Stark’s War by Jack Campbell (Originally John Hemry)
Book 1 of the Ethan Stark series
Published by Titan Publishing, September 2011.
First published in the US, 2000.
Review by Mark Yon
Titan are currently publishing Jack’s backlist in the UK for the first time. With The Lost Fleet series’ availability pretty much up to date, here we have an older collection, the Stark series.
For books over a decade old they are pretty good mil-fic that Space Opera fans will like. Ethan Stark is the sergeant of a squadron in a future where people (well, Americans) have returned to the Moon and are establishing a network across the solar system. There is conflict between the corporate businesses of America and other countries, though the actual fighting takes place using multinational sponsored troops and materiel. There are ‘regular’ soldiers but the command groups, being too valuable to risk, are away from the battle-zone, directing actions through the lieutenants. All of this is shown live on television, which contributes by paying the costs of the engagements.
Ethan Stark is one of the ‘real’ soldiers on the ground, a platoon sergeant leading his men in difficult situations. His honest and straight-forward approach is often at odds with both the TV corporations and the leaders he’s sworn to work for. He hacks into the mission Tactical Plans which otherwise would be denied to him, so that he can guide his men effectively.
The first third of this book deals with a first sortie to the moon. Arriving misplaced from their drop zone in the Sea of Tranquillity, the team find that they are forced to fight a raiding enemy force whilst defending what they have claimed. The mission is messy and some of Stark’s best trainees are killed.
In the second part of the book Stark’s soldiers face the enemy in a raid meant to destroy an enemy refinery but really designed to improve declining television popularity ratings. It is another bungled catastrophe and many are killed whilst Stark is also wounded.
The last section of the book deals with Stark’s recovery and his return to active warfare. Another major battle ensues with men stranded and major losses until Stark steps in and reluctantly assumes command, effectively mutinying against the senior officers. The end has an interesting development (which I won’t spoil here) which moves things up a gear, ready for the next book in the series.
This is a solidly written, action-packed mil-SF novel. The action scenes are very well done, the main characters fairly straightforward, the motivations for the characters clear. There’s the odd misstep – a scene where an infantryman has to explain World War One to his fellow soldiers seemed a little far-fetched to me, and later an explanation of the Spartans, for example – but really most readers will probably know what to expect and have bought it to meet those criteria: heroism, difficult odds, impossible situations, they’re all here, but in the end it is the loyalty and bravery of the soldiers and their camaraderie against all complications (usually of the bungling officer kind), and their function to get a difficult job done, that makes this a worthwhile read. In these days of Big Brother television, it’s interesting to see a possible consequence in future war.
Whilst nothing particularly new, (war is bad, fellow combatants are good, officers don’t know what they’re doing) it is a good page-turner that will amply satisfy fans of this sub-genre. Fans of Baen Books, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, Jack McDevitt, David Weber or John Ringo are going to like this one. It’s also not a bad place to start for those who’ve come across this after playing Halo and want to try a book with similar themes.
Mark Yon, October 2011