Ace, 2006, 293 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-441-01418-7
It’s an uncontroversial assertion to say that an author’s name is a more reliable marker for satisfaction than a genre label, which is why savvy readers are advised to take a look at “Jack Campbell”’s The Lost Fleet: Dauntless and flip over to the copyright page, which blandly attributes the book to “John G. Hemry writing as Jack Campbell”
Hemry, of course, is the writer of the well-regarded “Paul Sinclair / JAG in Space” tetralogy. While the series obviously didn’t sell all that well (hence explaining the transparent name change), it was above-average military Science Fiction with an appealing protagonist and strong moral underpinnings that informed the content of the fiction. Those are the very same qualities that help make this first volume of The Lost Fleet series so engaging, even for those who don’t have any particular affection for military SF.
The premise has its own kick of interest: A hundred years after being cryogenically frozen following an military engagement between two splinters of humanity, Captain John “Black Jack” Geary is revived to find out that the war is still going on, and that he’s been placed in charge of a fleet far away from home. The enemy is closing in; his own troops are demoralized and his reserves are running low. That’s the first chapter.
Trying to learn as quickly as he can, Geary meets his first fans (who love the long-lost legend more than the real man), makes a few enemies and manages a few fancy military maneuvers. Then things get worse.
Unfrozen out of his time, Geary quickly realizes that some things have changed dramatically in a hundred years. His own side isn’t quite as honorable as it used to be, and the constant toll of fighting has lowered strategic standards. Some of his early victories depend on tactical knowledge forgotten during the intervening century; others depend on a willingness to take the decisions that everyone else wants to avoid. But even then, a substantial number of officers under his command think that they can do much better than a quasi-mythic war hero…
The first volume in a series with five volumes as of spring 2009, Dauntless is about setting up a rich framework for adventure. So there are plenty of expected and not-so-expected hints and portents: Geary’s mythical reputation; warring power blocks; the war’s history; hints of a third force; a quest to get back home; and Geary’s own doubts are all put on the table in this first entry. It remains to be seen whether they can sustain the series until the end, or keep it humming until it changes shape. It’s not a baseless concern: If there’s one lasting criticism about Hemry’s previous “Paul Sinclair” books, it’s that they all had the same structure, and that one book was a reliable guide to all the others.
But at the same time, “Campbell”’s prose style is just as readable as Hemry’s, which can make the difference between reading a single book and committing to an entire series. It helps that Hemry doesn’t write the kind of military SF that most people picture when they think about the subgenre. Here, the emphasis is placed on the burden of being part of a military unit, not on the glory of combat: Geary is acutely conscious that every battle means death for someone, and that his forces aren’t strong enough to sustain the kind of spectacular battle that is the staple of the sub-genre. Oh, there’s clever combat all right –but the interest of the series is just as strong in matters of logistics and politics than it is when the weapons start firing.
And that, in itself, is a good indicator of Hemry’s writing skill —no matter which name he uses on the cover. We’ll see how many volumes The Lost Fleet sustains, but if previous indicators are a reliable guide to future performance, it will be -at worst- a really entertaining series.
[June 2009: The Lost Fleet: Fearless indeed keeps things moving in the right direction. The stakes are raised with unexpected new characters, defections, a romance and stronger suggestions of alien interference. There are also a few more space battles, although they don’t overshadow the series’ more interesting issues about leadership and cooperation. The prose style is a jolly good read, and the series manages to hit a sweet spot between shoot-em-up military action and more thoughtful resource-management problems. The growing sophistication of the characters is a hallmark of addictive fiction. In short; this is one series that’s doing everything right so far.]
[May 2010: It took six volumes, but The Lost Fleet: Victorious finally wraps things up. The conclusion is satisfying, but the series has spent a long time doing nothing before revving into gear in the last volumes and a half. What could have been a satisfying trilogy has become a badly-paced series. Good characters, satisfying emphasis on the burden of leadership, but take out some scissors and snip away at the middle third of the series, because it almost overstays its welcome. There’s a reason why I haven’t even mentioned tomes 3-5.]