I was expecting this to be good. Not just because it's Stross, although he does generally deliver the goods (some of my recent reviews notwithstanding), but also because I had it recommended to me by so many people. And they were all right. I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that this is one of the best things I've read this year.
It's a good mixture of action, investigation, plain old Lovecraftian weirdness and intrigue, with just enough humour to prevent it from being an all-out horror or spy novel. Well-paced throughout, there's always something to make you want to turn the page.
From digging around in the archives of Charlie's blog, it seems that there may be a fourth installment in this series. It has got steadily better over time, without suffering from seriesitis, and I'm looking forward to it.
You may be surprised that I'd not read this before, but I have been put off reading Heinlein by reports that his books were really just extended childish political rants. Those reports are, at least in the case of this book, wrong. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress does indeed contain something of a political manifesto, but it's not childish (I disagree with it, but it's not childish), and is only part of a well-told, gripping tale, with engaging characters: you could ignore the politics entirely and still have a good read, although it would, obviously, somewhat damage the characters if you were to remove some of their motivation!
Talking of which, the four primary characters are fully-realised and believable, even if some of the lesser ones are a bit samey or a bit stereotyped and hence easy to confuse, but that doesn't detract from the story. They're background. They're not meant to require your attention, so the story works fine with that confusion. Something that many authors fail at, especially science fiction authors of Heinlein's vintage, is giving characters their own voice. All too often characters sound like the autho and like each otherr. Not here. Heinlein has a great way with voice and dialogue. I'll be reading more of his stuff, and I can whole-heartedly recommend that you, if you're not already familiar with him, start right here.
The film of Starship Troopers was a cheesy bit of brainless fun, and while it's by no means a great film, it's certainly a very enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. It's also, unlike what many Heinlein fanboys will tell you, a fairly faithful adaptation. Oh sure there are lots of little changes, mostly those which are necessary for a Hollywood blockbuster (by far the biggest of which are the substantial cuts in character development, and the adding of some love interest), but the biggest thing that the fanboys talk about - the quasi-Fascist military dictatorship portrayed in the film - is an accurate rendition of that in the book, no matter how they might protest that it isn't. And yes, it is a military dictatorship. Any society that only grants the franchise and the right to hold public office to those from the military is a military dictatorship, pretty much by definition.
Having got that out of the way, on to the story. It's cheesy too. The viewpoint character's journey from being a schoolboy sceptical of the value of the role of the military through his basic training, early actions, and eventually to his becoming a junior officer, is mostly predictable, spiced up with just enough surprises to stop it being entirely a cliché and to give a modicum of suspense and enough interest to keep you turning the pages.
The political claptrap that had put me off reading Heinlein for so long is present here to a much greater degree than in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, but is mostly limited to a couple of expository scenes. Some of it is admirable - the emphasis on being held responsible for your own actions, for example - but some of the rest of it, in particular the deification of those who have done military service, which somehow makes them more fit for government, is not even internally consistent. One of Heinlein's alter egos in one of those expository segments actually points out that ex-military chaps are as likely to be criminals (and thus unfit for public service) as the non-military, when he momentarily plays Devil's Advocate to his class. And just about all of the arguments put forward by Heinlein's alter egos are simplistic and one-sided, even though they are also claimed to be mathematically proven moral truths. What rot!
But never mind all that, the expository segments do at least fit well with the rest of the story. All of it is well-written (which is of course distinct from being well-argued) and the political drivel is sufficiently confined as to not spoil the rest of what is an enjoyable, well told story. Recommended.