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Jack Campbell – The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier – Dreadnaught

It has to be said that the title of Jack Campbell’s new book is a bit of a mouthful. Dreadnaught is the opening novel in a series called Beyond the Frontier which is itself a spinoff from the bestselling The Lost Fleet saga. Fans of The Lost Fleet will feel right at home but newcomers shouldn’t be put off as Dreadnaught turns out to be a great place for new readers to start exploring Campbell’s universe.

The adventure begins in the aftermath of the interstellar war between two human races, the democratic Alliance and the totalitarian Syndic. The Alliance have won and an uneasy peace exists between the two but in the background there is also the shadowy menace of a mysterious alien race known only as the Enigma.

We join our hero, Admiral John ‘Black Jack’ Geary in home port managing his Alliance fleet. Geary is the inspirational leader whose actions ended the war. He is a living legend and is revered as a god by some. He appeared to come back from the dead after a hundred years in suspended animation to save the Alliance and win the war. In this down time between actions Geary emerges as a very normal human being coming to terms with his new marriage to fellow Captain Tanya Desjani and the impossible expectations that come with being a living legend. It turns out that attitudes to Jack are very mixed. To many in the Alliance he is the ultimate saviour and hero but to factions of the duplicitous government he is a problem who needs to be kept quiet. Having made Geary a mythical hero to boost waning morale during the war the last thing the government needed was for him to turn up larger than life and save the day with the population adoring his every action.

Campbell’s universe is a massive creation with competing races, complex politics and religions, established characters and convincing future science. There is a vast amount of information to get to grips with and one of the great strengths of this novel is Campbell’s ability to get the reader up to speed without slowing the pace or resorting to pages of tedious exposition. Series fans won’t feel as if they’re treading water and after the first hundred pages newcomers will know everything they need to feel right at home with Geary and his ships.

It isn’t long before the Fleet are leaving home space and heading into more dangerous territory. Jack’s orders are vague and it looks like some distant and faceless politicians are doing their best to make things difficult for the departing ships. Geary walks a fine line, balancing the fleet personnel he can trust against those with other agendas. There are civilian alien experts aboard and the Admiral is saddled with two political observers neither of whom appear to be completely trustworthy. As the journey progresses Jack must piece together pieces of information and try to work out the real reasons for his mission and the motives of those back in the Alliance who have sent him away.

That’s not to say that this is a sort of deep space espionage novel. Those mystery elements give depth and realism to the Alliance culture but they don’t detract from the action and there’s plenty of that. It is in the military aspects that Campbell’s real strengths come to the fore. Fleet movements and communications just feel real and that is no doubt a product of the author’s own experiences in US Navy. This might be a distant future with aliens and incredible space ships but the interaction between the characters, the military, politicians and civilians feels authentic and convincing and makes the science fiction all the more engaging. When we get to the action set pieces – fleet ambushes, daring rescues and so on there is a real understanding of the logistics of managing personnel and hardware which adds to the tension, excitement and fun. And it really is fun – fast moving, exhilarating fun.

As you would expect, the feeling of threat increases steadily the further the Fleet gets from Alliance space. Annoying political manoeuvring at home gives way to edgy encounters in Syndic territory where ex-enemy commanders try to push the terms of the peace treaty for their own gain. Beyond the Syndic systems lie territories belonging to the secretive Enigma aliens where things become a lot more volatile.

All this spectacle would be less entertaining without the character of Jack Geary at its heart. We follow events from his perspective which works because he is such a thoroughly likeable creation. Italicised sections show clearly Jack’s thought processes at crucial points in the plot. It is easy to share his uncertainty about his mission and his frustration with those who let him down. His relationship with his wife gives him a grounded human quality and it is easy to sympathise with a man who fears he can never live up to the expectations that his living legend status has built around him.

It would be wrong to give too much away but Dreadnaught builds to a cliffhanger finale that is unexpected and game changing. Campbell leaves some clues as to how the series will progress and makes it clear that there are plenty of exciting and original challenges out there for Geary and his fleet which bodes very well for the books to come.

Dreadnought is a great addition to The Lost Fleet and a very promising opener for a new set of adventures. It’s also a great place for new readers to start exploring Campbell’s universe. Dreadnaught and the re-issue of the Stark’s War trilogy should help win Campbell an army of new fans.
Highly recommended.

TITAN BOOKS Released 9th September 2011 £7.99

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