Review: the Human Reach novels

The Human Reach novels are a planned trilogy by John Lumpkin of which two books have so far been published: Through Struggle, The Stars (2011) and The Desert of Stars (2013. A third, The Passage of Stars, is planned.

These books bear comparison with Thomas Mays’s A Sword Into Darkness, previously reviewed here, in that they are military SF that works very hard at getting the tactics and technology of future space combat right, and leaned on the excellent Atomic Rockets website to do it. But the differences are as interesting as the similarities.

In the Human Reach novels, major nations on Earth have colonized the solar systems of many near stars through a network of artificial wormholes. As newly-fledged U.S. Space Force officer Neil Mercer reports for his first assignment, war is brewing between China and Japan for reasons no one understands. Though his ambition was to pilot dropships circumstances sidetrack him into military-intelligence work, for which he has an unexpected aptitude. Neil’s first assignment directly involves him in a mission which brings the U.S. into the war, but the strategic motives for his own country’s involvement are also mysterious.

Yes, there’s an answer, but revealing it would spoil some major plot points. Through the unusual move of making his protagonist an intelligence officer rather than a ship commander, the author focuses these books on the strategy of interstellar war and the dirty tricks waged by all sides out of sight of the space battles.

Space battles there are in plenty, however, and carefully thought out they are too. These books read rather as though they could have been based on an Attack Vector: Tactical or Squadron Strike campaign, and the designer of those games (A&D regular Ken Burnside) is credited in the acknowledgments.

As with A Sword Into Darkness, author John Lumpkin has put exceptional effort into designing his setting and making the details plausible. Lumpkin lacks Mays’s background of on-deck experience in real warships, so the military-culture stuff is not as crisply real – but Lumpkin makes up for that with a wider canvas that includes (for example) gritty sequences about insurgency operations on a conquered planet and deadly intrigues in an extraterrestrial banana republic.

This result is very enjoyable work, earning a place in the upper reaches of contemporary military SF and sure to appeal especially to wargamers and military-history buffs. Books like this and A Sword Into Darkness are pushing the state of the art, setting new and higher standards for verismilitude in the form. It’s a good thing to see.

UPDATE: The author says he plans The Passage of Stars for 2015, and that it probably won’t be the final book.


  1. I loved both the Human Reach novels and glad to hear he’s coming out with a third. Highly recommended for great military and political intrigue on a canvas spanning multiple star systems. Much less pulpy than my own work.

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