Book Review: Admiral by Sean Danker
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of Evagardian
Publisher: Roc (May 3, 2016)
Length: 320 pages
Admiral could be the most entertaining military science fiction novel I read all year. This book pulled me in straight from the start, with a publisher’s description that teases so much intrigue that I would have been hard pressed to put it down again had I picked it up off a shelf at the store. Delivering an enticing combination of mystery and suspense, Sean Danker’s debut is an intensely action-packed and fast-paced survival adventure that’s sure to appeal to both sci-fi veterans and newcomers to the genre alike.
The story begins with the main protagonist, our unnamed narrator, waking up on a dead ship with no one else alive on board besides a trio of newly graduated recruits from the Evagardian Imperial Service. The only clue we have to his identity is the insignia on his sleeper pod that marks him as an admiral…but is he? The three trainees—Lieutenant Deilani, Ensign Nils, and Private Salmagard—each respond to his presence in different ways, ranging from ingrained obedience to outright hostile suspicion, but for the time being, their first priority is to figure out where they are and what happened to make their ship’s systems shut down, dumping them all out of stasis.
The more they find out though, the more unsettling their circumstances become. The admiral and his three companions are stranded on an unknown planet, with dwindling supplies and no way to communicate their distress, and any kind of rescue could be a long time coming. Plus, their faltering equipment is picking up signs that they are not alone after all. Something dangerous is lurking out there, and it might have been what killed everyone…
If that doesn’t send a chill up your spine, what will? Admiral is part mystery and part space disaster story, with shades of Alien here and there. The unknown is a powerful source of fear but also curiosity, which is what made this book so compelling from the start. Three questions demand answers right away: 1) where the characters are right now, 2) what could have possibly mangled the hell out of their half-kilometer long freighter, and 3) who is our mysterious narrator who may or may not be an admiral, but clearly knows a lot about the Imperial Service and the way it works?
There will be no spoilers here, obviously. However, I will say that while the first and second questions are answered in good time, the identity of our protagonist is a puzzle that will last until almost to the end of the novel, though many clues can be gleaned along the way from the narrator’s observations or from the reactions of his three subordinates towards him. Of course, there’s no denying that there are issues with this. Due to the nature of the story, use of an unreliable narrator as a literary device is clearly unavoidable, and it causes a lot of the awkwardness expected when your protagonist knows exactly who he is but can’t say. Later on, one of the trainees also figure out who the admiral really is but also won’t reveal his secret, resulting in a lot of stilted conversations between the two of them while they dance around the subject.
And yet, if you can accept what the author is trying to do and take all this in stride, it’s actually pretty easy to roll with the punches. While it’s true that the identity of our narrator is something of a forced enigma, the other quandaries our characters have to deal with are genuinely intriguing and in some ways disturbing. There’s never a dull moment as they work together against the clock to survive conditions on a dead planet, trying to find solutions to their lack of life support, sensor capabilities, and communications systems. Then there’s the question or who or what is moving about on their ship and out in the mists, given how nothing should be able to survive their hull breach and the inhospitable atmosphere. I ended up finishing this book in a little more than a day, because when every page is filled with a sense of urgency, it’s kind of hard to stop reading.
It also surprised me how much world-building and character development Danker was able to pack into such a short, fast-paced and tightly plotted story which leaves almost no room to catch a breath, but indeed there were several brief moments of downtime where we got to know our characters better. Granted, there are only four—but on the flip side, this meant a lot more time spent with each member of this smaller cast, and I enjoyed the interesting backgrounds of our three recruits as well as the individual skills they brought to the dilemma. There was also enough background about the Evagardian Empire to tether me to this universe, making me feel invested in the mystery of our admiral’s identity and the political ramifications of the story’s events.
Admiral ended up being a lot of fun, a rock solid debut from Sean Danker whose writing career I will now be following with great excitement and interest. I could easily go on and on with my praise for this novel, but because so much of my enjoyment was from learning its secrets, it’s probably best to leave the rest a mystery for readers to discover. This one hooked me from the start with its nail-biting suspense, hitting a lot of the sci-fi and space disaster themes that make this genre so popular while still teasing plenty of uniqueness and more to come for the rest of this series. I can’t wait to see what the next book will bring.