Review: Trial by Fire
Chuck Gannon’s FIRE WITH FIRE was easily the best science fiction novel I read in 2013. The first book in the Tales of the Terran Republic series would be right at home on a shelf amongst the hallowed Golden Age classics. FIRE WITH FIRE is a cerebral thriller – Caine makes his fair share of thrilling escapes – but the real draw to the story is the depth and intellectual complexity that Gannon brings to a First Contact scenario. As a follow-up TRIAL BY FIRE is no disappointment.
This is a military science fiction novel that doesn’t shy away from science. Science was never one of my strengths but Gannon is one of those people smart enough to break it down into digestible pieces for the less inclined. In this way he is able to please the hard science crowd without alienating the more casual reader.
Science isn’t the only draw of this thoughtful thriller. Much as human/exosapient diplomacy was irresistible hook at the finale of FIRE WITH FIRE, diplomacy and realpolitik makes for some of the most exciting scenes of TRIAL BY FIRE. Gannon has created a variety of exosapient life that is alien, not just in appearance, but in psychology as well. Too often in science fiction you encounter aliens that act like simply reskinned humans. That is not the case with the Arat Kur, Hkh’Rkh, Dornani, Ktor, or Slaasriithi. Where a lesser author might consider writing one truly unique alien race a challenge Gannon tackles five simultaneously. And then one most consider the multifaceted ways in which such races would communicate and interact with each other…it’s a daunting prospect, but I haven’t had this much fun reading about alien diplomacy since THE COURSE OF EMPIRE by Eric Flint and K.D. Wentworth.
All this talk of science and diplomacy and a reader might suspect this book to be devoid of action and conflict. Boy would they be wrong. FIRE WITH FIRE set up a combustible scenario and with TRIAL BY FIRE Gannon doesn’t dally long before igniting the fuse to a potentially galaxy spanning conflagration. Whereas the first book dealt with First Contact, this novel revolves around First Conflict. Diplomacy fails and Earth is faced with a fight for its very sovereignty against a coalition of exosapient forces with unknown motive.
Earth is technically “conquered” in short order but the insurgency that awaits the alien invaders is fiercer than they could have ever imagined. It’s gripping material, reading about the struggle for Earth. There are numerous layers to the fight. Earth has had some time to prepare and so it isn’t caught totally off guard but the aliens enjoy total air superiority. Factor in environmental factors, an insidious native population, alien forces restricted by their Rules of Engagement, and countless other factors and you have a truly complex war.
Readers get a glimpse of the war on the large scale and on a personal level. The final battle lasts several hundred pages and is sure to leave readers breathless. It’s hard to continue with the responsibilities of everyday life when your book is embroiled in a massive futuristic D-Day but you’ll have to find a way to preserve because it’s unlikely you’ll be able to finish it in one sitting.
I love TRIAL BY FIRE but I’m not without criticism. The first hundred or so pages is a struggle at times. Caine and Trevor spend a considerable amount of time in an escape capsule with their thinking caps on, trying to solve multiple problems, and while I do appreciate this I can’t help but feel as though it’s a little drawn out. It took longer to get through this section than it did the meat of the book, solely because of the pacing.
My other issue with TRIAL BY FIRE is that the stakes didn’t always feel as high as they should have. The Earth is “conquered” early on but we learn this through discussion after the fact. Plenty of people die in the fight against the Arat Kur and the Hkh’Rkh but I never got the impression that humanity was going lose the fight. The humans trigger traps and ambushes on the alien forces who are continuously hampered by ROE and after a while it does feel a little one-sided. That’s not to say that it is one-sided. The aliens have some serious hardware at their disposal (including awesome spider mechs) and the humans are left using a lot of outdated equipment. It is truly asymmetric warfare. Still, I feel that a few more losses on the side of humanity would have raised the stakes.
Despite these complaints TRIAL BY FIRE is still likely to be my favorite science fiction novel of 2014. If Clancy had written science fiction it might be a little something like this (I can’t help but draw comparisons between Jack Ryan and Caine Riordan). The best part is that I have no idea what direction the next book of the Tales of the Terran Republic will go. There are a couple real surprising twists at the end of TRIAL BY FIRE and I’m excited to see where Gannon decides to take the story from here.
Recommended Age: 16+
Language: Some, not too heavy
Violence: A few hundred pages of pitched combat, but not too gory
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