A Sword Into Darkness (Thomas Mays; self-published) is better than I was expecting. There’s been a fair bit of buzz about it on G+ and elsewhere in the corners of the net I frequent; the buzz led me to expect a well-executed work of space opera and military SF that could stand comparison with (for example) John Ringo’s Live Free Or Die and its sequels. There’s a bit more here than that, as it turns out.
Make no mistake, it has got space battle. Oh, boy, has it got space battle. So well done and so physically plausible that almost the first thing I did after finishing this novel was to call up my friend Ken Burnside – author of the world’s best tabletop space-combat sims (including Saganami Island Tactical Simulator, the Honorverse game) and ask him “Ken, did you have a hand in this? Because [parts of] it smelled a lot like an Attack Vector Tactical game…”
“Atomic Rockets” Ken replied. Ken writes a lot of content for this site, which is an excellent resource for writers seeking to harden their SF. If you want to find out how to plot space battles that won’t make people who know physics and engineering wince, it’s where you go…and it was pretty clear that Mays did (which he has since confirmed to me).
Otherwise…characterization OK by the standards of space opera and idea-as-hero-SF (which is a lowish bar, but I’m fine with that – if you want elaborate involuted character studies, you know where to find them). Plotting competent. Prose better than one might expect, especially from a newish author.
A couple of virtues raise this above the level of midlist space opera. For one, the author is career Navy who has stood watches as a tactical officer and wrote his master’s thesis on railguns; he uses that expertise to add both psychological and technical verismilitude in unobtrusive but effective ways.
For another, some cliches of the form are deliberately averted; as one example, there are no larger-than-life omnicompetent heroes. I won’t spoilerize by ticking off all the other aversions, but a genre-savvy reader will notice and find they bring a certain freshness to the production.
Yet another is that Mays has managed to invent a reason for aliens to go to the colossal expense of invading Earth with sub-lightspeed starships that is both novel and plausible-seeming.
This is harder than it sounds. Want metals? Mine your own asteroid belt. Want volatiles? Scoop ‘em off comets or an ice moon or somewhere without a deep gravity well and obstreperous natives. Want energy? You have easy access to your home sun. Want slaves? Build robots. You can’t want our women, the orifices won’t fit and the pheromones are all wrong.
It’s really rather difficult to come up with a rational motive for interstellar invasion even if you have cheap FTL. If you don’t, the cost goes way up and the hackneyed old scenarios look even sillier. Nevertheless, Mays actually pulls this off; I won’t reveal how.
Though the novel ends as a self-contained story, there’s a clear setup for a sequel. I will definitely want to read it.