If you’re already familiar with Jack Campbell’s The Lost Stars series, a spin-off to his ever-longer-running The Lost Fleet sequence, you already know whether or not you’re interested in reading this one. You also know what you can expect: Campbell is nothing if not predictable. If you’re not familiar with this series, here isn’t the place to start: The Lost Stars: Imperfect Sword is the third book in a series that began with The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight and continued in The Lost Stars: Perilous Shield.
The Lost Stars follows the trials and tribulations of the newly independent Midway star system. Midway’s broken away from the collapsing Syndicated Worlds empire, and its leaders, Gwen Iceni and Artur Drakon, have set up on their own. Despite the pressures of their Syndic background (which include the habits of thought that consider repression and treachery the best—indeed the only workable—means of governance and interpersonal relations) they’re trying to learn how to govern in a better way.
Campbell, however, is utterly terrible at depicting politics and interpersonal relationships in any sort of nuanced or believable fashion. If you’re here, it’s not for the riveting tale of two leaders conditioned to suspect everyone and everything gradually learning to trust each other and figuring out how to put in place the systems of healthy, stable, population-invested government, while forced to defend themselves through espionage and military force against all the interests that want to see them fail or die—or both. (If you were here for that, prepare to be disappointed.) No: you’re here for the space battles, the movement of fleets in vacuum, the manoeuvring, the moves like a chess game. You’re here for things that go BOOM, whether in space or on the ground—and if you’re here for boom, Campbell delivers.
Having fought off more than one threat already—occasionally with the assistance of the protagonist of The Lost Fleet series, Jack Geary—as the novel opens, Iceni finds herself with renewed suspicion towards Drakon, thanks to the actions of one of his aides, Colonel Morgan. But they have to put their differences aside pretty quickly, because the Syndicated Worlds have sent another taskforce to bring them to heel. This task force is commanded by an infamous member of the Syndicate’s internal security services, and outguns the Midway fleet by a significant proportion: the enemy has a battleship, while Midway’s battleship isn’t yet operational. Only the skill and cunning of Kommodor Marphissa, the commander of the Midway fleet, and her subordinates, manage to preserve Midway’s independence—and their own lives.
With the most pressing danger handled, it’s time for Iceni and Drakon to look ahead to the next: the star system of Ulindi, where a former internal security head honcho has set himself up as a petty dictator. But his repressive method of leadership spurs Iceni and Drakon to consider the undesirability of having an expansionist strongman as a near neighbour. Colonel Morgan, the more unreliable of Drakon’s aides (but the better spy), is dispatched to infiltrate and report back, while Drakon prepares to lead a contingent of ground troops (and Marphissa, a small flotilla) to engage in a spot of regime change. But Ulindi’s apparent weakness hides a trap with some nasty teeth, and both Drakon and Iceni find themselves blindsided and fighting for survival in different ways.
There is a glimmer of nuance once or twice, in momentary asides considering the nature of governance and the relationship of people to their leaders; but this is not a novel deeply engaged with the ethics of government or with the morality of defence vs. conquest. The characters are broad types, and unsubtle, and fortunately Campbell has not included here any of his previously lamentable attempts at sketching out romance/desire between any of them. While the prose is merely adequate, the space battles are rather engrossing: it is in them that the book achieves its moments of real tension.
The Lost Stars: Imperfect Sword is light on the emotional and intellectual content, but heavy on the explosions. Fun for an hour but otherwise forgettable, I enjoyed it even while I was wishing it were an entirely different book.
The Lost Stars: Imperfect Sword is available October 7th from Ace.