Have you been worried I was lost? Well I was.
Amazon turned me on to The Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell via it’s recommendation service, and I gave a whole month of my life to it in one swift binge. The fourth book in this six book series, Valiant, was released on June 24th, and I was first in line to get it at my local book store. Having read the first 3 books (Dauntless, Fearless and Courageous) the previous two weeks I was eager for the next chapter of the saga.
In the far distant future two factions of humanity have been waging an interstellar war for more than a century. En route to a glorious and decisive battle, the good guys (the Alliance) discover a damaged escape pod in the wreckage from one of the very first battles in the war, nearly 100 years earlier. In it is an ordinary man who has been idolized and turned into a fleet inspiring myth for the whole Alliance. Captain John “Black Jack” Geary is back from the dead and facing a myth larger than any mortal man could ever embody, a war bigger than all of humanity, and the reality that all he ever knew is gone. As the ‘decisive’ battle goes horribly wrong he finds himself as the most senior commanding officer in a fleet of more than 200 ships that are trapped and desperately out numbered in all respects… And that’s just the first 10 pages of the first book.
Summary: The Lost Fleet is fast paced, action packed military science fiction with many familiar elements. The universe is derivative but the narrative, detailed battles and strong writing bring it to life in a way that will leave you turning pages late into the early dawn hours.
The first book, Dauntless, sets up a very interesting and compelling world. Campbell sets up the concept of a fleet that is lost on numerous different levels. Literally, the remaining ship captains don’t know precisely how to get home intact. However, in addition to that they’ve lost the knowledge of how to use the old ‘jump drives’ since the advent of the much faster ‘hypernet’ system and crew members have died in battle at such a frantic pace that simple experience has been lost even amongst the most senior leaders. At at deeper level, the Alliance has lost it’s moral compass as they have fallen down the slippery slope of ‘eye for an eye’ tactics and war-crime atrocity trading. Lastly, the home worlds of the Alliance are forced to assume that the whole fleet was lost in the disastrous battle preceding the first book.
As a result, the fleet is grudgingly forced to follow a leader that is literally a historic relic, complete with ‘ancient’ tactics, experiences and morals.
The first book, Dauntless, doesn’t contain much more than a few battles and setting up the scenario for the rest of the series. It’s superb and entertaining but somehow also very unsatisfying. Moreover, the second and third books — Fearless and Courageous – were too drawn out in my opinion. I felt they could easily have been written as a single volume with very little overall story lost to the cuts. Don’t get me wrong, they were entertaining, but not nearly as much as Dauntless. They do set up some interesting plot lines while also showing that the fleet is maturing as a team. In the end though, they seem more like filler while Campbell decided where he really wanted to take the saga, and at best they are an exploration of the logistics involved in bringing a crippled fleet limping home from behind enemy lines.
So why would I rush out and buy the fourth book — Valiant – the day it was released? By the end of the third book I could sense that Campbell had gained a solid focus, and that the plot was going in a single, straight line towards a conclusion even if the fleet was zig-zagging it’s way through enemy space. That and the action was awesome for a summer read.
Valiant is by far the best book in the series so far. I can’t discuss the plot without giving away the spoilers for the first three books, but I can say that if you abandoned the fleet after the third book you’ve made a terrible mistake.
My biggest complaint about the whole series is that Campbell repeats obvious and easily remembered details from previous books ad nausea in later books. Since, there is no sane way a person could pick up this story in the middle, this only serves to annoy readers who have been around from the start. Cutting this repetition alone could save 100-200 pages throughout the whole series. I have a few other minor quibbles with the books as well, but I’ll save those for the discussion in the comments.
The verdict: All books are either good (3/5) or excellent (4/5), but the fourth is a must read (5/5), even after considering the fact that you have to read the first three to get there. You won’t be disappointed.
UPDATE (May 5, 2009): I’ve just finished book 5: Relentless (see comment #33 for mini review) but overall the series remains strong and worth your time. Many resolutions come in this book that are both satisfying and fast paced. The major downfall of this book is that it’s predictable, but I can’t imagine how that could have been helped. The ending is terrific, even if it’s in a different place than I expected considering there is still another book to go. However, I find myself MOST excited about book 6′s inevitable divergence from the previous books. Overall Book 5 is a 4/5.
UPDATE (Feb 4, 2010): For those who’ve linked in from Wikipedia (or Whatever) and who don’t wander through all of the comments on this post; the author, John G. Hemry, is participating in the discussion (and giving updates) as well: Comment #3, Comment #15, Comment #22, Comment #27, Comment #48 and #49, Comment #58, Comment #68.
UPDATE (April 30, 2010): I’ve just finished book 6 and it’s incredible. Well organized, fast paced and a very satisfactory end to this excellent series. I’m eager for the follow up series that are planned and I won’t hesitate to recommend all 6 books to anyone asking for great SciFi. 5/5 For a stellar conclusion.