York Ballin goes through some good character growth (and some bad, but we’ll get to that) but one thing Doty does well was he makes him suffer. It is hard not to feel empathy for the poor guy as he gets dumped on, maimed and legitimately tormented. The character isn’t excessively noble, he does some morally questionable things and he has some serious demons. But he does his duty to the best of his ability and keeps his honor, even when those above him forget theirs.
The bad guys are both legitimately bad and, for the most part, competent. The bad guys need to be better, bigger, more of a threat to the main character. And for the most part again, they are.
The setting is a long time after humanity has gone to the stars. Like David Weber’s books, society has regressed back to a feudal society. You can make the argument that aristocracy is a pretty normal state of affairs and democracy is a bright, temporary aberration. But the feudal society also helps add a level of unreality that actually works to help the user suspend disbelief. The galaxy has been at war for centuries and you get the feeling that things are falling apart, supplies are rare, even uniforms are mostly patched or frayed. It’s a nice touch.
The sailors and marines mostly come off as realistic. There are few plaster saints here and fewer demons and most of the dialog and character motivations will feel familiar to anyone who’s spent time around military vets. Yet it doesn’t go too into acroym-heavy realism. It’s a good balance.
The plot is also pretty good, most of the book being a prolonged chase as Ballin tries to get his ship to safety while being chased by just about everyone. I found it to be a good page turner.
Plot-required stupidity. The main character repeatedly fails to kill the main antagonist, Sierka when he is legally, morally and responsibly able to. He also threatens to do so without following through on it. Part of this feels like just plot contrivance to allow Ballin to have someone to plot against him and torture him. It’s just dumb and frankly, out of character of him considering how many other people Ballin kills, in the heat of battle and otherwise. Likewise, the main puppetmaster, Abraxa, has been smart and cunning but at the end starts bloviating like a Bond villain and basically talks himself into a grave.
Character and plot drift. The tone of the book shifts a bit, which happens a lot in novels as you write them, honestly. A consistent tone isn’t easy. This one starts out with York Ballin acting as a put-upon naval officer, getting handed shit jobs and doing them pretty well. But then he’s revealed, though conversations of other people, as a drunk and drug addict and ONLY THEN do we see him drinking and taking drugs. After that, he settles into a pretty consistent character but it’s not the same person who we’re introduced to. Likewise, the book has three distinct plots. First we have a rescue mission and Ballin being forced to act as a Marine officer instead of his normal naval role. But later, he is built up to be this mythical veteran of every major war of the past twenty plus years. Suddenly everyone is in awe of him and there’s a huge bounty put on his head…it just comes out of nowhere. But, again, once the plot jumps tracks, it sticks with that plot for most of the rest of the book until…
The long-lost bastard son of the king. This is the second book by Doty that I’ve read, the first being ‘The Thirteenth Man’ which I’ll review later, and in both books, the main character is the long-lost bastard son of the king. I’m almost afraid to pick up his fantasy novels :) Honestly, that whole plot isn’t necessary to the book. It doesn’t ring true and the character would have worked fine as being just a normal guy who has guts, honor and duty earned the hard way. If that whole plot line was cut, the story would be leaner and better.
It’s good space opera. Lots of big threats, big plots and good characters. I liked the battles, the tech and the setting. There are flaws but there are damn few perfect books out there. In a way, it reminds me of the late Ric Locke’s “Temporary Duty” but it has a more fantastical ‘High Space Opera’ feel, if you will. It feels a bit like military sci-fi but not to excess, more like David Feintuch’s space opera with a little David Weber mixed in.
There’s sex, violence, torture and betrayal and most of it isn’t gratuitous.
I recommend it.