This makes the third Jack Campbell novel I’ve reviewed for Tor.com. It’s Campbell’s—the open pseudonym of writer and former US naval officer John G. Hemry—eleventh novel in his Lost Fleet continuity, and the second novel in The Lost Stars spin-off series. At this point, Dear Readers, I think you probably already know if you’re part of Campbell’s audience. If you don’t already know, this eleventh/second series novel is not the best introduction.
It’s not the best continuation, either.
Don’t get me wrong. I rather like Jack Campbell’s novels, on the whole. They’re straightforward space battle popcorn entertainment, and if space battle is all you’re looking for, they’re very entertaining. But it has become clear over time that Campbell has either very little interest in or facility with characterisation, and it is this that means his work will never be more than space battle popcorn, however he might try to introduce new elements.
And there’s not enough space battle here to keep me distracted.
I had hopes that with Tarnished Knight, the first book in the subsidiary Lost Stars series, Campbell would demonstrate a greater skill with characterisation. Its focus on a group of ex-Syndicate Worlds officers—people from a national culture of backstabbing, paranoia, and conspiracy, forced to work together to build a strong, independent star system that can stand against their former rulers—had a great deal of promise, and briefly, briefly, I thought that Campbell would manage to pull off a series that married space battle action to politics.
Perilous Shield is in that respect—and several others—disappointing. Like its predecessor, Tarnished Knight, there are points at which the narrative is woven so closely around events described in the most recently published main-line Lost Fleet novel that having read that main-line novel—in this case, Guardian—removes a great deal of tension from the events of Perilous Shield. However, not having read that novel might equally cause certain events to make only sketchy amounts of sense. But where Tarnished Knight had a great deal of space battle action (although proportionally less than the Lost Fleet books), Perilous Shield chooses to employ SHIPS GO BOOM in relatively meagre doses, focusing instead on the personalities and politics of President Gwen Iceni, General Artur Drakon, Drakon’s aides Malin and Morgan, the ground forces officer Colonel Rogero, the newly-arrived Alliance liaison officer Captain Bradamont (who during a long-past period as a prisoner of war fell in love with the aforesaid Colonel Rogero), and a string of assassination attempts on president, general, and liaison officer.
It should be a marvellously tense stew of politics and strained loyalties and unexpected angles. Any writer with a glimmer of skill at (or interest in) characterisation would aim to render it in deeper, richer colours than Campbell succeeds in doing. Instead, cardboard figures move hither and yon with scarcely a hint of real feeling, and it is praise indeed for Campbell’s careless breezy prose style that this manages—barely—to be undemandingly readable.
But at the climax of the narrative Campbell goes a bridge too far, and adds a ridiculous family soap opera to this pathetic facsimile of interpersonal drama. Not only does it turn out that Drakon’s aides are related (rather closely related, at that), but Morgan has conceived a child by Drakon, and means to raise it “to build an empire on the ashes of the Syndicate Worlds,” whether Drakon wills or no.
Which I could have just about stood for, if throughout the whole course of the Lost Stars novels Morgan and President Iceni hadn’t been engaged in species of rivalry/courtship with Drakon at its centre. Not an outright courtship, perhaps, but their interactions are overlaid with the cattiness of rival women which in fiction always has a sexual overtone: the kind of jealousy that occurs for the most part in men’s imaginations and scripted daytime television. This triangle of jealousy structurally parallels that of Captain Desjaini, Victoria Rione, and Jack Geary in the Lost Fleet books. It does not give this reviewer much hope for any future meaningful or realistic emotional interactions between any of the characters in question.
Tarnished Knight represented the high point of my interest in Campbell’s Lost Fleet universe. It seems a shame that its sequel has managed to kill most of that interest—but it has. I can put up with a lot for a good space battle or three. I refuse to put up with poorly-executed soap opera for…
Well, anything, really.
The Lost Stars: Perilous Shields is available now from Ace.