Chain of Command
by Frank Chadwick
Cover Artist: Kurt Miller
Review by Ernest Lilley
Baen Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781481482974
Date: 03 October 2017 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author's Wikipedia Entry / Publisher Page (BAEN): / Baen Free Radio Hour Interview / Show Official Info /
Frank Chadwick's latest novel in his Varoki/Human universe moves away from the seamy underbelly of crime society he showed us in How Dark the World Becomes to his first full-on space navy novel as the Varoki decide it's time to pre-empt human expansion. Earth's coalition Navy is out there to protect the colonies, but they haven't fought a war in generations, so their focus has become looking good for review boards, rather than keeping the pointy edges keen.
With the alien Varoki posturing increasingly aggressively, Earth decides to increase its military presence near K'tok, the only world besides Earth that supports human-compatible life, but which also has a Varoku colony on it. Navy reservist Sam Bitka gets pulled from his ascending career track at a fabricator (read 3D printer plus) to head the tactical department on the USS Puebla, heading for K'tok. As a reservist, he's not a candidate for any of the operations slots, which are reserved for career Navy and Academy grads, rather than ROTC types like Sam. Because In a peacetime navy it's important to look like you can fight, but it's more important to look like you fit in, which Sam just doesn't. Fortunately for everyone.
When the task force gets hammered by a stealth attack, Sam finds himself first elevated to XO to a captain that majors in the minors and falls apart as the conflict escalates. Taking command isn't anything Sam wants, but ultimately, it's thrust upon him. The aliens have come up with a bag of dirty tricks that we didn't see coming, including a way to turn the FTL/jump drives on our bigger ships against us. Fortunately, the destroyers are too small to have jump drives, so when the fleet pulls back, it's up to a handful of these ships to stand in harm's way and block the alien aggression. With their backs to the wall, the destroyers must hold the line alone.
Sam has a hands-on technical background and a knack for tactics, but pulling a ship together and overcoming the crew's peacetime inertia just wasn't on his bucket list. Nor did he expect the ships upgraded missiles to be unusable due to insufficient testing. The Puebla isn't without teeth, but it's not all it should be, which describes both ship and crew. Bit by bit, Sam figures out how to patch up both, and bit by bit the Puebla takes the fight to the enemy. The cost is considerable though, and Sam discovers the weight of command.
He has a penchant for asking questions that others have been trained out of, and he's especially keen on why we're at war, and why we fight at all. Trying to understand what the Navy means is as hard for him as uncovering what the aliens really want. His internal struggles come from dealing with his conversion from citizen to soldier, or at least citizen-soldier, and from the loss of a crewmate he'd been close to. Close, but not close enough to cross over into fraternization, which has interesting consequences for his inability to get past her loss.
The future Navy is a mixed bag of pompous politicos and hardworking enlisted types, with a fortunate leavening of capable officers in the mix. Sam builds alliances in the fleet, but in the end, he'll make decisions and do what needs doing alone.
Chain of Command is very smartly put together, which is probably a testament to the author's previous career as a role-playing game creator with the Game Designers' Workshop, which he helped start. The trend of game designers turned SF writers is really working out for us, if authors like Ty Frank (The Expanse) and Frank Chadwick are any indication. Chadwick gets the details right, whether he's talking about the effects of prolonged weightlessness or the intricacies of geo and interstellar politics and economics, but he doesn't let the details get in the way of the story. Well, hardly ever. He does inject a bit of exposition in here and there, but it's good exposition.
Technologically, Chadwick plays it straight. No anti-gravity, force fields, tractor beams or magically efficient engines that can push you around at high gees for hours on end. The sole exception is the jump drive, which is alien tech developed by the Varoki and the backbone of the economic and political empire they've been creating. It's also the source of conflict with the humans, who stubbornly won't stop trying to crack its secrets and build their own, which the Varoki fear would destabilize the Cottohazz. Their federation of worlds, and let the "aggressive, violent, and impulsive humans" become their rivals and eventual usurpers. You almost feel sorry for them.
The story could easily have been dragged out into a series of books, but it's satisfyingly complete. That doesn't mean there isn't room in this universe for more, and Chadwick's previous two novels show his willingness to follow a character for more than one book, so we can hope for either a sequel or spin-off from the book's events. I've only noted the main character here, but there are plenty of interesting folks that would merit exploration, notably the fleet intel chief, Cassandra "Red Duchess" Atwater Jones (Royal Navy) on the human side and her alien opposite number, "Speaker for the Enemy" Vice-Captain Takaar Nuvaash, who is almost as puzzled about the reason for the war as our hero.
Chain of Command is a solid piece of Mil-SF writing that pulls from many historical sources and manages to convey a lot of what the Surface Navy is like. Chadwick isn't prior military (as far as I can tell) but he's steeped himself in WWII histories and novels and taken excellent notes. Like the destroyer sailors of the Pacific, he shows that it isn't the steel hulls that make the navy tough, it's the sailors that crew them.