conrad’s Crusade turns into an episode worthy of its predecessors.
- Officially The Adventures of Conrad Stargard, but in this case, the title of the first book in the series has become the more familiar label[↩]
- I refer here to Lest Darkness Fall, the story of an academic transported back to the waning years of the Roman Empire, who makes good by using some modern technology and ingenuity. I say “proof of concept” not out of disrespect to a SF titan like de Camp, but merely because Lest Darkness Fall fails to flesh out the idea to any satisfactory degree. Frankowski, for all his faults, has really taken the idea and run with it, with—I think—delightful results[↩]