Courageous is the third book in the Lost Fleet series, and even though in some ways it feels weaker than the previous two, it has more than enough conflict and unanswered questions to make one look forward to the following books.
The main problem with Courageous is that it is too much like the first two volumes of the series. The hero of the story, Jack Geary, is still leading the Alliance fleet through enemy space trying to get it back home. Supplies are still running low. He is still facing serious animosity and distrust from some of his own people and has to keep arguing with them at the fleet virtual conferences. His messy story with Madam Co-President Victoria Rione is getting messier. And she is still worried that he might return home victorious only to become a military dictator. Meanwhile, his fervent admirer, Captain Tanya Desjani, is still worshiping him.
It is easy to imagine how this first half of the series could have been written in one or two books rather than three. But the author is not greedily watering down the wine to fill more pages, he is narrating a long and difficult campaign and describing how the characters deal with that. He insists, for instance, on the long exasperating hours before a battle when all one can do is wait. Despite the advanced technology, ships need several days to cross a star system and light takes its own time before it lets us see what is going on at large distances. In an age—ours—when everything is expected to be immediate, Campbell takes the time to tell us a story about persistence and patience.
After all, Campbell is describing a struggle that has to feel very tedious to the protagonists. The war has been going on for about a hundred years and it is not ending anytime soon. These people have gotten used to a permanent stalemate, and almost everything that defines them derives from that fact. Furthermore, much of what Geary wants to accomplish with them has to do with curbing their ill-advised habit to rash action.
Once of Campbell’s strong points is that he takes causality seriously. Every action has some consequence, and some are quite unexpected, even if they make a lot of sense when examined. There is a perfect example of this very early in this book. The fleet has an automated logistics system that calculates how much of each raw material is required to manufacture the items that the fleet needs. To do this, the system takes into account the past performance of the fleet and makes projections of needed supplies. The problem is that Geary is leading the fleet in a radically new—actually old—way. He is using much more fuel but is losing far less ships than expected. So the projections are wrong and the fleet’s auxiliaries soon find their bunkers loaded with raw materials that do not match their actual needs.
Other consequences, however, are much more long-term. Campbell adds more mysteries and troubles to worry about. Some of them will be resolved in the next three books. But others will keep growing well into the sequel series. Actually, Campbell keeps certain things so shrouded that sometimes it looks like he intended the Lost Fleet as a prequel to the next series.
And then, of course, there are the purely military consequences. Narrating fleet battles is what Campbell does best, and this third book offers the largest one so far. In Dauntless and Fearless, Geary had managed to avoid fighting large enemy formations, sometimes by jumping into backwater star systems even if that meant taking his fleet farther away from its final destination. Naturally, he couldn’t avoid the bulk of the enemy fleet forever, and now that time has come.
As usual, the book ends with the fleet about to jump to the next star system. Only that this time stakes are higher than ever, the fleet has already been through a lot, and home is still far away.