This book kicks ass! There's really no sense in saying it any other way. A rip-roaring, action-packed space opera that also incorporates fine, believable characterizations into a complex plot involving war, espionage, and cool aliens, Ensign Flandry reads as fresh as it did when it came out over 30 years ago. It's Anderson at his most energetic and entertaining.
Starkad is a distant world inhabited by two sentient species — the aquatic Zletovar and the land-borne Tigeries — that has become a pawn in the chess game of interstellar expansion and power between imperial Earth and the alien Merseians. Dominic Flandry, a brash 19-year-old ensign in the Imperial Naval Flight Corps, finds himself caught in the middle of escalating conflicts on Starkad when it becomes apparent that the Merseians may well be engineering hostilities between the two species. But why the Merseians might try to aggravate a situation on this remote world that could lead to interstellar war — indeed, why they might be interested in Starkad in the first place — is more than a little mysterious.
After helping the Tigeries avoid grief in a marine invasion by the Zletovar (using Merseian naval technology), Flandry finds himself in a sufficient position of trust to be seconded, in an intelligence capacity, to a diplomatic team heading to the Merseian homeworld in an effort to avoid further crisis. Prior to this, he also accompanies a team under the Starkadian waves to the cities of the Zletovar in a similar peacekeeping mission, finding the aquatic beings to have a rich and cultured civilization not necessarily inclined to warfare were they not being goaded into it. Clearly the Merseians are up to something, but what?
What follows is one of the most richly rewarding exercises in SF cloak-and-daggery you're likely to read, conveyed by Anderson not merely with a superb sense of pacing, suspense, and action, but wit as well. Ensign Flandry was written at a time when the Red Scare years of the 50's were fresh in the public's mind, yet of course the Cold War was still a big go, and so the U.S.-Soviet parallels between the Terrans and the Merseians aren't exactly hard to grasp (particularly when one character notes, "We can't make peace, and we can't make real war. All we can do is hold the line.").
Still, Anderson keeps this novel's roots firmly grounded in classic space opera, wisely avoiding the sort of message-mongering that (however slightly) allegorical stories succumb to. The three-dimensionality of the characters, or at least of Flandry himself, helps. Dominic Flandry begins the story as a battle-toughened but in many ways woefully naive soldier, who is quickly and rudely given some sobering lessons in exactly how sleazy the underbelly of politics is, especially when the threat of war looms. And the characterization is at its most poignant when Anderson depicts Flandry's feelings of being utterly ineffectual in the face of senseless conflict and underhanded "diplomacy."
A must-read for anyone who desires excitement, humor, pathos and humanity all rolled into one, Ensign Flandry is a tactical nuke! And in the summer of 2003, ibooks saw fit to bring it back into print during its brief existence as a fine reprint publisher. (And, for a bit of personal trivia, their edition was the first book ever to print a pull-quote from this website, which gave me a little squee at the time.) Ensign Flandry was followed by many more Flandry tales. In the Polesotechnic League story continuity, the next one is A Circus of Hells.