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The Battle at the Moons of Hell (Helfort's War #1) by Graham Sharp Paul
Cover Artist: Chris McGrath
Review by Ernest Lilley
Del Rey Mass Market  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345495716
Date: 25 September 2007 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Graham Sharp Paul takes a page from Elizabeth Moon while offering a few nods to E.E. "Doc" Smith in the first book in his Helfort's War saga. The author blends genre and his own experiences with unusually good analysis of the mechanics of ship-to-ship space combat to deliver the first book in a notable series.

The story opens in classic fashion, with the head of the class at Terranova Federated Worlds Space Fleet College narrowly avoiding being drummed out of the fleet for unsafe operation of a shuttle over a populated area. On the one hand, he was pretty clearly sabotaged by cadets he'd made enemies of simply by being born. On the other hand lies the weight of responsibility and the tradition of command. It was his ship, and the bottom line is that he's responsible for the actions of the crew, so even if it could have been proven that he hadn't actually turned off his nav comp ... it would still come down to the same thing.

I didn't have to read the bio to know that the author is prior Navy, because this really is the way it goes. He is, by the way, though it's Royal Navy, which adds a touch of stiffness to the officer culture in the book. All Navies are brutally unforgiving of ship mishaps, and it's only because Cadet Michael Helfort is highly regarded (both for his own merits and his lineage) that he gets to have a career at all.

Cadet, now LTJG, Michael gets sent off to his first ship under a cloud, but the silver lining turns out to be even worse when the colony ship his mother and sister are on is captured by the Hammer Worlds forces. The Hammer Worlds are a group of planets hobbled by their faith-based government, which forbids both genetic engineering and AI technology, resulting in constant civil unrest and a slow economic decline. So stealing the cargo of a ship off to terraform a new colony world is the sort of temptation they can't quite resist.

It will be a costly proposition for them if the Federation figures out what happened to their ship. So they've taken precautions that the word will not leak out that the colony ship Mumtaz wasn't lost in "pinchspace" but was diverted to the colony world Eternity along with the women and children aboard. The men will live out their lives in the prison mines of the book's title. Since the Hammer Worlds founders singularly lacked a sense of humor, you may rest assured that the name fits.

The fly in the Hammer Worlds' ointment is that the senior military officer in charge of the operation knows exactly what will happen when the Federation does figure it out, and despite the security he's put in place, he knows it will happen sooner or later ... and the result will be massive interstellar bloodshed. A thought that does not make him at all happy, especially since he doesn't buy into the ancient Martian basis for the Hammer Worlds religion.

I'm tempted to criticize the author for creating another theologically driven bunch of bad guys in the Hammer Worlds, but he shows a very good grasp of the ins and outs of geo (or interstellar) politics, and he's clearly writing from careful observation of current world events, leavened by keen insight and a fertile imagination.

The story bounces back and forth between viewpoints as Michael's mother and sister head out as passengers aboard the ship carrying tools and equipment to the frontier. They're off to visit relatives, so this is supposed to be a pleasure cruise. But Michael's mom happens to be a retired admiral, and she quickly notices that not all the passengers aboard are what they seem, especially the close-knit group that looks to her like a special forces team from the Hammer Worlds pretending to be miners on the way to a new job. Putting the pieces together takes the pleasure right out of her cruise.

In contrast to stories by other Mil-SF authors that jump into battlespace quickly, the difficulty of planning and executing military operations comes through clearly. Intel, recon, covert ops, and planning take up the first two-thirds of the book, which is about right for a real op, and the shooting war only gets off the ground toward the end. Though intense, it doesn't take long. That's realistic too.

The author's arsenal of technology is a pretty solid extrapolation of what we currently imagine might be available and effective. High-energy lasers, rail guns, and a variety of missiles make up the action, and Sharp has given serious consideration to how best to deal with each threat, both in ship construction and maneuvering.

Though some audiences may find the grind of military ops slower than the pirate fighting and weapon-beam slugfests of others, I found this to be better than I expected Mil-SF to be. It's got some of the good old feel of "Doc" Smith's space wars, updated to at least current Naval standards, and with some solid thought put into the conflicts and technologies of the future.

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