I’m always on the look out for new-to-me military SF stories and series, it’s one of those sub genres that I almost always enjoy. I came across the Lost Fleet series written by Jack Campbell (the pen name of John G Hemry) last year as I looked for a completed series to get my teeth into. In truth I just didn’t know what to expect, but I soon discovered that I had been missing out big time. Although I read the series on its entirety last year, it was a personal, non-review read. However, it’s a series that I just couldn’t stop thinking about and, with the UK releases hitting our shores this year, I decided to re-read the books to review them, just to let you all know what you’re missing!
The story starts off with the Alliance in the Syndic home system, having acquired a Syndic Hypernet key through an apparent turncoat. When they arrived they found that this turncoat betrayed them and a huge Syndic force awaits them, trapping them and demanding surrender. When all senior Alliance personnel head to the Syndic flagship to agree to terms of surrender they are killed without discussion, and the Alliance fleet told to surrender to become slaves of the Syndic or be destroyed. However, before his departure from the Alliance Flagship the fleet Admiral gave command of the fleet to Captain John ‘Black Jack’ Geary, a legendary hero from the first battle of the war a hundred years ago, thought dead and only recently saved from survival sleep by the Alliance Fleet. Much has changed since his time, war having a disastrous effect on both sides of the conflict, and only he can use the tactics of old to save what remains of the fleet and return them to Alliance space. And then the journey begins…
The Lost Fleet: Dauntless is very much the start of a tale of a retreat home through enemy territory with the odds stacked against them. What is a welcome breath of fresh air here is that the setting in which the story takes place is familiar yet unknown, with strong characters and a very good foundation in worldbuilding that brings it all alive. The story is very much military SF, and Campbell’s past as a naval officer comes through on every page, from the characters and their interactions to the way fighting takes place. It all works well in building the story from a single event and manages to explore the situation between the Alliance and Syndicate Worlds in detail without being over done.
While FTL is possible in this setting, the ways and means involved in such travel give both a sense of wonder because of the expanse of humans across a vast distance, and a hard reality check with solid physics involved for the in-system slower than light journeys. Each system has a jump point to another star at which a ship equipped with a jump drive can use, this taking anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, and is a very limited method. The second FTL method is using the hypernet, a system of gates that allow much quicker travel to any point in the system, but can only be used if a ship has the right hypernet key on board their ship.
It’s the above method of FTL travel that plays a huge role in the story, but not the only one. With the war between the Alliance and Syndicate Worlds going on for a hundred years the loss of life to each side has meant that much of the old style of fighting has been lost, they now fight in all out combat against the enemy no matter the odds. It’s this honour and pride of the fleet that is an interesting device used within the story, but also one of the more frustrating aspects.
On the frustrating side there is some suspension of disbelief required to believe that despite a space fairing society used to war that nobody would consider applying a strategically tactical mentality to battle. However, much of the reasons behind this relate to the stand that Geary made during the first surprise attack by the Syndics. Faced with overwhelming odds he held off the enemy to allow much of the fleet he was with and his crew to escape, staying on until the end and only barely escaping himself. After this he was held up as a hero, a shining example to face an enemy head on regardless of the odds, and it’s a mentality that has been used since then, with any small traces of tactics being lost or forgotten. With his rescue he is shocked that this stand has been taken dramatically out of context and expanded upon to the state things are now.
Taking over, Geary uses his knowledge to command the fleet in the ways he was trained and have since been lost – it’s this aspect that makes Dauntless one of the best military SF books I’ve read. This direction to a fleet not used to doing anything other than all out attack brings about arguments from the other ship captains, long since used to discussing and voting on courses of action and bickering between themselves. By taking direct command Geary introduces the fighting ways of old, the use of the jump points to a fleet used to hypernet travel, and just how efficient and effective these can be when used right. It’s a really interesting aspect and a thoroughly enjoyable one, bringing the characters to life during interactions and exploring the how and why of the current situation, with half the fleet worshipping the returning hero and the other half wary of just what he will do.
What also makes Dauntless such a compelling read is the characters. John Geary is the hero of legend, dropped into a desperate situation and trying to come to terms with what has happened since his time, and through all of this having to deal with the treatment he is getting, from hero worship to constant questioning and near insubordination. As the story is told from his point of view we get a lot of detail about Geary, know what he’s thinking and properly get inside his head – it’s difficult not to enjoy any aspect of this personal journey. We also have the captain of Dauntless, Tania Desjani, one of those that believe him the saviour of the alliance, but she’s more than that, and she learns more about the old ways of fighting through Geary, slowly but surely learning that the current way is not the best. There’s also Co-President Rione, an Alliance senator and the only one left in the fleet after event sin the Syndic home system. She’s ruthless and cold, but there appears to be more to her than first meets the eye, and she acts very much as a conscience to Geary despite her fear that he’ll be just as the legends told and lead the fleet to death in a blaze of glory.
While there was much to enjoy about The Lost Fleet: Dauntless, one of the aspects I wasn’t convinced about was the constant referrals to distances and the time spans involved with communication limited to light speed. It’s an understandable inclusion and one that should be there, but perhaps not every other page. On the other hand, because of these same limitations the battles must also follow the laws of physics. These were also constant when battle took place, but I found they added an extra layer to the story, treating the reader as an intelligent person be letting the battles play out in their entirety rather than a general description. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I loved it.
Dauntless is the first book in a six book series, so don’t expect many resolutions to take place here, or an immediate jump into the meat of the story. The build up takes a while and works in favour of the story, allowing Campbell to really get you involved and committed to what is going on. This is certainly one of the best examples of Military science fiction I’ve read and look forward to getting back to the rest of the books in the series