Review: Virtues of War by Bennett R. Coles (Titan Books, 2015)
Action packed military SF novel that is smart, well paced, and a blast to read. Coles’ characters are fascinating flawed heroes who are balancing their personal lives and ambitions with their duties as serving officers. Given the plentiful action, it is surprisingly insightful and joins the ranks of great military SF like Haldeman’s Forever War and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.
Let’s face it, when it comes to literature I am more a fantasy fan than SF. I might have studied SF, but my first love will always be fantasy. So it came as something of a surprise how much I enjoyed this book. Bennett R. Coles’ Virtues of War is one of those smart SF military fiction novels that dares to be read in two completely different ways. On the one hand you could read it as a straight-up, gung ho, military SF action story and it doesn’t disappoint. There are space battles, planet-side encounters, basically action aplenty. Or, you could read it as a critique of expansionist military regimes, that still has sympathy and empathy for the men and women who serve in the armed forces. I suppose, what I am trying to get at is that Coles breathes life into the old adage about ‘loving the soldier and hating the war’. But, as with all attempts to illustrate concepts and bring them to life, it is more complicated than that, and Virtues is all the better for it.
The book itself is divided between three main point of view characters. The first is Lieutenant Katja Emmes, who, despite her extensive training, feels completely out of her depth leading her first strike team. She supplies the ‘grunt on the ground’ view, and takes part in the major land-based action sequences. The second is Sublieutenant Jack Mallory, the cocky, but still fairly likeable, pilot, who thinks he is far better than he actually is. As a low ranking officer in a specialist field, he certainly has more privileges than Emmes, but we also see how low he is in the grand scheme of military command and he gives us a sense for how combat in space actually works. The third is Lieutenant Commander Thomas Kane, an ambitious officer who wants to rise farther than perhaps his talents and abilities are suited for. Kane gives the reader insight into command decisions and the broader view of the conflict. So you can clearly see that each of the main characters is flawed and humanised, making them far more interesting than the usual gun toting, cigar chomping, uber-capable, ultra-marines that usually seem to turn up in SF like this. That isn’t to say that the characters are completely unlikable, Emmes in particular stands out as the main hero of the group, but each of them feels like a real person serving in a real military, warts and all. By dividing the action up between the various groups and strata of the military, Coles supplies the reader with multiple perspectives of the conflict, as well as giving real insight into how the chain of command actually works in practice.
What genuinely surprised me was how much I got wrapped up in how these characters were changed and altered by the events of the story. We love to talk about how important character development is, and yet so many of our favourite characters and heroes remain essentially the same through the course of their adventures. That is definitely not the case here. Emmes, Mallory, and Kane are put through the crucible of battle and are forever changed in completely different ways, and I was sucked along right with them. They make mistakes, have flaws, and at times make you want to smack some sense into them, but I viewed this as a mark of a great story. I actually cared about these characters. I was invested in their stories. I didn’t necessarily like them as people, but I was certainly turning page after page to find out what happened to them next.
When taken down to its core points the main plot might feel a little pedestrian in that it is once again focused on Terran soldiers putting down an uprising of organised colonial resistance. Put like that it doesn’t seem that much different from any one of hundreds of other Military SF stories out there, but the strength of Coles’ writing is that the grand setting and the story set pieces, which are nevertheless well realised and very well crafted, play second fiddle to the real strength of the novel, the characters. The best military SF, like Haldeman’s Forever War, and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and even the best military writing in general, like Heller’s Catch 22 and Hasford’s The Short-Timers, use the characters to draw you in. It is their lives, relationships, ambitions, and petty flaws that make the story come alive. In this instance, it is not only about the pressures of combat and battles, but the strain of personal lives and close-quarters living, the unavoidable external pressures placed on serving military officers who are turned into heroes or villains almost on the whims of what is expedient for the politicians and media back home, and the unavoidable pressure of the burden of command. All of this gives the story a depth and authenticity that makes the plot more immersive and gripping. But that is not to say that the story itself doesn’t have its own draw and allure. The bare bones might seem overly familiar, but in its execution Coles adds nuance and originality to what is being told. Additionally, this is the first book of a planned trilogy, so there is plenty of room for the story to grow in complexity and depth now that the foundational aspects have been laid in place.
Another significant strength is how Coles has realised space battles. Much like the otherwise atrocious film Wing Commander (dir. Christopher Roberts, 1999) Coles portrays naval battles in space, with submarine-esque style battles and carrier group fleets rather than the more aerial derring-do found in Space Opera titles and films. The battles are tense and suspense filled rather than flash-in-the-pan acrobatic encounters that make little sense in the vastness of space. He has genuinely considered how space combat could function, bringing his military experience as an ex-Naval officer to bear. When this is combined with some genuinely interesting and well thought out space-age technology, the conflicts become even more authentic and riveting. But Virtues also depicts some high octane moments with the drop ship scenes, the fighting planetside, and all the great action that Military SF excels at. So there is a lot here to please fans of all types.
There is one other aspect of the book that I feel really sold it to me. While above I talked about how the characters felt real, a second part of this was how the setting, the military service, the people within it, the conflicts and battles they take part in, are all depicted as a job, with all the inherent crud that comes with. The internal politics, the currying of favour, the personal ambitions, the day-to-day mundanity of what they do. This is a book that really explores the pedestrian nature of military service in addition to its more glamorous and action-packed aspects. We continually fool ourselves, ably aided by the media, that every member of the military is somehow some sort of superhero continually in combat, when the truth of the matter must be that like every walk of life, everyone is a mixture of good and bad and some days are boring routine. If our only experience of a doctor or lawyer was what we saw on TV or in films, then our perception of their lives would be just as skewed as our perception of military life if we only ever experienced it through film and television. Virtues portrays that complexity, the everyday reality of military life, while never judging the characters for not living up to stereotypical ideals. I admit that it is hard to articulate what I really mean here, but what I am getting at is the sense of authenticity and realism that Coles manages to portray in this novel.
Like I said, this is a smart book that clearly draws on Coles’ own experiences in the Navy, and as a result it has a heft and weight to the story and characters that make it compelling and arresting. For those interested in space battles, planetary assaults, military jargon and cool SF tech, there is lots of that. For those that want something a little more in-depth, a little more engaging and thought provoking, Virtues has that too. I might be a fan of swords, dragons, and wizards, but Virtues of War made me want the sequel as soon as I can get it, and luckily, Ghosts of War is forthcoming from Titan this summer.