So You Want to Start Reading BattleTech?
BattleTech is huge but need not be intimidating
If you’ve read the news lately, you’d know that BattleTech is one of the biggest names in tabletop gaming. It’s been going strong for almost 40 years and hasn’t stopped, and has had an impressive line of fiction to go alongside the game. For those not familiar, the world of BattleTech is a world of war in the far future (stories tend to range from the year 2700 to the year 3152 or so). It’s a dystopian hellscape in the best ways, showing us a future where big stompy robots called BattleMechs have changed the landscape of diplomacy and turned humanity into a constantly warring people. In a lot of ways, it’s a far future much more in line with the Mad Max movies than Star Trek, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have lessons to teach us through its allegory.
For many, the allure of BattleTech on the tabletop comes from the shifting borders of each faction and the wars that causes, but in the novels, the characters take center stage. The Inner Sphere (what they tend to call the main part of the galaxy in BattleTech) is full of people trying to get ahead and make a difference. There are heroes on all sides and evil is everywhere. Thousands of planets are populated across this swath of space; each one is fighting for survival against the landscape of broader political turmoil. There are great houses that rule great chunks of space that fight over each other in a very Game of Thrones style. There are the Clans — a warrior society that removed itself from the Inner Sphere for centuries, some transforming into fascist villains who thought they were heroes saving the galaxy. And there are mercenaries — blue-collar MechWarriors who scrape by to survive, taking work from the highest bidder.
It’s such a fun universe to play in and I’ve been grateful to be able to contribute to it so heavily on the fiction side. But I came to it from the outside. My experience with it came from the world of video games, starting with the Super Nintendo MechWarrior Game. When I had to step into the world of fiction in order to write for the universe, I had a daunting challenge. There are more than a hundred novels in the BattleTech universe and they cover more than a thousand years of future history. Where does one start?
Many will say you have to start at the beginning, and that was definitely my journey. I first read the Grey Death Legion trilogy that kicked off the fiction line back in the ’80s written by William H. Keith, and then I moved to the Blood of Kerensky trilogy by Michael A. Stackpole, and then I dabbled in the Dark Age and flitted back and forth on the timeline as the subjects I was writing about changed. It worked well enough for me, but it’s confusing and, frankly, there are some problematic elements in those early books that might not be as friendly to new readers. They were written at a time when attitudes and knowledge about racism, bigotry, and misogyny aren’t what they are today. And many of those writers today will tell you that they would write these books a lot differently and a lot more conscientiously if they had the chance to do them all over today with what they know now.
So, where to start?
It might seem self-serving, but if you’re interested in getting up to speed on the cadence of the universe and get a flavor of how things work on a very small scale, you’ll want to check out a collection of stories I wrote called Fox Tales.
Fox Tales tells the story of a young girl who wants to be a MechWarrior and will do just about anything to live her dream. When she finds a ’Mech that she can salvage, she’s in business and does her best to form her own mercenary unit. Katie Ferraro creates “The Fox Patrol” and they go on a number of adventures in the galaxy. The collection contains five stories that gradually introduce readers into the broader world of BattleTech with characters you can root for. The stakes are small and grow as they get bigger. My seven-year-old daughter was interested in BattleTech and she asked to hear some stories. These were the stories I read to her at bedtime and she’s now a BattleTech fan and wants more. I’ve heard from a lot of fans, too, that this is the book they’ve started recommending to folks as a first step into the BattleTech universe because it doesn’t get too bogged down in all of the external politics and focuses on interesting characters trying to make a living in a world of BattleMechs.
You can get copies here. If you want a signed copy, you can do that here.
Then, if you want to get a sense of what’s going on currently in the timeline, where writers have been able to evolve the storytelling and bring BattleTech a modern edge, you’ll want to move on to (or start with) A Question of Survival.
Stan Lee always said every comic book was someone’s first and they all had to be written with that in mind and this was at the fore of my thinking as I wrote A Question of Survival. The events of the Dark Age culminated in the conquest of Terra by the clans (it’ll all make sense in the book, promise) and many of the other clans are left to deal with what that means and how to proceed. A Question of Survival takes two factions: the Jade Falcons and the Rasalhague Dominion, and pits them up against each other as they struggle to survive in the brand new status quo of the ilClan era. It’s a compelling tale that takes the perspective of four characters, two from each faction, and shows how the Inner Sphere and the clans have evolved over the last hundred years and how they will have to continue to evolve if they want to survive. It’s a very character-based book, giving you plenty of folks to root for and root against, set against a backdrop of the new politics of the time.
It’s a perfect way to jump right the deep end of the current era of storytelling. This era is going to be more and more prevalent in the game and the fiction coming out, so this is where you want to be.
You can get copies here. If you want a signed copy, you can do that here.
Further Reading List:
If you finish A Question of Survival and want to dive into the rest of the ilClan era, here are my recommendations for where to go next:
1. Redemption Rites by Jason Schmetzer — In the aftermath of the conquest of Terra, the storied Wolf’s Dragoons plot their revenge against Clan Wolf. This is a very military look at the universe and a completely different flavor than I provide in mine and will give you a good sense of how that part of the universe functions. It also happens roughly at the same time as A Question of Survival, but there is very little story overlap. Also, it’s just a fun read.
2. The Damocles Sanction by Michael J. Ciaravella — In another part of the Inner Sphere altogether, the Federated Suns fight to liberate their homeworld, New Avalon, from the Draconis Combine. This book has the feel of the older books as far as the Game of Thrones-like political machinations and war maneuvering across huge swaths of planets and is a different look at the current era altogether than A Question of Survival or Redemption Rites.
At the moment, those books would bring you up to the current moment in the timeline. And that’s not all that intimidating to jump into. If you find you love BattleTech as much as I do and want to go back and read some of the older fiction to get a sense of how things got to be the way they are, here are the highlights that I would recommend because they’re just good stuff. I would also add a caveat that I have not read all of the BattleTech canon, so there might be some glaring omissions on here that I just haven’t gotten to yet, but that’s the great thing about BattleTech, you can pick a faction or a thread and just read from there and you’re good.
Want to Keep Reading?
1. The Gray Death Legion trilogy by William H. Keith Jr. — Decision at Thunder Rift; Mercenary’s Star; The Price of Glory — These follow Grayson Carlyle as he forms a legendary mercenary unit: The Gray Death Legion. These were some of the first BattleTech books ever produced, so they’re a reasonable primer into the galaxy at that point in the timeline. They were written at a time when no one knew what BattleTech was to start, so they ease you into the universe well.
2. The Warrior Trilogy by Michael A. Stackpole — Warrior: Engarde; Warrior: Riposte; Warrior: Coupé — This is the legends of the Kell Hounds, the Federated Suns, and the conflict with the Draconis Combine. All of it leads straight into what’s known as the Fourth Succession War. It’s a great trilogy that gives a sense of the high-level political maneuvering. It feels dated, and Mike Stackpole would be the first to tell you that there are things in there he wouldn’t do today, but it was the ’80s. It’s just a fun read, watching it take its twists and turns.
3. The Blood of Kerensky Trilogy by Michael A. Stackpole — Lethal Heritage; Blood Legacy; Lost Destiny — These three novels introduce the clans to the setting and take place later on the timeline than the previous two. They can be a steep climb of lore if you’re not familiar with the setting, but if you’ve read the entire reading list, these are some incredibly enjoyable books. Dated, just like the others of this era, but terrific otherwise.
4. The Battle of Tukayyid edited by John Helfers — If you’ve read the Blood of Kerensky trilogy and want more about the final battle, this modern anthology (featuring a story by me!) takes nine different looks at the conflict that were previously unseen. This gives you a taste of what each of the different clans is like, too.
5. Ghost War by Michael A. Stackpole — This was the first novel of the Dark Age, a massive time jump because of the shifting owners of the license. It represents a new status quo that leads up — eventually-to the clan conquest of Terra. This is Mike Stackpole doing a noir in the BattleTech universe and I really appreciated how different it felt.
6. Hunters of the Deep by Randall Bills — This book is a look at a completely different sort of clan in the Inner Sphere: the Sea Foxes. It’s another one of those books that just does something different in the universe and will help get you a broad sense of what sort of stories you can get in the BattleTech universe.
7. Honor’s Gauntlet by Bryan Young (hi) — This is one of the last novels of the Dark Age and it was written by me, so I’m biased. Again, I wrote it so that a new reader wouldn’t feel lost and I think I accomplished it. This is about a group of Jade Falcons working for the glory of their clan, but butting up against the homicidal nature of their leader.
There are definitely many other great BattleTech novels, but this is how I would start folks into the universe and get their feet wet and start them out. There are a lot of new players of the game, and it’s to our selfish benefit to get them hooked on the fiction, too. And besides, the game is more fun when you can play out the stories, too.
Wherever you start, it’s going to be a great time and I’m glad to see you’re taking your first step into a larger world.
And if you just dive into the fiction, consider the game, too. The new BattleTech: Alpha Strike box set is gorgeous, has a bunch of miniatures, and features a streamlined style of play that’s easy for new folks to pick up. (Buy it here before it sells out.) There is also a novella in the box called Chaos Theory that’s written by me and features a classic mercenary unit, a vilified Clan force, and dinosaurs.
I’m telling you, BattleTech has everything you want.
You just need to know where to start.