Charles E. Gannon hangs out (in a literary sense) with the likes of Eric Flint and David Webber. Yes, that Eric Flint and that David Weber – two authors I read the hell out of when I was a younger man. But he is not so much a student of theirs as a collaborator. I am certain he learned from them during their works together, but only as much as they likely learned from him. He is, after all, a Distinguished Professor of English as well as a military game designer – he worked on Twilight 2000, a game I loved while I was still in uniform, and was a an author and editor for GDW. He not only knows how to use the English language very well, but he gets the military in a way only military personnel typically understand. This makes him very well qualified to write military science fiction.
So when I saw Trial by Fire was on the Nebula award nominee list this year, I was either genuinely excited or filled with dread. That needs some explanation. Since leaving the military 20 years ago I’d gotten out of the habit of reading military science fiction for personal reasons. It’s hard to read when your friends are living war and there’s nothing you can do to help them because now you’re a civilian and can’t serve. It really soured me in more ways than one. There was some bitterness involved. My leaving was voluntary but compelled by the loss of my physical combat qualifications due to a training accident. I lost my picket fence for those that know what that means, and it was too late to change specialties. And the mid 90s were a bad time for that to happen, what with the end of the cold war and the inevitable reduction in forces. Perhaps “some bitterness” is an understatement. Regardless, I didn’t feel like reading fiction at all for the first 10 years of that post military funk. And I chose to read and listen to mostly other stuff (the Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi being an exception) since getting back into the habit of books. That’s why I was unsure about my reaction to the nomination, and the fact that by my own self imposed rules I would have to listen to it.
And man did I want to hate Trial by Fire when I started into it. I really, really did. But I can’t. In fact, it’s a damn good story, but not perfect, and I’ll explain why lower down the page. But first, let’s get the publisher’s summary in front of you so you know a little bit about the setting. Don’t worry about spoilers. This book is so big (24 hours long as an audiobook!) a few paragraphs of summary won’t spoil it a bit. But I’ve only used the first paragraph so you can discover the other twists on your own.
When reluctant interstellar diplomat and intelligence operative Caine Riordan returns from humanity’s first encounter with alien races, sudden war clouds burst. With Earth’s fleet shattered by a sneak attack and its survivors fighting for their lives, Caine must rely upon both his first contact and weaponry skills to contend with the non-humanoid enemy. And when the technologically-superior attackers sweep aside the solar system’s last defenses, and traitorous corporations invite the invaders to land ‘security forces,’ humanity fights back with its best weapons: cunning, inventiveness, and guts.
So let’s start with what was really good about Trial by Fire. It’s huge. I don’t mean that it’s long, which it is. I mean it encompasses a literal world war (several worlds in fact) and does so with a clarity and panache that makes you believe Dr. Gannon has written four times as many books as he has. His command of the English language enables him to clearly describe actions and emotions without slowing down even during a firefight so intense you feel like you’re actually there.
And in that is another key skill the author exhibits. We’ve all read that book where the action starts and then there are five pages of psychoanalysis on how the combatants feel and how their horrible childhood makes it even worse. Such writing completely derails the adrenalin moment and ruins the scene. When reading military science fiction, we the reader want that adrenalin pump – gods know why – but we do. Stopping to tell us what the combatants are feeling doesn’t work. And though there are times that must happen, especially with emotions more complex than anger or fear, a good writer must figure our how there can be a logical lull in the action that allows for such edification. Charles Gannon knows how to do that well. He will get your heart racing and won’t spoil the ride by slamming on the brakes mid yell. I know you know what I mean. 😀
To go along with this huge story is a huge cast. There are of course the protagonist and antagonist and all their minions. But beyond that there is a literal cast of thousands, some of whom you will get to know for only a brief time and some who will be around a bit longer – and you will care about every one of them. You will either want them to survive or you will want them to die, die, die, die, die. If you are even slightly in touch with your emotions, you will be sad, mad, glad and possibly in shock at various times. Though there was no scene that left me sitting there in my car (where I listen to audiobooks most of the time) with my jaw hanging open, I certainly mumbled, “Huh” more than once along with some expletives I’d rather not repeat here.
I also appreciated the science, pseudo and otherwise, in this story. Yes, it is basically space opera and therefore fantasy. But Charles Gannon at least tries to make his faster than light travel fit with what we know of universal laws and strictures. But it’s still FTL and that’s not possible by any current theory. His concept of how the various races get a fleet from one star system to another is quite logical and consistent throughout the book. They all do it the same way, just some have been doing it longer and have a better understanding of the pseudo science. It may be fantasy, but it’s logically consistent fantasy and that makes it better. It’s allowable considering how well he does with the practicality of his remaining science oriented parts. High energy nuclear pulse lasers are not beyond the realm of possibility by any stretch of the imagination. Ships in combat are still ruled by Newtonian physics. Fire enough AK-47s downward and you can achieve lift off. Okay, there are no jetpacks in this story, but there are AK-47s and he uses them appropriately.
Now for what I didn’t like about this book. It’s a male oriented book written by a male author for a predominantly male audience. There are a few female characters and Dr. Gannon probably even thinks they are strong female characters. But cheesuz kreist, if you slave their motivations to the same sad male misinterpretations of what motivates the female of our species you deserve to have a hot drink thrown in your lap. Either quite trying to write female characters or go talk to some actual females wearing a uniform. Either way it’ll be better. That’s all I can say about that because spoilers.
Also, please, please, please ban the phrase “just so” from your freaking vocabulary Dr. Gannon. How many dozens of times did you use it? I quit counting after a baker’s dozen. It was said at one point or another by almost every major character in the book, human and alien. WTF? Stop it! Try using the words precisely, exactly or spot on once in a while would you? Thanks in advance.
In summary, Trial by Fire (Tales of the Terran Republic #2) by Charles E. Gannon is one hell of an exciting romp through the firefights of interstellar war and diplomacy. I not only found myself enjoying it, it was a real page turner. I found myself starting Audible on my Nexus 6 even when I wasn’t in the car in order to find out what happened next. It’s not the first book with which I’ve felt compelled to do that, but it is the first that actually broke down my willpower not to. I certainly plan to listen to the next book in the series, Raising Caine, when it releases later this year even if the “just so” phrase isn’t completely removed. I anticipate it will be as exciting and fun as this book.