Thursday, May 15, 2014

"The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight" by Jack Campbell

(cover image from

The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight (2012) by Jack Campbell is the first book in a new series in his Lost Fleet universe. It begins just after the Lost Fleet series - and at the same time as the first book in his second series, The Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught - but the characters are from the Syndicate Worlds.

In many ways, this turns the first series on its head. The war is over, and the Syndics have lost. (Note that I have yet to read the last two books of The Lost Fleet series - this one arrived first :) - but that's not really a spoiler. There was never any doubt that the fleet would make it back home, and that 'Black Jack' Geary would kick Syndic butt on the way.)

But the Syndic systems are crumbling, often into civil war and anarchy. As the government loses its grip, Syndic CEOs Artur Drakon and Gwen Iceni take advantage of the opportunity to take over the Midway star system, proclaiming its independence. But they've got a real shortage of military ships to back that up - and an even greater shortage of trust.

The Lost Fleet series showed everything from John Geary's point of view. This book - and presumably this series - alternates between Drakon and Iceni. Both are products of the cynical, cut-throat, dictatorial Syndicate Worlds society. Both rose through the ranks in that society, though missteps left them stuck at Midway.

Neither trusts the other. Each expects an assassination attempt from the other, and each has plans to kill the other CEO first, if - when - that becomes necessary. But both characters are very sympathetic.

They're both better than they think they are, but they've never known another way of life. They recognize many of the failures of the Syndic system, but they've never known any other way of doing things. And imitating the Alliance is out, because the Alliance has been their worst enemy for a century (and an enemy which, during the long war, became just as atrocity-prone as the Syndics).

Drakon and Iceni both sneer at the idea of altruism. Even when they do something altruistic, themselves, they rationalize it as being to their own self-interest. They're cynical, because anyone who wasn't cynical simply wouldn't have survived in the Syndicate Worlds. But now what?

By and large, they are decent people, but they're people who grew up in a society which had no use for decent people. Now they're trying to work together - despite a complete lack of trust - to defend the Midway star system and create a new society there. But the only model they have is the Syndic system which has just failed so dramatically.

Honestly, so far, this is even better than The Lost Fleet series. The characters are fascinating, and so is the situation. (In a way, it reminds me of the computer games I play - like Civilization or Distant Worlds. If they can't defend their people, then nothing else matters. But survival, especially over the long term, takes a lot more than just military power.)

Drakon and Iceni struggle to find a new way, without a pattern. They can't trust each other, but they can't afford not to, either. They're ruthless, because that's all they know, and they're determined to stay in power. At one point, they agree not to conduct any government executions without notifying the other first. But each understands the loophole: that secret assassinations aren't, technically-speaking, government executions.

They're wary of allowing any democracy, even elections for local positions, because they don't want the people to get the idea that they've got any right to make decisions. But if they do allow some democracy - for tactical reasons - they're going to manipulate the results to make sure they stay in power.

What the reader understands, but they don't, is that they'd win any election in a landslide, anyway. But they have no experience with democracies. The only way they know to maintain power is through intimidation, a powerful military, and a secret police.

As I say, they're both decent people at heart, and they're even sympathetic. But their views were formed in a ruthlessly authoritarian society. Still, they're smart enough to consider new ways of thinking, even when it takes them by surprise:
"Do you believe that the justice system that we have inherited from the Syndicate Worlds needs to be fixed, Madam President?"

"Offhand, no," Iceni said. "It delivers punishment quickly and surely. The guilty do not escape. What would I fix?"

"The purpose of a justice system isn't to punish the guilty, Madam President. Punishment is easily administered. The reason a justice system exists is to protect the innocent."

Iceni stared at Marphissa in astonishment. "Where did you learn that?"

I really enjoyed The Lost Fleet - well, the first four books that I've read so far, at least. But - so far - this series is even better. (Tarnished Knight ends on a cliffhanger. It's not a standalone book, but the first of a series. Note that you don't have to read the Lost Fleet series first, though I'd still recommend that.)

The two main characters are great, and the situation really appeals to me. There are also some puzzles when it comes to other characters in the book. (Keep in mind that every character in the book was raised in the Syndicate Worlds society. Who can you trust, when no one trusts?)

This is space opera/military SF that will make you think. It's superbly entertaining, but thought-provoking, too. It's even better than The Lost Fleet,... so far.

Campbell has also followed his Lost Fleet series with a new Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier series, which continues the story of John Geary. I'll be reading that, too. But changing characters in this series - changing sides, basically - was brilliant.

I just hope he can keep the quality this high in the rest of the series. (I've already got the next volume - The Lost Stars: Perilous Shield - on order, but the third won't be published until October.)

Note: The rest of my book reviews, including those of Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet series, are here.

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