Re-released by Baen Books in 2001 as part of the omnibus edition Star Soldiers, Star Guard holds up much better than many of Norton's older novels. Naturally, it has more than its fair share of dated elements, but even almost 50 years after its initial publication there is much about its themes that remains relevant... even prescient. Though one doesn't get too much of a taste of the early Cold War mentality in Star Guard, Norton's tale of a platoon of human troops who get more than they bargained for in a "police action" on an alien world resonates to this day.
The story is set in a future in which humanity, having expanded into space, has met a governing body of alien species known as Central Control. Central Control, concerned over humanity's penchant for aggressiveness, has put tight reins on human expansion into space while at the same time finding an outlet for our warlike tendencies. Humanity's role is now that of the mercenary fighter, and military units called either "Archs" (who fight low-tech wars on primitive worlds) or "Mechs" (who go blazing into high-tech battle with the latest hardware on advanced worlds) are literally hired out to any planet that needs them. So we're an intergalactic Foreign Legion. But of course, many of the young Earthmen who sign up for a chance at the stars wonder if Central Control will really live up to their end of the deal, and grant humanity the greater freedoms they promise us.
One of those young men is Kana Karr, a "greenie" fresh out of training who is assigned to an Arch unit headed for the planet Fronn to support a warlord in what he claims is his rightful bid for the throne. Karr is suspicious about aspects of the mission. The commanding officer is relatively inexperienced, and yet most of the men serving under him are seasoned veterans with heroic reputations. Why would men such as these join an assignment like this? The plot thickens when it appears the other side is using advanced weapons that have no business being on Fronn at all.
Soon enough, our heroes find themselves on the business end of a double-cross. A group of outlaw Mechs has landed on Fronn, illegally arming the natives in their attempt to take control of the world and its trade. Its commander killed in an ambush, the remains of Karr's platoon must retreat through hostile alien territory in order to find some way off-planet to warn their leaders back home of the treachery they've witnessed, and bring the baddies to justice.
Though there isn't a whole lot going on in the way of explosive battle scenes, Norton does an impressive job of creating strong, sympathetic heroes. The bonds that the soldiers develop in their survival trek are believably conveyed, and even nearly half a century after the book's first appearance it all holds up nicely, despite a tendency towards purple prose (in the clichéd manner of golden and silver age SF, the dialogue gets awful highfalutin' when anyone talks to an alien). Norton keeps the pace deliberate and unhurried, as befits a character piece. At times it may be a little too slow and talky, but overall, in Star Guard Andre Norton has created a tale that will satisfy most readers.