A slight change of pace this week because I’m going to review an entire series rather than just one book, but what a series! If you love space opera, especially fast paced action involving space fleets, then this series is a must read, but it has so much more than that…
The series centers around ‘Blackjack’, a heroic figure who sacrificed himself to save his crew when the Syndicate fleet struck the opening blow in what was to be a century long war. Over the years the legend of Blackjack grew and grew, until he epitomised everything that was best and most aggressive in the allied forces.
But Blackjack didn’t die. He managed to escape at the last moment in an escape capsule that was damaged and unable to transmit its location. That capsule kept him alive but sleeping for a hundred years until it was discovered by a massive alliance fleet that was on its way to deliver a killer blow against the syndicates.
The fleet arrives at the Syndicate homeworld to discover they have been betrayed, a far larger Syndicate force awaits them. Surrender is the only option, and all senior officers above Captain are forced to travel to a Syndicate ship. Despite the guarantee of safe passage the Syndicates kill all the alliance officers and then demand that the alliance fleet surrenders.
As the senior captain by a hundred years Blackjack has to take control of the fleet. Rather than surrender he leads the fleet in an audacious escape. Unable to use the fast method of travel they had arrived by, the fleet escapes through a jump point but the journey home will take dozens more jumps through Syndicate occupied systems.
The series follows Blackjack and the fleet on their journey. Blackjack faces many challenges, not least of which is that the Alliance, and Syndicate, forces believe the only way to fight is to dash headlong into combat. A century of attrition has both warped their values and killed off all officers with any sense of tactics. Blackjack struggles to rein in his captains, to make them understand the need for more subtle tactics, while facing the real risk of mutiny from some captains who believe his tactics lack honour and courage.
There are several parts to Jack Campbell’s writing which elevate these books from great to brilliant sci-fi. One is the way he both understands how the fleets would have to move in normal space, all obeying the laws of physics we know, and manages to convey that clearly. He served in the American navy and you can really see how his understanding of sea-going ships movements has translated into space. It also means he understands the importance of non-combat ships, the auxillaries that keep a fleet supplied and repaired, and how vulnerable such ships can be.
Another key part is his portrayal of Blackjack, a man out of time and struggling to understand those that surround him. He knew only peace until the brief battle which made him famous and left him drifting in space, while those around him have known generations of vicious war, and along the way have lost many of the ideals his alliance held dear.
And then there are the other characters. None are paper cutouts. Every character feels solid and real, with good reasons for what they do whether it helps or hinders Blackjack’s efforts to save the fleet. The Syndicate leaders are a great example of this, with enough light shone on the Syndicate setup as a whole to explain why their leaders would have to be the most ruthless and cunning to have survived to take power.
Overall this is an amazing series, and one that I’ve re-read several times already. I really can’t recommend it enough. If you love sci-fi then do yourself a favour – go read the first book today! In fact… I think I might start the series again myself…