Book Stats

  • A Standalone Novel
  • Published by Baen
  • First published in 1996
  • Military SF
  • 294 pages


War never changes, but it does change people. In the heat of battle, mistakes are made. Shots exchanged, and lives taken. But not every soldier dies on the battlefield. Some must live with what they have done . . .


This is a tough book to review. On the one hand, I am very much the target audience for a book like this. I’ve read and enjoyed a fair few David Drake novels over the years (all of the others being part of his RCN series), and am generally a fan of military SF. I am especially a fan of military SF that is more than just gung-ho action heroes, and actually goes deeper into the workings of the military, and what it means to be a soldier. Redliners has plenty of that. It has depth in spades, and no one, least of all me, is going to say that Drake doesn’t know his stuff.

The problem, really, is that I don’t know my stuff. Not when it comes to the horrors of war. Now, I might have a nice and vivid imagination, but I’m honestly glad that I don’t know what it’s like to be stalked through a jungle by people who want to kill me. Nor do I know what it’s like to hold someone else’s life in my hands. Drake does, and he makes it perfectly clear in his introduction to the novel that Redliners stems directly from very real, very personal experiences. he even goes so far as to say that he doesn’t expect civilians to react to the book in the same way that veterans and active service personnel do. And you know what? Fair enough. Drake is writing for his people, and that is a good thing. I’m just a casual bystander who wandered in looking for some entertainment. And as a casual bystander, I walk away from Redliners more than a little underwhelmed.

My first impression is that this is a very messy novel. Granted, you can make the argument that war is messy, and that Drake has captured the chaos of conflict better than most authors. The thing is though, David Drake is one of the best outliners in the business. The man writes dozens of pages with scene-by-scene breakdowns of how the story will unfold. It’s all worked out ahead of time. Plus, he usually has some historical basis for the conflicts in his fiction. In RCN, these are often naval engagements from the Classical world, or the Golden Age of Sail. These allow the reader to more easily grip onto the wider context of the struggle, without the need to throw names and dates at the reader.

Redliners is based on Vietnam, but that basically means a morally compromised war in a deadly jungle. Beyond that, I never really got any solid sense of what the larger world was like. Nor, to be entirely honest, what the conflict was for. Again, this successfully captures the confusion of soldiers thrown into war, but on a narrative level it’s incredibly frustrating to have not even the whisper of an answer. Chapters and characters appear that don’t seem to be connected to anything else. Even when a connection does arise, it strikes me that the book might have been stronger just omitting the chapters altogether.

What Redliners does do very well is hammer home the psychological impact of war on those who wage it. We see soldiers forced to make impossible decisions, and often come to poor conclusions. There are war crimes in here, deaths by the score, and none of it is glossed over. It’s a stark depiction of violence that is as horrible as it should be. Even to my civilian eyes, the alienation felt by the soldiers is clear, as is the trauma they experience as a result of their own deeds. That’s the backbone of this novel, and it’s strong even if the rest of it relies too heavily on personal experience.

David Drake cites Redliners as his favourite of his own novels. I don’t agree with him, but I can see why he would say that. If you want to get some first-hand military SF, then Redliners is definitely worth a look.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Deeper Dive: Anniversary Editions

I read the 20th anniversary edition of Redliners, which comes with an introduction, and afterword, and a collection of reader responses from members of the armed forces. There is a slight air of self-congratulation about it all, but that’s what I expect from a special edition of any kind. What all of this extra material proves to me is that this is a book that only works if you’ve spent time in an active warzone. Thankfully, that readership is quite small compared to the total population.

Redliners also got me thinking about what other books deserve an anniversary edition. My copy of Dune is an anniversary edition, though contains no additional content. Gollancz has published a few 10th anniversary versions of their famous fantasy novels, and Leviathan Wakes received the 10th anniversary treatment too. But I struggle to think of many other books that have received a reprint of this kind. Maybe the issue is not simply choosing books worthy of the celebration, but of finding extra features to make the book worthy of purchase.

2 responses to “BOOK REVIEW: Redliners, by David Drake”

  1. Tom Crossley Avatar

    Interesting article, the book sounds kinda interesting to me, but shame there’s not enough information outside what’s going on in the jungle, sounds like a bummer to me, still nice article to read


  2. MONTHLY ROUNDUP: May 2023 – At Boundary's Edge Avatar

    […] Book: Redliners, by David Drake […]


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