Review: A Sword Into Darkness

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.

23 thoughts on “Review: A Sword Into Darkness

  1. All right, so where does one acquire this bit of self-published candy?

  2. Well, it’s only $3.99 so less than my twice a week Starbuck ritual… That’s the attraction of the lesser priced eBook. It being so cheap that if it didn’t work out, you don’t sacrifice anymore than the time it took to read and small amount of money.

  3. Thank you for the review. Have you read REMO by the same author?

  4. I read it a month or two ago, although I didn’t recall the title until I looked it up. Thoroughly enjoyed it and didn’t get knocked out of the story once. Definite buy recommendation from me if that helps, assuming you like the genre, you’ll likely like this example.

  5. Ah…didn’t know the big distributors had it. Just ordered the Nook version from bn.com.

  6. >Thank you for the review. Have you read REMO by the same author?

    Not yet, but I will. He mailed me a copy.

  7. Space battles with plausible physics, alien invasion, written by a career Navy guy who wrote his master’s thesis on railguns? This is definitely going on my reading list.

  8. > rational motive for interstellar invasion

    What about: you want to colonize their planet?

  9. >What about: you want to colonize their planet?

    Silly, unless all planets in the Goldilocks zone for your metabolism have natives. War is expensive and when waged on the planetary scale required would have a strong tendency to mess up the biosphere.

  10. You mentioned space opera, so *of course* I assumed all remotely-habitable planets are populated, and wrecking the biosphere is hard (requiring a death-star-level of investment)!

  11. Nah, messing up a biosphere from orbit only requires a few (big) rocks.

  12. Bought it; started reading; haven’t gotten all that far, what with Other Stuff needing my attention.
    So far: interesting, hasn’t insulted my intelligence yet; could have used a more careful human proofreader – a couple of goofs jumped out at me (e.g., hoard for horde, unless maybe it’s an alien cargo ship bearing vast wealth as part of a tax-avoidance scheme).
    Overall, a good book so far, and I’m well hooked, wondering what will happen next on various fronts, and busily speculating on alien motives. On the other hand… the world of 20 years hence seems just that little bit too familiar. The tech seems about right, assuming nothing awsome happens in the meantime, but somehow I don’t see the current unstable political/economic situation hanging on for another two decades of slow decay. But, then, maybe I’m just more pessimistic than Mays.

  13. Just finished it. Definitely a good read. Yeah, there’s definitely a hook to hang a sequel on…be interesting where that goes.

  14. A natural resource that’s easier to get on Earth than nearly anywhere else? Chlorine. As far as I know, it’s more concentrated in Earth’s oceans than anywhere else in the Solar System.

    On the other hand, they probably can get to Earth-like worlds without natives and, if they’re passing by and have to tank up, they can probably buy the trace amounts needed. “Send us 1 million tons of salt, and we’ll give you the blueprints for a working nuclear fusion reactor.”

  15. I’d love to have the ability to say “On behalf of the US government and all of the rest of humanity…fuck you.”

  16. >I do really hope you won’t give up on the idea of automating finding new releases.

    I already have, based on my experience with shipper and doclifter. But there will be nothing stopping you or Monster or anyone else from writing a crawler/detector that feeds whatever remote-scripting API gets implemented.

  17. @ESR

    Why would war have to have rational economic motives? What if they are just a macho warrior culture who like to have a good power trip, glory and all that? (Like the Kzin of Niven’s Known Space.)

    Or are you implying that a species that does not get beyond that sort of thing will never get to have an interstellar war because they will blow each other to pieces first?

  18. >Or are you implying that a species that does not get beyond that sort of thing will never get to have an interstellar war because they will blow each other to pieces first?

    Either that, or the differing cultures among the aliens that engage in economically rational behavior will outcompete the proud-warrior-race types who are constantly pulling stupid shit because they’re glory-tripping. In our own history, the fact that proud-warrior cultures tend to be remembered with romantic nostalgia sometimes obscures the fact that they don’t last very long against competition that out-thinks and out-produces them.

  19. Religion (see Footfall).

    Of course, there are ways and ways of invading (see The Left Hand of Darkness, which is an alien invasion novel in the key of F# minor).

  20. > Nah, messing up a biosphere from orbit only requires a few (big) rocks.

    Or even just the exhaust from the engine you were going to use to push the rocks around. (See also: Kzinti Lesson)

    But of course if you have the time to map out the available rocks you might be able to find one that you can get to and then nudge it only slightly for less total fuel used then using your engine directly; they tend to already have lots of momentum.

    Last night I watched MindCandy 2, a DVD of Amiga demos from the nineties; having recently read this book, it was amusing to see a demo with a loose storyline involving a ship stealing a Mayan pyramid and then destroying Earth. “Relic” by Nerve Axis, 1998.

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