Tuesday, June 15, 2010

[Novel Review] Jack Campbell's series The Lost Fleet

I've been a fan of John G. Hemry's work since I read his trilogy about a soldier named Stark who finds himself in command of an army of soldiers assigned to fight enemy forces on the Moon. In Stark's case, the soldiers overthrow their poor leaders and put him in charge in their place. Then he needs to fight both the enemy and his own side's forces. Nothing heavy there, but good, fun reads with a certain amount of "Officers can't be trusted not to mess things up" attitude that's somewhat ironic coming from an Annapolis grad. Hemry writes this new series under the pen-name of Jack Campbell.

The Lost Fleet shares some of the same themes. There's one good man who's in a position to assume command and win by not making the errors of his predecessors and by being an all-around good guy. Instead of leading ground forces, the protagonist of The Lost Fleet is in command of a massive flotilla of ships.

The lead character in this series is somewhat unique because he's a man out of time. In the opening days of the current war, John Geary was thrust into command of a heavy cruiser from which he made a last-ditch stand against the enemy and their surprise attack. He and his ship are lost, but this noble act made him a hero and, after, a legend. A century later, every member of the military honors the legacy of "Black Jack" Geary, attributing to him all sorts of noble qualities and wise lessons in leadership. He's raised up to a larger-than-life figure that inspires the entire fleet while putting pressure on Geary's family's descendants to live up to his impossible standard.

The war has gone badly for both sides over its hundred-year span. Strategy and tactics have given way to bloody, blunt-force attacks with no regard for casualties. Likewise, attacks on civilian targets and even planetary settlements have become common. The ideals of Geary's age have been lost in favor of a win-at-all costs approach and a quest for glorious death on the part of the warship crews. At the beginning of the first book, Dauntless, it looks to the Allies as if they might finally be in a position to win against their Syndicate Worlds enemy. It is on the way to this great victory that they discover a single lost life-support capsule floating in a forgotten system. Inside, still alive, is the hero of the Alliance, Black Jack Geary.

Geary awakens a hundred years in the future, weak from the long hibernation and baffled by the changes he sees around him. He's still trying to collect his wits in his cabin when the great battle begins. But it's a trap - the Syndicate Worlds fleet has baited their Alliance adversaries into making an enormous, fruitless gamble. The fleet's admiralty are all killed, leaving the most senior captain in charge. And given that John Geary was promoted to his rank (posthumously, it was believed) a hundred years before, he suddenly finds himself in command - a century out of touch with the technology and attitudes of his sailors and trillions of miles behind enemy lines. The six-book series follows the exploits of Geary and his fleet as they fight their way back home using forgotten tactics, ingenuity, and a different kind of fighting spirit than anyone alive is familiar with.

There was a lot to like about The Lost Fleet. It's full of gigantic, fleet-sized space battles akin to something out of David Weber's Honor Harrington series (which I also like). Hemry does a good job of creating believable space-battle physics, which is a challenge for any sci-fi author writing about spaceflight. There has to be a good way for ships to transit the enormous distances across solar systems without everyone on board dying of old age. In Hemry's universe, ships move fast but not too fast, resulting in sometimes lengthy wait-times for things like 2-way communications or just closing to combat range. It gave the story a strong sense of realism.

Hemry also creates some very good characters, particularly in the form of Geary and his key advisers.The pace is good, the dramatic tension pulls you along and each book leaves you wanting more right up until the end.

The books do get a bit repetitious at times, notably when Hemry re-introduces concepts already covered in prior books. His goal is obviously to facilitate access for readers who haven't read the prior novels, but he does it at the expense of readers who have.

Another big weakness is in the enemy forces. They're never anything but nebulous "bad guys." They're a function, an idea more than a form that the reader can identify with one-on-one. There's no way to relate to them as people because we never get to know them at all. Worse, they rarely seem to present real challenges to the hero. As the books go on, some of the victories don't seem sufficiently hard-won to maintain tension going forward.

There were also some gender-based interactions and conflicts that felt a bit forced to me. As good as Hemry is at building strong, identifiable characters, I found myself wishing both that he'd apply that skill more to the enemy and that he'd make the gender conflicts more believable.

Overall, The Lost Fleet series was an enjoyable read that explored themes of command responsibility, military honor, and the effects of allowing long-term wars to affect both. I devoured all six books and would whole-heartedly recommended them to anyone who likes space fleet military sci-fi. As a series, all six of the books were of similar quality (which is somewhat rare in a long series like this, where certain books tend to stand out among the others) and I'd rate them as a B+. You can find the series from amazon at this link.

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