All throughout Jack Campbell’s (pen name for John G. Hemry) Lost Fleet series, we’ve seen the long-ranging galactic war from the side of the Alliance, the purported ‘good guys’ whose interstellar conflict with the Syndicate Worlds has comprised more than six books. This is common in most Military SF, illustrating one side as the heroes and the others as the opposition. With The Tarnished Knight, Campbell launches The Lost Stars, a series that looks at the ending of the conflict from the Syndicate Worlds perspective. In short, he looks at the (spoiler) losers of the war and shines the spotlight on a few people with relative power as they try to rebuild their government.
The narrative focuses on two individuals who form an uneasy alliance at the outset of the novel. Reeling from the defeat at the hands of the Alliance and “Black Jack” Geary, Artur Drakon and Gwen Iceni, once CEOs in the Syndicate hierarchy, must find a way to trust each other and rebuild their broken government. In addition to trying to recover from such a serious blow to their worldview and egos, Iceni and Drakon must quell any uprisings on Syndicate ruled worlds, while deflecting their Internal Services group – arguably the most powerful governmental organization in the Syndicate – as they rebuild their government.
Although a great deal of Campbell’s Lost Fleet novels dealt with political maneuvering in this far future setting, more of the narrative was focused on the action. Campbell’s flips that percentage here in The Tarnished Knight. This isn’t to say that Campbell’s storytelling quality has changed, the dialogue pulls the narrative along quite well, the interplay between Iceni and Drakon has a good feel to it, as does their internal dialogue. The contrast between the two characters’ past feeds into their interactions, Drakon is a man with a past that involves direct military combat, while much of Iceni’s experience is being a CEO, a bureaucrat. There’s enough tension between the two because of the almost natural clash between pencil pushers and trigger pullers to keep their interactions interesting, yet both characters seem to realize they need each other to the point of a smidgen of potential romance between the two.
The Tarnished Knight is a fine enough starting place for readers unfamiliar with Campbell’s Lost Fleet novels, for it can easily be read as a story about the issues surrounding post-war rebuilding on the side of the defeated. Campbell alludes to enough of what he’s created in this milieu not to exclude the newer readers. On the negative side, Iceni and Drakon, continually repeat how they must “do things differently than in the past, the Syndicate failed” both in their internal dialogue and to each other and other characters to the point where I was saying to myself “OK, I get it, we all get it.”
The other slight drawback to the novel is that the female characters come across as not liking, respecting or trusting each other in the slightest. This is also counter to one of the larger themes of the novel – trust. At some point, people need to start trusting each other in any situation, especially a project as grand and important as rebuilding a government. Iceni and Drakon constantly have to fight their long standing inclination not to trust each other, something that Syndicate life has ingrained in them their whole lives. Even the people who report to Drakon and Iceni continue urge their superiors not to trust too much in the other.
On the whole, I liked what Campbell was doing in the novel, despite an approach to the narrative that entailed more talking and politics compared to the action heavier novels in the Lost Fleet series. By the end of the novel, the storyline in The Lost Stars is very nearly caught up with the momentous events in the second Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier novel Invincible. If Campbell chooses to run a singular storyline through multiple viewpoints in the two series, interesting things could be afoot.
Tarnished Knight proves that Campbell can continue to produce entertaining, thought-provoking far future, space-based science fiction. In an era where Fantasy is dominant over the Science Fiction side of the SFF tree, I’d welcome more US authors to write and publish novels like Jack Campbell does.
© 2013 Rob H. Bedford