After having introduced us to the main characters and plot of The Lost Fleet series in Dauntless, Jack Campbell presents some new concepts that will be explored not only on this present hexalogy but also in its two spin-offs: Beyond the Frontier and Lost Stars series.
This book begins right where the first one ended and it is better. The author spent most of Dauntless letting us know how things work in the fleet and how the commanding officer wants them to work. Now we see some ground combat besides the space battles, we meet some new characters, and a great deal of new problems for the good guys.
The protagonist, Black Jack Geary, is still fighting both the Syndic Worlds and the antagonists in his own fleet. About the former, after these first two books, the Syndics still remain a mystery, or at least, an enemy that we see from a distance. Campbell tells us that they think in corporate terms, judging everything with the coldness of a heartless accountant or shareholder. They blindly follow the orders of their merciless leaders. In short, they are textbook baddies.
But Campbell doesn’t dwell on their motivations or origin. Mankind is split roughly in two halves: the imperfect and decadent but ultimately well-meaning Alliance and the treacherous Syndic Worlds. How did that schism take place? No idea. Why did the Syndics launch an unprovoked attack? Because they are evil. So Campbell never really tells us much about the Syndics until the Lost Stars series.
In Dauntless we got a hint, a farfetched suspicion of something way bigger and scarier than the century-long war. And in Fearless, Campbell shows us plenty of evidence to feed that fear, and fittingly, the fleet faces this with unflinching courage. We will learn more about this new threat in the next four books, but it is particularly addressed in the Beyond the Frontier series.
Beside the Syndics and this new danger, Geary also has plenty of challenges from his own people. Since his escape pod was lost at the very beginning of the war, the Alliance has been promoting exaggerated tales of his bravery. Perhaps this has served to boost morale but it has also convinced many, even in the higher ranks, that rash action is always the best tactic. And now that he has been awaken from his long hibernation, he has to lead a fleet that has little regard for teamwork or well-thought tactics.
In the first two chapters, these challenges come from a couple of officers that we had already met in Dauntless. Since in that first book Campbell was busy getting us acquainted with the ins and outs of space fleet actions, it makes sense that he didn’t develop those troublesome characters much. So now they get reinforcements.
Early in the book, the fleet’s Marines storm an enemy labor camp and successfully rescue the Alliance prisoners. What should have been a cause for great rejoicing turns out to be an ugly nightmare for Geary. Among the rescued there is a certain Captain Francesco “Fighting” Falco, another legendary hero that the Alliance had lost years ago. Predictably, Falco is an ambitious leader who has been starving for glory in his many years of imprisonment. And he immediately assumes that he’ll be the one to command the fleet, defeat the Syndics, and return home victorious. Worse, he has no doubt that he is not only the military leader that the fleet desperately needs but also the only savior of the nation that can make the entire Alliance great again.
Interestingly, Falco is patently exactly what Madam Co-President Victoria Rione fears Geary might be in disguise—or become one day. Although, we know of course that she is completely wrong because Geary is the quintessential good guy, a man of honor. But Falco starts off on the wrong foot, or rather, Campbell is perhaps too blatant when he presents him as an obtuse prima donna. So Falco, we see early on, will be a nuisance that will challenge Geary’s temper and has the potential to cause a lot of damage but, properly speaking, he is not an adversary.
This is one of the oddest characteristics of this series: Geary’s mission is clogged with hindrances and troublemakers, but he never personally meets an imposing enemy. We meet no scheming evil emperor of the Syndic Worlds, no shrewd admiral of the enemy fleet. And once we get to know Falco we see that Geary will be a sort of military Moriarty-less Holmes. If a man’s greatness is truly measured by his enemies, despite all the propaganda and even despite all his victories, then Geary falls short. Perhaps this is a sign of the times—Campbell’s, not Geary’s. Or maybe Campbell is telling us that those who oppose men of honor have no greatness. That the decent leader is indeed quite alone at the top and relentlessly questioned by the lowest types. That the fight of good versus evil is not at all symmetrical, that the evil ones are indeed bad.
And so, despite all the obnoxious characters and their petty scheming, the story manages to be very interesting. The trick seems to have a lot to do with the author’s commitment to a clean and clear sense of honor and to the book’s well-articulated structure and lively pace. Even when we have to put up with those deplorable characters and some repetition, we have plenty to wonder and worry about. The big questions are always: will they get home? How will their odyssey affect the course of the war? But there are always the most immediate questions of what they will find in the next star system, when the Syndics will strike next, and how that battle will go. And above all: how will Geary manage to get through all that with his moral principles intact?