Reviewing David Drake's Hammer's Slammers can be a tricky affair, as the work has been reshuffled and repackaged so many times, it's hard to keep track of where each story appears, and in what sequence. For this review I've gone back to the original Ace paperback release, which was reissued by Baen before they went repackage-crazy under Drake's own guidance.
It's quite likely that the more recent editions present the stories in this volume in a more satisfying context; Drake prefers the continuity of the newer books. This initial book publication of the earliest batch of Hammer stories has a choppy feel to it. The stories here were published mostly in Galaxy throughout the mid-70's. The way they're sequenced here doesn't offer a consistent story continuity. So it can often be hard to warm up to the characters, who aren't given enough space to become three-dimensional; Col. Hammer himself suffers most from this. However, one of the series' underlying themes — that if humanity expands to the stars, one of its inevitable (and most profitable) exports will be war — is made unimpeachably clear.
The Hammer stories were Drake's way of coming to terms with his own Vietnam experiences. If anything the man's ever written has been deeply personal to him, it's these stories. Action-packed as they are, they're most definitely not meant to be "fun". Individually, they are among Drake's best work, with moments of unflinching dramatic authority. But this particular edition, which attempts to scotch-tape seven of them together into a faux novel with linking material giving us background on various aspects of the series' universe, doesn't really turn its disparate elements into a convincing whole. (Though the linking material does offer good speculative material about future weaponry.) Again, I suspect the reprints now available from Baen — not to mention the Night Shade volumes — are preferable.
BUT LOYAL TO HIS OWN
Col. Alois Hammer is introduced in this inaugural story (but not the earliest written), in which his mercenaries are double-crossed by employers who learn quickly to regret their decision. The story here is little more than a shooter. Off-the-charts machismo is offset by the unusual inclusion of homoerotic possibilities in the character of Major Joachim Steuben.
THE BUTCHER'S BILL
Cynical (and understandably so) dissection of how war takes on its own momentum, and how what you're fighting to save is often the first thing destroyed. The Slammers end up employed in a battle between two factions on a world seeking to control important ancient alien artifacts. Danny Pritchard is introduced here, but not with great depth; Hammer himself appears only briefly. Later reprinted in a Baen collection of the same title.
UNDER THE HAMMER
Earliest of the Galaxy stories is the first entry in this volume to show what Drake can pull off when all twelve cylinders are firing. Rob Jenne has just joined the Slammers, and sees firsthand — and all too quickly — how abrupt, unpredictable and horrifying combat can be. It's essentially a "callow young recruit gets his first, sobering taste of battle" story, but conveyed in a way that really communicates the nightmare of warfare. You can tell this was written by someone who's lived it. Reprinted in the Baen collection The Tank Lords.
A soldier whose platoon is awaiting evac from a jungle world casually blows the head off what he thinks is a dumb animal. You can probably guess what transpires from there. Predates even the first Alien film, but interesting to see how Drake slipped ahead of the pop culture curve with this one. And anyway, his aliens here are far more subtly interesting than any movie monsters. A graphic, tense parable about what it means to get in over your head. As in "Under the Hammer," Drake ends this one in a grim and unresolved fashion.
CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE
Visceral little tale mixes a revenge story with the classic theme of war destroying innocence, and anchors it with a tough heroine. Concocted mainly to push your buttons, which it does with unfliching skill. This is one story that truly feels universal in its approach, and not so strictly SFnal; it could very easily have been set during World War II with few changes. Later reprinted in a Baen collection of the same title.
Intense 80-page novella which lays the lunacy of war bare. The Slammers are on the planet Kobold, where multiple factions are at détente thanks to complicated rules of engagement and requirements set forth by the holding companies that handle the funds used to pay mercenaries. Tank captain Danny Pritchard finds himself faced with both an enemy and a hotheaded senior officer ready to throw away the planet's fragile peace by arming civilians. Quite possibly one of the bleakest military SF stories written, in which "rules" of warfare are shown to be a complete facade, the line between good guys and bad guys barely exists (we see Joachim shoot a child), and when chaos erupts, nothing will hold it back until all is wrack and ruin. Better character work than the other stories, too.
Brief story serves as a coda to the collection, with Col. Hammer retiring and settling into a political life back on Friesland, the setting of "But Loyal to His Own". But of course, the Slammers' tour of duty didn't end here.
Followed by an ongoing series of novels and short stories. When Baen Books reissued this edition (with the same cover art) in 1987, they added the novelette "The Tank Lords," which then went on to become the title story of an all-new collection. Night Shade is, as of 2005, undertaking an impressive hardcover reprint series, The Complete Hammer's Slammers.