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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Dauntless - Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell came highly recommended. Myke Cole, author of Shadow Ops: Control Point, instructed an entire room of people at a recent convention to read Dauntless. Putting aside the fact that Cole and Campbell share an agent and a publisher, his strong opinion on the subject piqued my interest. Of course, it didn't hurt that my fellow bloggers Rob and Kathryn of SFFWorld like wise urged me. What I discovered is quintessential military science fiction that extrapolates naval combat into the vacuum of space with a real knack for storytelling despite archetypal characters, an extremely linear plot, and workmanlike prose.

Read that last sentence again. Dauntless is uninspired in a lot of ways except one and it's a big one. It's an absolute blast to read. In fact, it's such an entertaining read that I don't hesitate to call it the perfect cozy novel for the military science fiction fan.

It's essentially the story of a war between the Alliance and the Syndicate. As the name would suggest, the Syndicate functions something like an evil corporation who cares nothing for the cogs in the wheel, just the products it produces. Meanwhile, the Alliance is a functioning government by the people, for the people, or so the rhetoric goes in a story told entirely from their point of view.

The story begins with an attempted negotiation between the crippled Alliance fleet and the larger Syndics', ostensibly over the terms of Alliance surrender. Things go awry when the Syndic commander murders Admiral Bloch and his command staff in cold blood, leaving Captain John "Black Jack" Geary in charge.  Unfortunately, he's been frozen in space for the last century, floating through space at the site of his now famous last stand.

Reviving him, Campbell transplants an old dog into the future among a less respectful rank and file, worn down by decades of war. In so doing, he recreates something of the drill sergeant and green recruit paradigm whereby Captain John "Black Jack" Geary whips the fleet into shape.
Geary brought his hand up in the formal salute he'd always known but hadn't seen among this fleet. He didn't know when saluting had ceased to be a normal military courtesy in the Alliance fleet, but he was damned if he'd just wave good-bye to a superior officer. Bloch gave a rusty half-salute in reply, then turned and passed quickly through the entry area toward the waiting shuttle, followed by a couple of the older officers.
This UK cover kicks ass.
The novel shines most when Campbell has the opportunity to wax on space warfare. A former naval intelligence officer, Campbell's experience serves him well coordinating major conflicts between dozens of ships moving through three dimensions. His use of physics lends a great deal of authenticity to the story, particularly in the use of time dilation, an aspect of spacetime usually reserved for the sacrificial alter of plot contrivances. Dauntless embraces these hurdles and crafts around them compelling battles, more tension filled for the absence of constant action.

If there's one mark against Campbell's novel it's that very little happens. Dauntless is the first installment in a six book series and it shows, with very little resolution to any plot lines in the first novel. Likewise, much of the page count is given over to Black Jack's adjustment to life in the future, his overhaul of military culture, and the descriptions of numerous battle sequences. It results in a stolid pace that leaves plenty of room for character development and world building. Campbell, through what I can only attribute to great skill, manages to make even these duller moments consistently compelling.

Writing this review made me consider whether I was Campbell's target audience. I had such a great time reading the novel, but not necessarily a ton of glowing remarks about the pieces that composed it. Was I impartial or just the kind of male military science fiction reader that falls into the market demographics of the Lost Fleet series? I decided I was much more the former. I can't call Dauntless a masterpiece of genre fiction, but I can call it a masterfully told story and Jack Campbell a master storyteller.

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At August 1, 2012 at 8:03 AM , Blogger RobB said...

As always Justin, a very fair review. Also, thanks for the shout-out. I haven't read the immediate follow-ups to the first series (hope to remedy that soonishly), but I've read and really enjoyed the two books in the BEYOND THE FRONTIER series.

To paraphrase Raymond E. Feist, these books definitely qualify as Ripping Yarns for me.

At August 1, 2012 at 1:36 PM , Blogger Kathryn said...

Thanks for the shoutout, too.

I've read half of the initial series, and to be honest "not a lot happening" is pretty much par for the course. Even the path the fleet takes seems largely random (I tried following it via the chart and had to give up as it made no sense). Add on to that the repetition in dialogue ("Geary released a breath he didn't know he was holding" being the major offender), and the woman from Battlestar Galactica (come on, that politician lady is TOTALLY Roslin), and one wonders why one bothers.

Yet you can't *not* bother when reading them. They're quick and easy reads, but you're almost glued to them. You know progress won't be made, you know what'll happen, but you never care. You just want more.

These books are throwaway pulpy sci-fi at its very best, and oddly it manages to draw you in more than some more "original" or serious pieces.


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