If you only read one book of the Lost Fleet series, it should be Relentless. Likewise, if you began the series and gave up, skip the third and fourth and go straight to this fifth book. There is plenty of action and the author gives us enough background to understand what has been going on in the previous four installments. Furthermore, the action is very well balanced with character development. And what’s even more important, if you don’t want to read the six books, this one gives you the meat of the series.
Then, if you enjoy it as much as I have, you can go back to the first book, Dauntless, and read them in their proper order. There will still be plenty of surprises and intrigue to make the first four books enjoyable enough.
For the first time in the entire series, we get a glimpse of what the protagonist’s life was before he was found in his escape pod. In fact, the book opens at Grendel, with Geary abandoning his previous ship, the Merlon, fully expecting to be rescued in no time. Of course, we know by now that it took the Alliance nearly a century to locate Geary but from his point of view it all happened in a blink of an eye. So after the quick scene at Grendel, the very next paragraph narrates how Geary woke up on Dauntless only to realize that absolutely everyone that he knew is now long dead and that the skirmish at Grendel has degenerated into a hellish century-long war engulfing the entire human race.
Campbell also gives us a first description of a burial in space. He does it with very few paragraphs but then he goes back to a similar subject when dealing with the also unpleasant subject of what to do with the corpses of less-than-exemplar officers.
Jack Geary also has some conversations that go deeper and further than usual with characters that had remained in the background. One of these interesting talks is with Colonel Carabali, who assumed command of the Marines at the same time and for the same reasons that Geary became the leader of the fleet.
The fleet is very near Alliance space at last. The protracted gauntlet through enemy space seems about to end. But fuel, food, and other supplies are at critical levels. Many ships have been lost along the way. And so, the bitter irony is that, mistakes look scarier now than when there was no rational basis for hope. As a character says: “So close. And now risks seem more dangerous, because we’ve made it this far, against all odds, and you’re looking at that and the small distance left to Alliance space and thinking how awful it would be to get the fleet this close and have it destroyed now because you made a serious error.”
Except that mistakes and low supplies are not the only obstacle standing between them and Alliance space. Campbell has one last surprise for the fleet and it fits perfectly into the story.
In the previous books there were many conversations discussing, with increasing concern, the possibility that Geary might want—or have to—become a military dictator upon arrival at Alliance space.
There was a big problem with all those conversations: the worriers looked genuinely troubled by this possibility but Geary always seems simply incapable of betraying his democratic principles. So the longer this went on, the less sense it made. These debates and accusations were becoming tedious because the reader was never given the slightest hint that Geary might even be tempted. Without that inner struggle there was no real tension, it was just nagging.
It was obvious for a long time that all our hero wanted was to retire to some quiet place. That is indeed understandable considering what the guy had been through. But on the other hand, can you just go spend the rest of your life in some quiet place after having led the most spectacular military campaign in human history?
But, more importantly, Geary is well aware that there are many problems with the actual Alliance, no matter what the ideal Alliance is supposed to be like. And he is also obviously aware that he has very successfully turned the entire fleet around by reintroducing forgotten traditions and the sense of honor.
And yet Campbell only contemplates two options: either Geary has his way, that is, returns home, makes some proposals and quietly retires, or he becomes a benevolent dictator. Why can’t Geary run for office? I’m not saying he should but the possibility is simply ignored.
Although the series is set in a distant future where the Solar System is a rather irrelevant part of human space, the books have an unmistakable American touch—as one would expect from a retired US Navy officer. How then can Washington, Eisenhower, et al, be simply unthinkable role models?
The next and final book in the series is almost a prequel to the following series. But that will be in another review.