When we last left our intrepid time-traveling engineer, Conrad Schwartz (now Conrad Stargard, in order to avoid suspicions of being German), he had made the best of his accidental transportation to 13th century Poland, just before the Mongol invasion: he had killed bandits, rescued (and ravished) young maidens, and started some light industry despite the dark age mentality and general backwardness of the era.
The High-Tech Knight1 introduces a new narrator into the mix, namely Sir Vladimir, a knight of the old school who becomes attached to Conrad both by personality and by oath to the Duke, who assigns Vladimir to protect—and keep an eye on—Conrad when the latter is given his own land. Conrad intends to use his new, as-yet-unbuilt city named Three Walls, as a basis for heavy industry, including mining, coke ovens, smelting, and smithing. It just so happens that early on in the book, Conrad, attended by Sir Vladimir, happens upon a caravan of Crossmen leading a contingent of enslaved Pruthenian children. Conrad already hates the Crossmen2, in part because one almost killed him on his first day in the 13th century; in part because they’re brutal German scoundrels. Conrad, being of modern sensibilities, also can’t abide by the idea of slaves—especially children intended for Saracen owners. A battle ensues, and though victories, Conrad is surprised to ultimately learn that he faces the potential for legal ramifications for his actions. Though his friends, including the Duke (at that point, the highest-ranking nobleman in Western Poland), all side with him, the matter is destined to be resolved in a trial by combat at Christmas of 1232.
As Conrad progressively modernizes Poland, Frankowski was obviously given the problem of how to provide the necessary allotment of action and swordplay in each book. Though Conrad got a toehold in that brutal century by killing highwaymen and other criminals, he naturally abhors battle (at least at first), and the civilizing influence of modern technology and engineering means less fighting. In The High-Tech Knight, such battle takes center stage. Even though the attack on the caravan and the trial by combat represent relatively little of the book, their influence overshadows most of it: Conrad must train for battle against the Crossmen’s champion; meanwhile, one can watch the conflict between the projects which he wants to get done, and the projects which his friends want him to start before he is inevitably (they think) killed at Christmas.
It should come as no surprise, considering that there are additional books in the series, that Conrad does not die in his trial by combat. By virtue of his ever-watchful Uncle Tom, some high technology, a very smart “neohorse”, and his own not-inconsiderable skill with a sword, and armor 200 years ahead of its time, Conrad manages to pull through, but the details are yours to find out.
In many ways, The High-Tech Knight is the most engineering-heavy of the series: Conrad’s new city of Three Walls represents his first concerted effort at engineering a new, modern(ish) city literally from the ground up, and his attempts at heavy industry and chemical engineering. I’m not well-versed enough to know how accurate Frankowski’s descriptions of coke ovens and mortar-making are, though given his history as a successful engineer, I’m likely to believe them accurate enough. They certainly are interesting, and though they might not be engaging to some as swordfights and sex scenes, they represent to me the best part about this series, and what sets it apart from other time travel stories: by comparison, the brandy still in L. Sprague deCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall looks like child’s play. The taking shape of a modern Poland in the middle of the dark ages is downright exciting to engineering-inclined sci-fi nerds.