My first exposure to military science fiction came at an early age, when my father exposed me to two drastically different books: Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and Joe Haldeman’s Forever War. Ever since then, I’ve approached military SF with those two examples lurking in the back of my mind, fully aware that it’s not just about laser rifles, power armor, rampaging aliens, and gung-ho Space Marines storming the Space Beach. No, right from the start I’ve understood that this particular aspect of the genre can encompass everything from political essays to social allegories, complex morality and exploration of the human nature. And that brings us to the Kris Longknife series, which recently released its ninth book: Daring.
Kristine Longknife, Lieutenant Commander in the Wardhaven Navy, and Princess of the newly-minted United Societies, is an overachiever and a woman with a justly-earned reputation as someone to respect. Not only is she one of “those damned Longknives,” but she’s a force of nature in her own right. Always one to follow her own moral compass, she’s skirted the rules, defied authority, and outright mutinied in the past, as needs dictated. Her history of success, tempered with her refusal to toe the line, has almost always seen her rewarded with more hazardous assignments coupled with greater responsibility. After all, no good deed goes unpunished.
After shutting down a pirate operation out on the Rim, with spectacularly explosive results, Kris is eager for her next assignment. The Iteeche, formerly Humanity’s enemies, now uneasy allies, have been losing ships, way out in the unexplored regions of space. They’ve asked for help, and now it’s up to Kris to venture into the great unknown to poke, peer, and turn over some metaphorical rocks. With her usual friends and companions at her side, and a small fleet backing her up, she sets off.
What they discover is downright disturbing. Entire worlds have been slaughtered and razed, stripped of their resources. The perpetrators travel in heavily-armed, moon-sized worldships, and tend to shoot first and never ask questions. If they continue on their current path, they’ll inevitably hit Iteeche and Human territory. Kris’ duty is clear: head home immediately to report in and warn her people. But then she discovers that a previously-unknown alien race is also in jeopardy. Stand and fight in defense of beings she’s never met, or follow her orders? If you think she’s going to do the sensible thing, you’ve never seen her in action. However, not everyone in her fleet feels the same way, nor are they all obligated to follow her. Whatever happens next, it’ll change Kris Longknife’s path for good.
In the author’s acknowledgments, Shepherd promises that this installment of the series brings changes, and he’s not wrong. Ships get destroyed, people die, alliances are made, and war is declared. With a powerful, implacable, mysterious new enemy on the horizon, it’s clear that things are going to get messy. Of course, Kris is right at the eye of a hurricane, impacted directly and indirectly by the choices she makes. Whether she can recover from the losses incurred here, and what will happen to her in the future, remains up in the air. Shepherd takes a bit of a risk in upsetting the status quo, but I daresay it’s a gamble that will pay off in the long run.
When you get right down to it, this is a fun series, capable of being read on several levels. Shepherd delivers no shortage of military action, in space and on the ground. It’s cinematic, dramatic, and dynamic. However, he doesn’t linger on the details, preferring to keep it fast and furious, with little room at the time for introspection or second-guessing. In the downtime, however, Shepherd demonstrates a knack for characterization, balancing serious moments with dry humor. There’s a real sense of family surrounding Kris, Abby, Penny, Jack, Cara, and all of the other friends and allies she’s drawn into her orbit. (One thing you can always say about Kris Longknife: she has a real knack for turning enemies into allies, if they survive the initial confrontation.) That’s what makes some of what happens here hurt a little more, when we see what Kris’ path costs. Delivered in short, sharp, staccato sentences, the text maintains a certain frenetic pace, further emphasized by to-the-point dialogue. (In one odd stylistic quirk, Shepherd’s characters often phrase questions as statements, turning them into understated demands.)
Throw in the afore-mentioned complex morality and hard choices, a hallmark of the series, and you have the perfect mix. It’s military science fiction for those who don’t want to be bogged down in the intricate details of troop movements, combat tactics, or weapon schematics. It’s space opera on a lesser scale, and it’s popcorn reading, and it’s subtly thought-provoking. You won’t find Heinlein’s soapbox impulses, or Haldeman’s depth, or Jack Campbell’s attention to detail, or John Ringo’s “Humanity, Hell Yeah” themes. Instead, you’ll get a thoroughly-enjoyable adventure featuring one of science fiction’s most interesting recurring heroines. Sometimes, that’s all you need. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as a starting point for new readers, it’s sure to satisfy existing fans, even as it lays the seeds for future installments. I’m hooked, and here for the long run.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading.