Jack Campbell came highly recommended. Myke Cole, author of Shadow Ops: Control Point, instructed an entire room of people at a recent convention to read Dauntless. Putting aside the fact that Cole and Campbell share an agent and a publisher, his strong opinion on the subject piqued my interest. Of course, it didn’t hurt that my fellow bloggers Rob and Kathryn of SFFWorld like wise urged me. What I discovered is quintessential military science fiction that extrapolates naval combat into the vacuum of space with a real knack for storytelling despite archetypal characters, an extremely linear plot, and workmanlike prose.
Read that last sentence again. Dauntless is uninspired in a lot of ways except one and it’s a big one. It’s an absolute blast to read. In fact, it’s such an entertaining read that I don’t hesitate to call it the perfect cozy novel for the military science fiction fan.
It’s essentially the story of a war between the Alliance and the Syndicate. As the name would suggest, the Syndicate functions something like an evil corporation who cares nothing for the cogs in the wheel, just the products it produces. Meanwhile, the Alliance is a functioning government by the people, for the people, or so the rhetoric goes in a story told entirely from their point of view.
The story begins with an attempted negotiation between the crippled Alliance fleet and the larger Syndics’, ostensibly over the terms of Alliance surrender. Things go awry when the Syndic commander murders Admiral Bloch and his command staff in cold blood, leaving Captain John “Black Jack” Geary in charge. Unfortunately, he’s been frozen in space for the last century, floating through space at the site of his now famous last stand.
Reviving him, Campbell transplants an old dog into the future among a less respectful rank and file, worn down by decades of war. In so doing, he recreates something of the drill sergeant and green recruit paradigm whereby Captain John “Black Jack” Geary whips the fleet into shape.
Geary brought his hand up in the formal salute he’d always known but hadn’t seen among this fleet. He didn’t know when saluting had ceased to be a normal military courtesy in the Alliance fleet, but he was damned if he’d just wave good-bye to a superior officer. Bloch gave a rusty half-salute in reply, then turned and passed quickly through the entry area toward the waiting shuttle, followed by a couple of the older officers.
|This UK cover kicks ass.|
The novel shines most when Campbell has the opportunity to wax on space warfare. A former naval intelligence officer, Campbell’s experience serves him well coordinating major conflicts between dozens of ships moving through three dimensions. His use of physics lends a great deal of authenticity to the story, particularly in the use of time dilation, an aspect of spacetime usually reserved for the sacrificial alter of plot contrivances. Dauntless embraces these hurdles and crafts around them compelling battles, more tension filled for the absence of constant action.
If there’s one mark against Campbell’s novel it’s that very little happens. Dauntless is the first installment in a six book series and it shows, with very little resolution to any plot lines in the first novel. Likewise, much of the page count is given over to Black Jack’s adjustment to life in the future, his overhaul of military culture, and the descriptions of numerous battle sequences. It results in a stolid pace that leaves plenty of room for character development and world building. Campbell, through what I can only attribute to great skill, manages to make even these duller moments consistently compelling.
Writing this review made me consider whether I was Campbell’s target audience. I had such a great time reading the novel, but not necessarily a ton of glowing remarks about the pieces that composed it. Was I impartial or just the kind of male military science fiction reader that falls into the market demographics of the Lost Fleet series? I decided I was much more the former. I can’t call Dauntless a masterpiece of genre fiction, but I can call it a masterfully told story and Jack Campbell a master storyteller.