Book Review: Vanguard by Jack Campbell
Mogsy’s Rating: 2 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Genesis Fleet
Publisher: Ace Books (May 16, 2017)
Length: 336 pages
I really wanted to like my first venture into the military sci-fi of Jack Campbell, but sadly it was just not meant to be. To be fair though, Vanguard is the first book of The Genesis Fleet, a new prequel series to Campbell’s The Lost Fleet which I have not read, so it’s possible that I may be missing some of the context required to fully appreciate this book. Still, to the novel’s credit, I also think it was set up to be a perfectly fine jumping on point, so that, at least, was not a source of my issues. It actually took me a while to gather my thoughts and put my finger on what didn’t work, because after all, the book had an interesting premise, the characters were awesome, and the writing style was as good as I remember from the author’s fantasy novels, but ultimately I think it was the execution of it all that failed to hook me.
As I said, Vanguard is the start of a new prequel series, meant to explore the founding of the Alliance, one of the two major human powers involved in the interstellar war featured in The Lost Fleet books. While the technology for faster-than-light travel is still relatively new at this point, Earth is already no longer the only major hub for humanity in the universe, with new colonies springing up on more and more worlds. That also means, however, that the old order of law and protection has ceased to exist. Earth forces no longer have the will or resources to police the systems, and as a result, space piracy and corruption are on the rise.
In other words, it’s everyone for themselves as the rules start to break down and a lawless frontier mentality quickly takes hold. As aggressive worlds begin to prey on the weak, a new pacifist colony called Glenlyon is one of the first to fall victim to this rash of unruliness. Threatened by an enemy warship in their system, the desperate colony has little in the way of defense and thus are forced to turn to a group of former Earth soldiers for help.
At first, things were great with this book. I really enjoyed how it began. Something about the idea of wild space really appeals to me, and humanity’s uncontrolled spread through the universe was a good backdrop to the chaotic events taking place in this story. Life in the new colonies is full of danger and uncertainties, and the writing really gets that point across. In addition to the attack on Glenlyon, we also get to see how settlers traveling to new worlds face the risk of being captured and enslaved by pirates, or how new colonies can be the targets of sabotage or persecution. Only a few are willing to stand up for justice and do what’s right.
Which brings us to the characters, who are all compelling at least on paper. Heading up the main cast is former junior Earth fleet officer Robert Geary, whose name should be significant to fans of The Lost Fleet, since the character is supposed to be an ancestor of the main protagonist from the original series. Up next is a onetime enlisted Marine named Mele Darcy, a strong and capable woman trying to follow her own moral compass. Then there’s Lochan Nakamura, a disgraced politician who has left his old life behind for a chance at a brand new start, and he was probably one of the more interesting of the main characters. And finally, Carmen Ochoa was my favorite—an Earth official from Mars who was in charge of “conflict resolutions”, she has her own reasons for getting into this mix.
Everything was going well for the first few chapters, but then everything fell apart. One of the problems, I think, was pacing. I couldn’t help but feel much of the first half of the book could have been compressed because so much was the story here was filled with aimless back-and-forth between the characters, resulting in a narrative that kept spinning its wheels in place. The characters themselves I found intriguing, but my disinterest in their individual plot threads made it a struggle to connect with them on any deeper level. If I were in the habit of abandoning books, I might have thrown in the towel right then and there, but I pressed on in the hopes things would get better. The good news is, the story did pick up again after a while, but by then it was too late to turn my disappointment around, and I’m afraid even the superb action scenes at the end could not save the book’s lackluster and forgettable middle sections.
In the end, I suppose the potential of the story was there, but it was presented in a way that tried my patience and wore me down. This is not my first experience with the author, but this is my first time trying his military science fiction and admittedly I was tempted by the promise of a new series, new characters, and new stories when in retrospect I probably should have started with The Lost Fleet. You can be sure that’s in my plans now, and who knows, perhaps I will even revisit this series once I’m done to see if it gives me a new perspective. For now though, I’ll probably set The Genesis Fleet aside.