Guest Review: Jack Campbell – Lost Fleet: Dauntless

jackcampbell-lostfleetdauntlessToday’s review is a guest review. Wiebe has caught the review bug and has started writing up some reviews for A Fantastical Librarian. For those of you not familiar with his name, Wiebe is my husband, who also loves SFF and watches a lot of anime. And he’s got opinions. So sometimes he just needs to write them out in a review, which I happily co-opt for the blog. Today he reviews Jack Campbell’s Dauntless, the fist in the Lost Fleet series. 

After a hundred years of brutal war against the Syndics, the Alliance fleet is marooned deep in enemy territory, weakened and demoralized and desperate to make it home.

Their fate rests in the hands of “Black Jack” Greary, a man who had been presumed dead but then emerged from a century of survival in hibernation. To find his name has become legend. Forced by a cruel twist of fate into taking command of the fleet, Greary must find a way to inspire the battle-hardened and exhausted men and women of the fleet or face certain annihilation by their enemies.

There is so much I want to say about this book that I can’t fit it into a review without it becoming really lengthy −I did that and scratched it. So I will deviate from normal proceedings and start with an observation on the military fiction genre.

In all the military (science) fiction I have read, the writer always informs the reader of the axioms that the military adheres to. They really beat you around the head with them; it could even be considered a trope. In a medium that usually avoids overt use of tropes like the plague, what does this tell you about their importance? No one can write a convincing military novel if they deviate too much from these axioms, because they have held true throughout our history, regardless of our technological level. Some of these axioms include the chain of command, luck favours the prepared, logistics; logistics; logistics and a battle plan never survives first contact with the enemy. Most of them can be extrapolated from history and are part of the military canon.

Jack Campbell has come up with a really interesting premise for this story. But in order for that story to start at the point he wants, he violates some of these axioms. So much so, that I had a hard time to read past that point. For Black Jack Greary, our protagonist, to shine and work in the role the writer designed for him, he needed to lower the skill levels of the navy personnel. Unfortunately the writer does so by dialling this lack of skill all the way up to eleven. And by doing so he paints himself in a bit of a corner. If the navy is so poor at tactics, how can they still be undefeated as a navy after 100 years of war? If they are so unskilled, why do they still command their individual ships with adequate skill? The heavy-handedness of writing in solutions for the story to work took me out of my suspension of disbelief and made me notice these holes in the logic.

Another example is the lack of adhering to the chain of command and the recognition of authority. The main character gets this thrown onto his plate to increase the monumental task facing him. If you wanted to up the ante for the main character, a poisoned command culture with nepotism or favouritism would have worked as well. Instead we go all the way up to eleven again: we see a group of captains that debates and votes on a course of action! How are they still alive? How do they command their own ships?

The strengths of this book lie in the story premise and space battles. These aspects kept me reading, even though the above examples and much more was bothering me. Jack Campbell does not overly explain the physics of his universe in mathematical terms, making it a much more accessible read. I can do either, but it was refreshing and easy on the brain to read something different and maybe that might appeal to a broader audience. The battles do not go into huge tactical detail and individual action shots, making it easy to follow and understand why things happen as they do. I might have wished for a richer backdrop setting against which this story takes place, but these two parts were well done.

Having finished it I still like the plot, but dislike the execution. I won’t be buying the next instalments of this series. I do now want to pick up a copy of this writer’s Stark’s War series to compare it to this one. All in all, Lost Fleet: Dauntless has left me feeling that I would have liked this story better if my favourite military SF writer had written it. Dauntless has such a good story premise, but also it seems very, very hard to execute right.