Volume 24, Number 3, Spring 2006


By David D. Friedman

BAEN, 2006, $24
ISBN: 14156520562
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

David Friedman is well known among libertarians as the author of The Machinery of Freedom, one of the best defenses of anarchocapitalism yet published, and also as the author of several recent textbooks in various areas of law and economics. His fannish background, both as a reader of science fiction and fantasy and as an active recreational anachronist, is perhaps less widely known. But he clearly draws on those interests in Harald, his first venture into fiction.

The revised edition of The Machinery of Freedom contains a chapter putting forth early Iceland as an example of a functioning anarchist society. (The question’s more complex than Friedman’s discussion makes it, as can be seen in recent book length scholarly studies of Iceland, but his chapter deserves credit for drawing libertarian attention to this fascinating historical case.) Friedman’s enthusiasm for the Icelandic sagas clearly shows up in Harald—in the customs of the stateless people of the Western Plains, and also in the narrative style, plainspoken in the manner of Icelandic literature and decorated with traditional Viking sayings at the chapter heads, such as “A small hut of one’s own is better; a man is his master at home.”

But even though this novel is about politics and warfare, its hero isn’t primarily a man of war. Harald is an older man, who has become the leading figure in his own society not through his own use of physical force and combat skills, creditable though they are, but through his cunning and ingenuity in achieving combat goals with the minimum of resources. In Greek terms, he favors the arts of Athena, as the goddess of strategy, over those of Ares, as the god of battle; the Greek hero he most resembles is not the wrathful Achilles but the many-wiled Odysseus, able to use his tongue as a weapon as effectively as his sword. His portrayal adds a great deal to the pleasure of this book.

At the same time, it’s regrettably incomplete: we don’t see the Penelope of this Odysseus. Harald certainly has a wife, Gerda, back on his native steading; the reader even meets her briefly. But the bulk of the story involves a different woman, the Lady Leonora, head of a different sort of independent military force, the Order, a large body of women archers, currently a prisoner of one of the factions in the political intrigue of the kingdom of Kaerlia. Harald has to deal both with this crisis and with an invasion from a powerful empire to the north. He has more than political reasons for doing so: Leonora is the mother of one of his children, Caralla, also a leader in the Order. But we don’t learn much about the old affair and how it ended, or about how Harald came to be married to Gerda, or about what the two women think of each other. There isn’t even a scene of homecoming at the end of the novel. Friedman missed a chance to give his characters some added personal depth—and his not doing so makes his decision to introduce the relationship in the first place a questionable one; an old maxim of playwriting says that if you put a gun on the mantel in the first act, you need to have someone fire it in the last act.

As far as the political themes go, readers will want to know if there’s any libertarianism in this first novel by a well-known libertarian. Yes, there is, but it’s not the focus of the book. It’s part of the subtext, emerging from the political situation of a kingdom whose survival depends on alliances both with an independent military force (made up entirely of women) and with stateless colonists on the other side of a mountain range. Friedman explores the kinds of military strength that are most effective without strong central authority. But this also is the basis for a setting where he can tell an exciting adventure story, one that gives his heroes freedom to act as individuals, and many readers will simply pass over the subtext and not notice it.

The style of this book is readable, but perhaps a little too plainspoken; it’s hard to tell the voices of the different characters apart—courtly monarchists, imperial invaders, and free-spirited mercenaries all have the same clipped way of talking. The narrative is occasionally a little spare on details: the reader needs to figure out what’s happening from indirect evidence, much as in a mystery novel. It’s not impossible to do so, but I hope that Friedman will develop a broader stylistic range if he goes on writing fiction.

In a sense, the fact that this book came out from Baen is an odd accident. Harald is not science fiction: it doesn’t take place in an alternate timeline in the usual sense—there is no place in Earth’s past history where we can say, “If this had happened otherwise, these political entities would have emerged.” But it’s also not fantasy in the usual genre sense: it has no magic, no gods, no monsters, and none of the other appurtenances we have grown used to over the past half century. It’s an adventure story set on an “other Earth”—an Earthlike world with its own history and geography, but inhabited by the same human beings and other species as our Earth: an “Earth that might have been.” By some definitions, this is fantasy, or even “high fantasy,” if this is defined as fantasy set in invented worlds (though a definition that makes Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar “high fantasy” and C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength “low fantasy” strikes me as odd). But it’s not what most people now expect from fantasy. It’s really a straightforward adventure story in an imaginary place.

As an adventure story, Harald is consistently readable and lively. As a character portrait, it’s a bit better than readable. Harald was constantly enjoyable to read about; among the secondary characters, Anne, the wife of the young king of Kaerlia, was a delight. I hope that Friedman’s future work in fiction will achieve this quality of characterization consistently, as well as retaining the skillful handling of events that this book already displays. As a novel, Harald is competent and entertaining; as a first novel, it’s also promising.

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