The story of Mamluk is the story of a prototype reptilian soldier stranded on a primitive planet, fighting for survival and learning and using every device at his disposal to launch back towards the safety of the Protectorate empire that created him; a ruthless expanding empire that sends in enhanced soldiers to wipe out indigenous species in expectation of a second wave of colonisation. Along the way Mamluk will witness the growth of a civilisation, make many enemies, and even find what it means to have friendship and mutual respect.
The most compelling aspect was the friendship between Mamluk and a feline predator he names Madcat, especially when they are threatened by groups of savage tribal people that makes you wonder who the real predators are. Through stages of civilisation, in which technology ever increases, Mamluk and Madcat must work together to survive and protect their territory; which starts as a familiar cave but expands at a nice pace to encompass a lava tube, valley, forest, etc. The second half of the story complements the first well, filling it with emotion and purpose and adding significance to the main struggles Mamluk had faced and the people whose lives he touched. In this way there were potent messages in this story, of the impact of individual actions and how they shape the future in terms of war, monuments, and records.
Author James Jackson’s use of the first-person present tense gave him a platform for connecting scenes together with immediacy, thrill, and visual clarity. It enabled him to build Mamluk’s situation without interfering with other plotlines. What suggestions I have for improvement are minor. I’d have liked to learn more about the periods on the planet, or involve more complexities between Mamluk and the main people he comes across; mostly those referred to later on. I didn’t think any more depth needed to be added to the people, beasts, or the environment. The simplicity of the descriptions was why many chapters worked so well in connecting the rest of the plot into a cohesive and comprehensible whole. I did occasionally feel as if there was a bit too much fighting, but I gradually came to accept this made sense as Mamluk’s genetics, training, and his way of dealing with problems; which were abundant because he looked like a monster to the locals. An extra scene break or two might not have gone amiss; it would have disrupted the flow in some chapters; but would have given that extra breathing room between fighting in others.
Mamluk is a concise and well-structured novella that doesn’t try to be too clever by introducing events on a grand scale, instead presenting them in a relatable way through the immediate action Mamluk faces. This is quite despite the fact that author James Jackson has thought a lot about his world-building. For example, in reference to an expanding empire: ‘numerous space-factories churn out a steady stream of defence platforms to fill gaps in the grid as it expands’, shows that he has thought about solutions to his creation. Mamluk is a thoughtful novella that makes you think about what’s really important on a world that appears cruel, barbaric, and yet familiar. The setting surprised me with its familiarity to a medieval fantasy, but thankfully it only dips into the similarities enough to make the second half of the story plausible. Yes, you really need to read the second half to get the full benefit. I’d say Mamluk was a tidy novella overall, with all the elements in their allotted place; a feat I can imagine to be quite difficult for the average author. Supposedly advanced technology wasn’t so much explained, as it was delivered in terms that are well known to most avid genre readers, which made reading effortless. Make no mistake though that it’s quite clear throughout that you’re reading a science-fiction story. With Mamluk, I think James Jackson’s writing has made an impression on me, and has given me confidence he can craft engaging stories with vision, balance, and brevity. I have a newfound appreciation for his writing and hope he continues to think, write, and share his creations!