Space Opera Goes Boom. Jack Campbell’s The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight

I 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.


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