Mon
Oct 22 2012 3:30pm
Space Opera Goes Boom. Jack Campbell’s The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight

A review of The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight by Jack CampbellI discovered the novels of Jack Campbell, a pseudonym for writer and former U.S. naval officer John G. Hemry, in the spring of this year. At which point, I believe I devoured them all in the space of a single fortnight and cast about hungrily for more: if there is at this present time a better writer of pure popcorn explosive-BOOM military space opera working in the field, I haven’t found them.

Safe to say, I’m right bang in the centre of The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight’s target audience, so the shocker would’ve been if I hadn’t enjoyed it.

Tarnished Knight opens a new series in Campbell’s The Lost Fleet universe. In the aftermath of the defeat of the Syndicate Worlds by the Alliance, and in the new Syndicate government’s attempt to re-establish power in the face of local insurrection and civil unrest, the flotilla of warships which provide the Midway system’s only line of defence against the mysterious race of aliens known as the “enigmas” are about to be ordered home to the capital. Syndicate CEOs Gwen Iceni and Artur Drakon, exiled to unprofitable posts at Midway for their unfortunate tendency to demonstrate a sense of responsibility towards their subordinates, are threatened with arrest and execution. To save their own lives, they stage a coup and take independent control of the Midway system – despite the fact that neither of them really feel able to trust the other, and that the odds of their maintaining Midway’s independence in the long run are very slim.

In all honesty, as of The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnought, I’d begun to feel that Campbell was getting a little stale in his characters and situations. Black Jack Geary jumping his fleet into ever-increasing amounts of peril (and then pulling off success against all odds) had become just a touch predictable: it’s good to see Campbell changing the pace a little, and providing characters whose concerns include building local political stability as well as kicking space battle ass makes for an all-around more interesting book.

Don’t worry, though. There’s still plenty of space battle action here, with now-President (“President? ...What does that mean?” “Whatever I want it to.”) Gwen Iceni conducting operations in Midway system and leading her tiny fleet in a raid on the system next door. There’s also fighting with ground troops, for now-General Artur Drakon is a man who likes to lead from the front. Crunchy explosive entertainment! But the most interesting angle of Tarnished Knight is the will-he won’t-she dance of mutual mistrust: both Iceni and Drakon are only reluctant partners, each convinced by culture and conditioning that the other is probably out to get them, but circumstances keep forcing them to rely on each other. Despite the even deeper distrust—and manoeuvring, for everyone seems to have an agenda—of their staffs, they develop a working relationship. And maybe, just maybe, Midway can manage to achieve a less repressive future than its Syndicate past.

There are only a couple of things that distracted—and detracted—from my enjoyment of the most excellent space opera action. The first is something Campbell is forever doing in his novels, and which annoys the hell out of me. Two women, otherwise interesting – but the majority of their interaction with each other is competitive cattiness rooted in a) mistrust and b) (presumed shared) sexual attraction to the same man. When we talk about writing solid female characters? This is a serious flaw.

The other distracting thing is that I find the Syndicate Worlds’ modus operandi vis-à-vis their own personnel a little on the unbelievable side. That perform-well-and-stay-on-your-superiors’-good-side-or-be-shot is a thing, yes. That it’s a thing that’s sustainable on the order of a hundred years? That strikes me as a reach, because organisations engaged in mortal combat tend to need top-down as well as bottom-up loyalty, or they have a nasty habit of splintering or of seeing competent factions going over to the enemy.

It’s a distraction, not a major point. The other distracting thing – well, Tarnished Knight does what a whole hell of a lot of space opera does, and fails basic diversity. By which I mean it’s working from US-centric paradigms: space doesn’t seem to be legion, containing multitudes of different ways of doing things.* Unless we count the aliens. (Should we count the aliens? I am unconvinced on this point.)

*In fact, Campbell’s whole Lost Fleet set up looks rather a lot like a clash of the Cold War superpowers in space, under different names.

Anyone who’s read The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Invincible will have some clue as to how the cliffhanger at the end of Tarnished Knight may be resolved. But not how the characters get there, or where they go next. And that, I must confess? That I’m very much looking forward to finding out.

The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight may work reasonably well for new readers of Campbell’s work: I think it probably works independently of The Lost Fleet. But it ties in well to that continuity too, and is very similar in tone. If you like The Lost Fleet, this is definitely for you.

If you like your space opera fast-paced, not terribly deep, and full of BOOM... Yeah, you should probably give this one a shot.


Liz Bourke would like more space opera going BOOM LIKE THAT, please. Find her @hawkwing_lb on Twitter.

11 comments
Del C
1. del
Gwen Iceni and Artur Drakon

This is almost, but not quite "Rob S. Pierre" level of character naming. If Lance Lake turns up, don't say I didn't warn you.
Alan Brown
2. AlanBrown
Liz, Did you have your tongue in cheek when you said you were "right bang in the centre of The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight’s target audience"? Somehow, if I drew a Venn Diagram that portrayed reviewers who wrote primarily from a feminist perspective, and gushing reviewers of military SF, I would have expected very little overlap between those two sets. But perhaps that is just my predjudice showing through! ;-)
I myself am very much a fan of Mr. Hemry's fiction. I am a military retiree and well versed in strategy and tactics, and often find such fiction lacking. But even though you know Mr. Hemry is having fun with what he is writing, there are so many details he gets right. It is SF, but it feels true. And it is one of my favorite sub-genres: SF in the good old wish fulfillment mode ("I might only be a mid-grade officer, but boy if I were in charge, here's what I would do!").
I had been burned out on military SF and all the glorification of violence, and hadn't read much in recent years. But I picked up the first book of the Black Jack Geary series to read during a trip, and gulped the rest of the series down in quick succession.
I agree that some of his characters are somewhat thin, and that this is even more obvious with some of the women characters. But with so many characters in play, it is inevitable that some are painted with a broad brush. Those character names, for example, are a sign he doesn't take things too seriously.
What I like most about his work, however, is the emphasis on military virtues. The use of power to support justice. Bravery and the willingness to sacrifice for a cause. Subordination to civil authority. Loyalty to those who serve under you. What I don't see is the heavy handed political agenda you see in most military SF, and you don't see a delight in bloodlust that seems to drive so much of that genre.
I am pleased to see his work getting some well deserved recognition.
Liz Bourke
3. hawkwing-lb
del @1:

I'm keeping an eye out for Lawrence Lac, myself. :)

AlanBrown @2:

Just because I hate sexism with the burning fire of a thousand suns doesn't mean I don't like military fiction - at least when it acknowledges that women are fully human and fully capable, too... (Personal aside: I was dead set on joining the defence forces when I was in school, but they won't take you if you're on medication right out of the gate.)

Campbell's immensely readable, without a lot of the things that drive me bonkers about ideology-driven military SF. So I can enthuse relatively freely about things blowing up in interesting configurations, because there's an ethic behind it I agree with it, at least in part - teamwork, loyalty, justice, behaving honourably because it's the right thing *and* the smart thing to do - and apart from the catty-woman characterisation pattern, not much that overtly riles my hackles.

So, long reply short: not tongue-in-cheek at all.
Sara H
4. LadyBelaine
del @ 1

Gwen Iceni and Artur Drakon
This is almost, but not quite "Rob S. Pierre" level of character naming. If Lance Lake turns up, don't say I didn't warn you.

Like duh. I just got that.

I'm more concerned about Artur's vengeful sister, Morrigan Ferry.
Alan Brown
5. AlanBrown
@3 Well said! I suspect that we have a lot of favorite books in common.
Beth Mitcham
6. bethmitcham
I'm also a fan of Jack Campbell, and have been since (as Hemry) he wrote the Stark Wars. If you haven't read his three books about a mutiny on the moon, then go seek them out! It's a noncom military local military space opera, and has an actual female character who is devoid of cattiness.
Jenny Kristine
7. jennygadget
"Just because I hate sexism with the burning fire of a thousand suns doesn't mean I don't like military fiction."

Yeah, I think this pretty much sums up my realtionship with a lot of my favorite sff things. And while I appreciate the question being asked honestly and the answer being listened to! - sometimes I wonder: do guys really think we complain about lack of women in sff, comics, and action stories because we don't like these things?

@bethmitcham

That sounds like it might be worth a look. :)
Liz Bourke
8. hawkwing-lb
bethmitcham @6:

I borrowed the Stark books. They're not half bad.

jennygadget @7:

I don't want to rag on lads too much, but on certain occasions, for certain guys, I think there's a base level of bafflement/resentment over women liking "guy" things. There's also the problem that we live in a society rank with many types of prejudice (of which misogyny is only one among many, albeit the one I find most personally enraging), and prejudice/privilege tends to be self-reinforcing. Guys don't *have* to think about these sorts of things as much, whereas... well, we quote Joanna Russ at them:

"Oh, Esther, I don't want to be a feminist. I don't enjoy it. It's no fun."

"I know," I said. "I don't either." People think you decide to be a "radical," for God's sake, like deciding to be a librarian or a ship's chandler. You "make up your mind," you "commit yourself" (sounds like a mental hospital, doesn't it?).

I said Don't worry, we could be buried together and have engraved on our tombstone the awful truth, which some day somebody will understand:

WE WUZ PUSHED.

(No, I don't like quoting that at every possible opportunity, why do you ask? :P)
Alan Brown
9. AlanBrown
I'm glad I expressed my 'bafflement,' as your responses have been most enlightening. I especially liked jennygadget's question: "do guys really think we complain about lack of women in sff, comics, and action stories because we don't like these things?"
trev stone
11. trev stone
I loved tarnished knight, but when I got to the end I was looking to see if some pages had been missed out. What an anti-climax I understand cliffhangers in weekly episodes but not in six months at a time!

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