Dauntless by Jack Campbell (Book Review)
Space Opera. The one genre in fiction that I love above epic fantasy. We go back a long way. Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson, Sarah Cawkwell, Timothy Zahn, Rachel Bach, Graham McNeill, Una McCormack, Guy Haley, Jean Johnson, David Annandale, Paul S. Kemp, Gav Thorpe, James Swallow, these and more authors have shaped my reading over the years and each one of them has provided something different from the norm. There is a certain allure, a certain charm, a certain seduction in space opera that I really enjoy and there has rarely been a novel in the genre that I haven’t liked.
Joining all these amazing authors is the name Jack Campbell, the pseudonym for noted SF author John G. Hemry, and the title in question is the first in his Lost Fleet series, Dauntless (part of my 25-in-14 reading challenge). Every thing that I love about space opera and far-future science fiction, Jack Campbell provides aplenty in this novel, although the balance is weighted towards character development rather than the action, which is fine with me. It makes for a refreshingly different type of read and that is something that I am definitely in favour of. Onwards and upwards with Dauntless!
The novel centers on Captain John “Black Jack” Geary, a naval officer of some repute from more than three generations in the present time. In his last major battle, against the enemy Syndic forces, he led a last stand with his command, allowing the rest of the fleet to escape back to Alliance space. Over the hundred years that have followed since that battle, his name has become legend, synonymous with epic bravery. And then, during the Alliance’s latest major push against the Syndics, the fleet runs into a floating cryo-module that contains the body of Black Jack Geary, and suddenly the Alliance has its greatest hero with it in the Alliance Fleet’s darkest hour. And so begins the deconstruction of the myth that is Black Jack Geary, leading to divided opinions in the remnant of the Fleet, and the provision of the platform for Black Jack Geary to do something that no one else even considered possible.
What I loved about the novel the most was the character of John Greary himself. The man is a reluctant hero, idolised and worshipped for doing something that he never did. He intended to go down with his ship, a footnote at best in the annals of the Fleet, but instead he became a legend, a legend with a reach so great that the Alliance degrades as a whole because it believes in the myth of a man who does not exist and never did. When he takes command, in the present time, of the remnants of the Alliance Fleet in the Syndic home system, he doubts himself more than anyone else doubts him. Many believe him to be on the level of a master-magician, someone who can pull a victory out of thin air, or he can lead a glorious charge against the enemy forces and win through with sheer determination.
But that is not who John Geary is. He is just a simple Captain, nothing more, nothing less. And yet, he is thrust in command of an entire battlegroup and the circumstances are certainly crueler by far with him. He has to fight his own fears, the fears and resentment of the Alliance officers who all believe in the romanticized version of him rather than the truth. He has to show that his knowledge of naval tactics and strategy might be a hundred years old, but that the knowledge is still relevant and can still be applied to the circumstances at hand since over the century Fleet battle protocols have deteriorated and the Fleet isn’t a fleet as much as it is an ad-hoc conglomeration of various ships.
This is the main conflict of the novel and I loved every moment of it, without a doubt. It was also refreshing that not everyone fawned over John Geary, given his reputation. The commanding officer of the fleet flagship Dauntless, Captain Desjani is one such person. She whole-heartedly believes in Black Jack Geary but as she spends more and more time with him, watching him in action, she learns that he is far more than his legends ever mentioned, and that he is a very different sort of person in the flesh rather than one in digital encodation. Then there is Victoria Rione, a Co-President of the Callas Republic which is part of the Alliance. She leads some of her own military vessels in the novel and she provides the heaviest dose of cynicism in the novel, especially when it comes to the legend of Black Jack Geary. She is smart, manipulative and extremely likable because she is one of those few who do not believe in the legend, but the man, and that entire process is one of gradual change, from the beginning to the end.
There are several other notable characters in the novel of course, characters who both support and work against John Geary’s command. And this is where we got to see just how different his method of command is from the usual senior officers that all these captains are used to. Where before every fleet tactical and strategic matter is discussed in committee, where each and every captain has a say in the running of the fleet, John Geary brings consolidation and decisiveness. He gives the captains orders and expects them to be followed without question, without debate. Sure, he listens to the arguments and considers their advice, but he is the senior commander of the fleet, and he expects his orders to be final and followed accordingly. This creates friction with a lot of different captains of the fleet and how John Geary navigates that particular mess with both diplomacy and censure is something that I really enjoyed.
And what that all means is that Dauntless is a novel that depends significantly on its characters and their interpersonal relationships. How they all relate to each other has a major bearing on their actions, especially once John Geary starts fiddling with the chain of command for the various subsections of the fleet, for he believes in aptitude and skill more than he does on any rote performance.
It all comes back down to this: in the Alliance fleet’s darkest hour, its greatest hero returns to lead it to victory through survival and the question is whether he is the hero they desperately needed or the hero that they think that they want. That’s the big question that Jack Campbell explores in this novel, and he does an admirable job of it as far as I’m concerned. I certainly had a lot of fun with the novel in that regard.
Now, sometimes the dialogues felt forced, and the pacing suffered when certain scenes got dragged on too long. For a novel so dependent on characters, both the dialogue and the pacing are inherently important, and that is the only element of the novel that I think was not executed sufficiently well.
Thankfully, the writer makes up for all that by providing examples of some really good space battles, and there are quite a few of those, and not just the garden variety there. Jack Campbell has his protagonist use every trick and cheat at his disposal to prove to the supporting cast just why and how he is indeed a superior commander to any of them, and how he really does have the chops to get them all back safely into Alliance space, despite the losses they suffer on the way.
Other than all that, Dauntless proved to be a surprisingly quick and easy read, which I loved. Space opera that drags on too long ultimately suffers for it, but that’s not the case here, not by a long shot. And Dauntless is definitely a novel that you should read, and I will definitely be continuing on with the series.
Posted on May 24, 2014, in Book Reviews, Review Central and tagged 2014 Reading Challenge, 25 Series To Read In 2014, 25-in-14, Blackjack Geary, Book, Book Review, Jack Campbell, John G. Hemry, John Geary, Lost Fleet, Military Science Fiction, Military SF, novel, Novel Review, Review, Review Central, Science Fiction, Space Battles, Space Opera, Starships, The Lost Fleet, Titan Books. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.