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May 2003
2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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A Just Determination by John G. Hemry
Ace / Penguin Putnam PPBK: ISBN0441010520 PubDate: April 29, 2003
Review by Ernest Lilley

272 pages List price 6.50
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To call A Just Determination "JAGs...in...Space" would be fun, but it wouldn't be fair. While the TV show plays fast and loose with the actual business of the Navy, A Just Determination stays closer to reality, no matter how inappropriate that may be for a book set hundreds of years in the future and aboard a starship.

It is, as they say, both the book's strength and weakness.

When Ensign Paul Sinclair arrives on the USS Michaelson as the most jr. officer on a deep space warship assigned to patrol "our" spacelanes, he never imagined how hard shipboard life could be. Doing everything his department head demanded, standing the inevitable midwatches and functioning the next day without sleep, navigating the minefield of good and bad shipmates, some of them women...whom thou shalt not touch...and to top it all off, the ship needs a legal officer to help figure out what to do with sailors that will be sailors, even in deep space.

Even so, he settles into the shipboard routine, makes friends with his fellow ensigns, learns some important lessons from the officers (some inspiring, some examples to be avoided) and things don't look all that bad. Then the ship gets orders to keep "foreign ships" out of the spaceway, using  "any action the captain deems necessary." As legal officer, it's his job to advise the Captain about the legal limits of his options, but this isn't a captain who wants advice, just a ticket back to cozier postings.

When the captain appears to exceed his orders and is ordered back to base for a court martial proceeding, Sinclair's life gets even more complicated, as he tries to unravel the chain of events that led to the trial. While the captain isn't someone Ensign Sinclair has much respect for, could he have been the victim of international politics, and if he was...who will stand up to ask for justice for a man no one likes or respects?

I happen to be married to a Naval officer, and I've heard the sea stories about what it's like on a warship. I've drunk my share of Navy coffee in the wardroom waiting for her to come off a watch and listened to other spouses talk about their trials and tribulations. In fact, the officer I'm married to is so much like the XO in the book that I wanted her to run down the author's lineal number to see if she knew him. Allowing for a few licenses he's taken, this book is an almost literal translation from today's surface warfare community aboard say an AEGIS Cruiser from an Ensign eye point of view. The sad part is that the author needs to go back over the book and insert the word "spaceship" on every  other page so that the reader doesn't forget that it's not a wet-navy vessel. Hundreds of years of tradition unmarred by progress indeed.

It took me a while to get past the level of accurate, though misplaced detail, to see it as SF, and I'm still not totally there...but regardless of what navy this book serves in, it benefits from a simple fact: being an officer on a combatant vessel underway is exhausting, exasperating, and exhilarating, in other words...fascinating and addictive. And that's what Hemry has managed to capture.

It takes all kinds to make a crew, and few books manage to convey that as well as this. The tension between department heads is real and palpable, chiefs are there to save the day, some sailors are good apples and some bad, and when the chips are down everyone really does reach deep inside and pull out more than they thought they had to give. He even manages to see, at least somewhat, that attitudes are driven by agendas...and agendas are not always under an individual's control. Though the ensign can't see why the captain is more concerned with his career visibility than the ship's mission, that's in part because he's an ensign, and his focus is necessarily within the lifelines.

You're probably having a hard time believing that I liked this book considering the grief I'm giving it. Did I mention that the uniform on the cover is for a JAG Lieutenant, not an Ensign? That we don't see a reference to the lack of gravity until about halfway through the book? Yeah, well, ignore all that. Young Paul Sinclair is exactly the kind of guy you want to serve with, and exactly the kind of reluctant hero that great series are made from.

He'll never be this young again, nor this naive, and this is a great time to meet him...before he makes it to admiral, or even lieutenant.
sa051803

sfr3d.gif (19860 bytes) 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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