I finally reached the point where I'd read all six of Joel Shepherd's excellent Cassandra Kresnov books and I found that I missed his wide ranging imagination, his sharp-edged politics and his characters: strong, passionate, sometimes flawed but always believable.
So I went looking to see what else he'd written and found the Spiral Wars series (four books so far)
When I read the blurb, I hesitated:
"A thousand years after Earth was destroyed in an unprovoked attack, humanity has emerged victorious from a series of terrible wars to assure its place in the galaxy. But during celebrations on humanity’s new Homeworld, the legendary Captain Pantillo of the battle carrier Phoenix is court-martialed then killed, and his deputy, Lieutenant Commander Erik Debogande, the heir to humanity’s most powerful industrial family, is framed with his murder. Assisted by Phoenix’s marine commander Trace Thakur, Erik and Phoenix are forced to go on the run, as they seek to unravel the conspiracy behind their Captain’s demise, pursued to the death by their own Fleet. "
Long timescales like this often make it hard for me to connect with the action. The politics sounded triumphalist and the interstellar distances involved are huge. I wondered how Joel Shepherd would keep the intimacy and intensity that was a strength of the Cassandra Kresnov series in an undertaking like this.
The answer, of course, was through the strength of his character development. It turned out that "Renegade", the first Spiral Wars book, was just as intense as his Kresnov books but it was also refreshingly different in scale and in focus.
So what's good about it?
This is a great example of what Space Opera can be when the author has really thought through the worlds, the species and the history involved and yet never resorts to info-dumps but has the confidence and the control to reveal the intricacies of this universe a little at a time, through the experiences of the characters, as needed to make sense of the action. Every good space opera needs lots of action, lots of technology, lots of weapons, lots of culture clashes and complex political intrigue and lots of desperate, how-can-they-possibly-get-out-of-this? moments. Joel Shepherd delivers on all these things with flair and originality and at a pace the made the 400+ pages fly by.
The intensity of the book comes mainly from the characters. There are a lot of them but they are presented clearly and without confusion. They're also not static. They come with backstories that are artfully revealed. They have distinct personalities and ethics and goals. They are changed by the decisions they make and the experiences they have. This increases the emotional impact of the book. It makes you care who lives and dies. It goes beyond the "only you can save the galaxy" hero quest into something personal and therefore much more real.
Two characters, in particular, made the book for me. The first is Trace Thakur. She leads the Marines on the Pheonix but she is a legend throughout the Corps. She comes from a warrior cult with strong ethics around service. She is strong, experienced, lethal and much loved by her people. There is more to her than just being a warrior. Her mission is driven by her personal interpretation of honour and justice rather than by her instructions from her superiors. She is the second in command, yet she has far more leadership and combat experience than Erik Debogande, until recently a newly minted Lieutenant Commander who many believed was appointed because of his family connections and who is now acting-Captain. The dynamic between Thakur and Debogande is tense and plausible. Watching Erik struggling to rise to the challenge of being in command of the Pheonix is one of the best things in the book.
Of course, I also loved the depressingly plausible politics, the diversity of the races involved and the hints of important things being hidden by the powerful, that need to be uncovered by the brave.
I'm hooked now. I'm already looking forward to the rest of the series.