Imagine the Cold War was actually a hot war between the West and the Eastern block, with millions of casualties on each side. Then imagine the Soviet Union collapsing under those circumstances. That’s the premise of Jack Campbell’s The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight, only on a scale of entire star systems. The fellow on the cover looks sufficiently Russian to let us know whose view this story will be from.
Artur Drakon, commander of the ground forces for his planet, knows he has no choice but to throw off the remnants of the old empire if he is to survive. Being more decent than most commanders of the old order, he has cultivated highly competent people under him who are fiercely loyal, and they charge into action against the agents of the old order who have enslaved them for so long.
Aiding him in the space around their planet is Gwen Iceni, commander of the pitifully small flotilla of ships that has to guard them from being reconquered. The stakes are high: if a ship of the old empire gets through, it would not hesitate to bomb the civilian population of the planet from orbit.
What makes Tarnished Knight unique is the paranoia among all the characters, inculcated by years of participating in a system where backstabbing and innuendo were the means of moving up. When Drakon does Iceni a favor, she wonders if he’s trying to get her off guard so he can claim total control of the planet. And if Iceni does Drakon a favor, he wonders if that’s a prelude to bombing the planet herself.
This is the most fun with Drakon’s immediate subordinates, Morgan and Malin. Morgan is a deadly woman who is almost out of control, wanting to kill anyone who might be a threat. Malin is no less deadly but more even-keeled. They first appear in the story as they playfully threaten to shoot or stab each other. Things come to a head when Malin shoots an agent who attacks Morgan, barely missing her. Instead of being grateful, Morgan assumes Malin was trying to use the confusion of battle to kill her but flubbed it, and they do not turn their backs on each other for the rest of the novel.
Those of you familiar with Campbell’s Fleet series know that its main character Geary is a man of incredible honor. The good guys in this series are less so, trying to pragmatically do the things necessary to free their people.