Dauntless by Jack Campbell

(2011-03-11)

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless

Volume One of the Lost Fleet Series

By Jack Campbell (aka John G. Hemry)

First published in the US by Ace Books (2006); this edition published by Titan Books (UK), January 2011. Review copy received.

320 pages

ISBN: 978-0857681300

Review by Mark Yon

Here’s a military SF series that we’re just catching up with in the UK. As I’m sure some are aware, the US is up to Book 6 (Victorious.) and Book 7 (Dreadnaught) due any time soon.  So well done to Titan Books for these releases: the first three books are out now, with the rest due for publication soon.

As you might expect then, this first book sets up events for the rest of the series. The tale begins with the ongoing war (for the last one hundred years or so) between The Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds (Syndic). The Alliance are losing and so are meeting their enemy in a peace negotiation to hopefully bring the war to a close.

We see things from the start from the viewpoint of Alliance Captain John ‘Black Jack’ Geary, a recently re-discovered war hero. Following a major space battle one hundred years ago, Geary was left frozen after helping the rest of the Fleet to escape. As the tale starts, Geary is emotionally unstable and feeling a bit of a fraud, yet one who is clearly revered as a hero by the Alliance crews.

Unfortunately, the peace negotiations are nothing more than an attempt to destroy the Alliance’s fragile state by killing all of their Fleet leaders. Geary reluctantly finds that he has to take charge of the fleet as the highest ranking remaining officer. He also is the only person with access to the novel’s major macguffin: the Syndic’s Hypernet key, retrieved by the Alliance and the object that allows the Syndic (and now therefore the Alliance) to travel through FTL gates around the galaxy.

What Geary finds is that during the time of his enforced hibernation the Fleet have forgotten most of the old ways of battle, and that he must train them again in order to survive against the Alliance. This puts him at loggerheads with some of the other remaining Fleet officers.

Working independently in different factions Geary realises that in order to survive he must unify the Fleet and run from the Syndic until they get back to their homeworld.

So what we have here is good old traditional mil-space SF, with ships and fleets sailing and battling between worlds, like the old sea vessels of Earth. We have a military power structure based on Navy protocols and no doubt a universe that runs like the Star Trek Federation, albeit split between the two opposing ideologies of Capitalism and Communism through The Alliance and the Syndic.

Nothing too original there, then. What makes this a little different is that we have here an old-timer who finds that he has to break the rules, the status-quo, in order to ensure continued survival.   The war depicted here has become formularised and stale, conforming to outdated and outmoded rules of combat that need something new to change it. The irony here is that it is the older rules, now seemingly forgotten, that come to their aid. It is, in the end, not the battles that are important here, but the people who lead them. 

The strengths of the book are that there is a military feel to them. It is also a book that tries to show how battle would be when dealing with near-FTL speeds – often it is predicting where things will be, the ‘real’ version not being seen for seconds or minutes later. On the scale we look at here battles are lost and won before people actually see the results with their own eyes. This is all done cleverly and logically, giving a realistic feel to otherwise difficult to visualise events.

On the downside, Geary at first comes across as too much of a martyr, with guilt the size of a planet that makes David Feintuch’s Captain Seafort, not usually known for his optimism, a positive ray of sunshine by comparison.  ‘I am not worthy’ seems to be almost tattooed on Geary’s forehead. This rather repetitive self-doubt did make the book a bit of a slog for me at first. I am pleased to say that this got a little less wearing as the book continued.

Secondly, the other characterisations, at first, are rather simple, yet functional. Alongside Geary we have increasingly trusty side-kick, and Captain of the Dauntless, Tanya Desjani, who stands by him as he grapples with coming to terms with a world one hundred years older than he expects.

We also have, by the mid-point through the novel, the arrival of Co-President Victoria Rione of the Callas Republic, who competes with Geary’s self-doubt to become the seemingly ever-nagging Conscience of the novel. Bit wearing this, but understandable. Geary not only has to deal with his own issues but also the politics of a seemingly uncomfortable Alliance between the military and the people.

Most of the characters do their duty, yet rarely more than that. I suspect more will develop as the series progresses. There’s also some nice little glimpses of areas of tension in Geary’s future world. For example, a nice little banter developed between Rione and Desjani, when the differences of opinion on AI spaceships show how apart these two groups are. Keeping it simple, the military think it’s possible, the Republic does not, creating an interesting stress between the two that Geary stands in the middle of.

As this book advances, we start to see more of what Geary was perhaps like in the past: committed, determined, able to make decisions.  Things become a little more relaxed as the book progresses, and a hint of possible romance that will, no doubt, be played out in future tales.

Similarly, as the series continues, I hope that some of the rather contrived plot points will smooth out: what Fleet in its right mind, other than those in Battlestar Galactica, would allow all their key leaders to be shepherded into one place at one time? Or indeed entrust a battle-scarred veteran with the secret advantage to the Fleet, and no one else?

By the end of the book I don’t think I’m giving away much when I say that the superior manoeuvring of Geary and the Fleet lead to a rather expected ending. They survive, admittedly at a cost, yet live to fight another day, whilst also working their way back to their home worlds.

 

There’s some nice little touches with this edition at the end: an interview with the author, his ten favourite SF books (annoyingly referred to as ‘sci-fi’) and an extract from the next in the series. (It also explains that the similarities between this series and Battlestar Galactica is coincidental.)

 

In conclusion, there are some books that don’t really stand up to much analysis. They are there to entertain, without too much thought or depth. The reader knows this and is usually happy to accept the weaker areas for the sake of fast action and plot resolution. This is unabashedly one of those novels.

However, if you can accept this, this is also solid military SF, in the mould of David Weber’s Honor series or the aforementioned David Feintuch’s Seafort Saga series. After a bit of a wobbly premise, the energy of the narrative and the broad sweep of the battles keep the reader engaged. It’s not (yet) Honor Harrington; yet I can see that the series has potential.

 

Mark Yon, March 2011

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