The Ortholan’s crew barely survive their crash on an icy moon, and they owe their narrow escape to the least popular member of their crew, the Navigator, whom they call Blue. But they will need him again if they are to survive, because he is the only person aboard capable of flying the ship back to civilization. Unfortunately, without access to their medication, Navigators become somewhat unstable, and the crew’s only hope of salvation may well be the one who kills them all.
John Geary is very very cold. The psychological effects of having spent a hundred years in hibernation, frozen in a capsule after a battle in which he was presumed killed. That battle was the opening salvo in a war that has since continued unabated, losses on both sides mounting relentlessly.
John Geary is very famous. His actions and sacrifices during the battle resulted in many lives saved. Posthumously, he has become the poster child for generations of ever younger warriors and ship captains. As war casualties have killed the senior officers, the skills, strategies and tactics necessary to plan and execute a fleet engagement have been lost before they could be handed down. The fleet fights bravely, valiantly, but bluntly, with little in the way of intelligent battle planning.
John Geary is thrust by circumstance into the role of Fleet Admiral shortly after he awakens. For him four weeks have passed. For the fleet a hundred years, and to them, he is either a legend returned from the dead, or an outdated relic from the past. Faced with inexperienced crew, untrained ship captains, a philosophy of war in which bravery outranks tactics and a navy at odds with the values he was taught to respect as an officer, can Captain “Black Jack” Geary take the Alliance Fleet back to the safety of Alliance Space, or will the many challenges facing him overcome the advantage of his ancient, and yet vastly superior knowledge of engagement strategy, battle tactics and fleet management?
The concept of this story is exceptional. Geary is a perfect hero – the one who is thrust into the position of leader not just because he is famous, but also because he can see that everyone around him is completely lacking in the skills necessary to do more than charge at the enemy en masse. He reluctantly recognizes that, even if his seniority is based on an accident of history, he really is the only person in the fleet with the knowledge and skills to run an engagement intelligently. The only one with a chance of getting these sailors home.
Much is made of his legendary status, with ship captains under his command predictably splitting into groups that support or even idolize him, and groups who cannot accept the idea that a controlled engagement and long-term view of the conflict is better than the virtue of direct confrontation and the courage and self-sacrifice this represents. To some, he appears cowardly and at odds with the way history has depicted him.
Perhaps too much is made of it, in fact, because after several chapters, even though we understand that Geary is conflicted, even though we understand that some of the ship captains are against him, even though we know he is embarrassed by the way people idolize him, we still get long passages during which he walks the ship, agonizes over the way he is perceived, or has long disclosure sessions with the only civilian representative on board, a woman who makes much of the threat he poses as a living god who could seek to rule the Alliance as easily as serve it. She unfortunately seems to lack the finesse to understand that sometimes you deal with what’s in front of you before tacking the very theoretical and unproven problems of many months hence. She gets quite annoying, actually.
If the story’s emphasis lies elsewhere than character development, this is likely because Jack Campbell, a.k.a. John G. Henry, is a retired US Navy officer, and combat is what he knows. This is apparent in the battle scenes which are long, elaborate, and well thought through. The great strengths of this novel and the series as a whole rests in two things – the original idea of a world in which war has waged for so long that the art of war itself has been mostly lost, and both sides are reduced to flailing at each other with little in the way of tactics; and the well drawn military engagements that demonstrate the effectiveness of a military mind at the head of a fleet, especially when faced with an enemy that is not used to an opponent that does more than merely bludgeon.
But a story requires characters to bring it to life, and while Geary is very solidly depicted and rendered, few of the other characters benefit from that degree of complexity, appearing more as foils to bring contrast to Geary’s character than individuals in their own right. Each character has his or her place – The Co-President is Geary’s conscience (although she does more to confuse than to settle him), Captain Desjani is his day-to-day mirror, Duellos is his encouragement, remaining at the end of almost every single captain’s conference to advise and encourage him, Numos represents his opposition within the fleet, blindly hating and resenting anything that he says or does, and who can always be relied upon to disobey orders in the most damaging way. In the end, their behaviour is so predictable that they’re useful more for exposition than as true story elements in their own right. The only character truly in focus is Geary.
But military science fiction can get away with this, because we don’t necessarily read it for the characters – we want the battles. It’s a shame we can’t have both, but a novelist with a strong grasp of character would find it difficult – without major effort on their part – to describe battles in as convincing a manner as Campbell. So it’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept in a novel that is unashamedly military in its ambitions.
This is a good story, I hope that as I make my way through the series the characterisation becomes more complex. I’ve already read the second novel and not to pre-empt my review, it hasn’t really improved all that much in this particular area, but my hopes remain. There are further elements that are only hinted at that could become very interesting as the story develops – nobody seems to understand why these two groups are at war in the first place, for example, and that is something else that someone from the past can have an influence over.
I enjoyed this first look at Geary’s adventures, it’s a bit pulpy in the sense that I raced through it extremely fast, but it was satisfying nonetheless (if a little expensive in a dollars-per-hour-of-reading calculation).
There are two principal ways in which this book (and those that follow, one would presume), is particularly strong.
The first, and more subtle, is the credibility of descriptions of military behaviour and composure under pressure. I hadn’t entirely understood why certain aspects of the heroine’s behaviour seemed so believably military-cadet-like until I learned that Elizabeth Moon has a military background herself.
The second particular strength is the nature of the world that’s being described as a backdrop to the story. With a far-flung empire and obligatory travel time measured in weeks and months rather than days, a kind of rule-by-consensus evolves. The distance and time involved in travelling from one point to another maintains and enhances the importance of shipping and transport while diluting the ability of any central authority to exercise control or to enforce a particular set of rules. Finally, it gives disproportionate power to anyone capable of bridging those distances with either information or matter, and those who have that sort of power have a strong incentive to hang on to their monopoly of it.
So it is that Kylara Vatta, after being thrown out of a military academy for rather spurious reasons, finds herself earning her way back into her family’s graces (and being conveniently moved away from the epicentre of the scandal she’s created by getting thrown out of the academy) by captaining a ship that’s due for salvaging at a location a few months travel from home.
Her genetic heritage – a desire to make the best of every situation and a constant search for trade and profit – manifests halfway through the journey as she spies an opportunity for some lucrative work if she makes a small detour. From there things slide downhill fast as she finds herself inadvertently embroiled in a complex fight between unknown but very powerful organizations, while still piloting nothing more than her ready-for-the-scrapheap outdated trading vessel.
Some weaknesses in the narrative comes in counterpoint to its strengths. While the military background of those characters that deserve one is impeccable, the character descriptions fall a little flat when we look at the civilian and emotional aspects. Specific character traits are explained, demonstrated, explained again, analysed in excruciating detail through italicized internal monologues, and then analysed and examined some more a few paragraphs later because we may not have gotten the message the first time. Ky’s affinity for combat, her complexes regarding the way she’s perceived by her family (too nice to strays), her dilemma about getting involved or becoming independent of her family – it is all over-explained, it comes back too often, and it moves forward too slowly to merit the many lines of text dedicated to the subject.
In terms of the very interesting concept that law and order become fungible and difficult to enforce over the vast distances of space, the idea is great, but disappointingly under-utilized. We spend more time worrying about whether we can trust the people in the ship, or whether Kylara can get over her first love affair, than examining the concept of how society and those who wish to further it struggle to protect against those who would take advantage of the relative lawlessness of space. We get aspects of this – the existence of militias and mercenaries in particular – and the genesis of the story more or less depends on the premise, but it’s rarely dealt with head-on in the text.
That said, despite being very linear and having some character balance issues (Kylara is the only properly developed character in this first book), the story works both as a by-the-numbers space thriller, executing a simple plot well, and as a coming of age story for a young heroine who discovers her strengths as she exercises them. For a young adult crowd, an excellent demonstration that science fiction can be fertile soil on which to grow adventure stories.
I enjoyed the book very much, even if I don’t think it’ll be winning any literature prizes.