Bennett R. Coles – Virtues of War

The Terran military launches a mission to apprehend a spy on the planet known as Cerberus. The results ripple through the Centauri colonies and place the system on the brink of war. Aboard the fast-attack craft Rapier, three key personnel –Lt. Katja Emmes, Sublt. Jack Mallory and Lt. Commander Thomas Kane – will be tested as never before. How they respond will decide the fate of the earth itself.

My cats fished Virtues of War by Bennett R. Coles out of our to-read-bookcase. When I saw the cover I thought “I have to read this”. Turns out, I already had, less than three years ago. So either I have a poor memory or didn’t leave a lasting impression. I could not remember much of the story during reading, except for some flashes of recognition. When I was done, most of it came back to me and also why I had forgotten most of it. 

When I first read it, the lack of comment on certain events made me go “huh?” In this book one of the protagonists considers shooting suspects to get information — in her opinion a common thing to do for a trooper — she does so right in the first action scene. None of her squad mates blink an eye or raise an objection. For me it seems that the bigger the discrepancy between the fictional world and the real one, the harder the need for some explanation for why that is. This is hardly the ‘Hearts and Minds’ approach you’d expect from a democracy trying to create more democracies.

Now with time as a salve, I could see different aspects of the book. Apart from the morals of the protagonists and their government, there is much more to find. The setting is a colonial one. Earth dominates the settled galaxy and seems to be bossing the colonies around. Centaury, the biggest colony is opposing earth, and the smaller colonies in Sirius are the battleground. We follow four main characters who have to make it through the conflict, all with different baggage and goals. And Bennet R. Coles can really write action packed space combat, which will keep you reading past your bedtime. 

However, with a title like “Virtues of War”, I expected some moral dilemma, someone getting their comeuppance because of their vices, anything really. We see the characters develop and gain virtues and vices, but there is no judgement in the story on what virtues, if any, are good or bad for war. There also is no comment on war itself and all that it does to a human body, mind or society. It all just is. The writing is solid, but on this topic the pickings were slim. I am not a fan of lead them by the nose writing, but this is the opposite, and not in a good way. All the points where you could expect a comment from a character about the morals and virtues of an action, are absent. The book is fast paced and conveys the frantic pace of this war really well, but in the moments of quiet between battles there is no reflexion or recrimination.

I like this genre, and Coles can really write space combat with the best of them. He also writes convincing flawed characters with baggage, hopes and dreams. The world building is rich and convincing, a good backdrop for this story. Sadly, for me, it lacked that extra layer, that extra bit of philosophy if you will, about the events happening in the novel. I will seek out the next instalments, because I like the universe and hope this changes. If it does, the series will go from good to excellent in my opinion.

Wiebe van der Salm.