Note: My copy of Dark Victory was supplied by Edelweiss. The novel releases January 5th, 2016
Historically, I haven’t had the best luck with military scifi. I love the concept, and I know good novels in this genre exist, but the ones I’ve thus encountered have left me wanting…well, better editing to start. However, it’s been six years since I’ve read a military scifi book from Baen, and a lot can happen in that amount of time. Cue a review copy of Dark Victory by Brendan Dubois landing in my inbox! Perhaps this will be the one.
Or not, because that is the most generic name for a novel ever.
Our quick-and-dirty plot summary is: 16-year-old Randy Knox is a Sergeant in the military and an expert killer of Creepers, the alien invaders that have wracked Earth so badly that the planet has reverted back to nineteenth-century technology. Randy spends his off-days in school where he excels at English and his on-days hunting Creepers with his dog Thor, but everything changes when he’s given a secret mission to help a girl and her brother reach the New Capitol. Nothing, of course, is what it seems.
Trite? Sure, but at least reverting the world back to the days of steam engines and trench warfare is interesting—though it makes little sense when the enemy is a hyper-advanced alien race capable of space travel…
The first big problem with Dark Victory is that it’s a first-person present, young-adult novel. Nothing good ever comes from that mix. I suppose the good news is that Mr. Dubois handles the perspective as well as can be: The novel has a very choppy writing style to it, with shorter sentences, tons of fragments, and sometimes one-word paragraphs. It reads like how Randy thinks…most of the time. When exposition and backstory are needed though, the writing gets more straightforward as Randy thinks about exactly what the reader needs to know in the best way he possibly can so no one is confused.
Honestly, the way the story reads, I imagine it was originally written in first-person past but then changed after the fact because an action novel loses some tension when you know your protagonist isn’t going to die.
The second big problem is Randy Knox himself. He’s not exactly a compelling character, which is a shame because he should be. His core worry is that he’s been in the military since he was 12 and being a soldier is all he knows how to do. If the war ends, he’s lost; yet at the same time, he’s fighting to end the war. I like that irony.
But Randy is cold and generally unpleasant to spend time with. This makes sense given the state of the world and his military career, but it’s still damning just the same. He’s harsh though never cruel, great in battle yet not perfect by any means, and always follows orders unless it’s the wrong thing to do; then he does the right thing and usually without penalty.
He’s the quintessential badass protagonist, and were I a freshman in high school, I’d be in love with him.
As an adult though, I find him boring. He’s too good at what he does and first-person present or not, there’s hardly any tension to his fights. His biggest weakness is that he’s deaf in one ear, but he only ever uses that to his advantage by employing “selective hearing.” It never once hinders him.
Randy Knox is a kid devoid of creativity, and I’ll be honest, I spent half the book wondering if he was some type of Mary Sue.
Some of the sting would be taken away if he or anyone in the whole novel had a sense of humor, but the 314-page book is devoid of all levity. It takes itself so damn seriously when its plot is silly—seriously, the badguys are called Creepers and look like the kinds of aliens you’d find in a high-budget B movie—and every word is said with 100% earnest, from the fumbled speeches to the out-of-place one liners.
This carries over to the biting criticism of our current society today, which is scattered throughout the novel. It makes sense sure; have your protagonist be a kid that has to grow up too fast and then contrast him with the easy life middle-class Americans live. Fine. But damn, it seems like every other character Randy runs into has something to say about Facebook or T.V. or consumer culture, or smart phones, etc.
It would help if Randy had an opinion on any of it, but all he can do is shrug in disbelief and then go back to doing his duty. If it doesn’t affect him, then he doesn’t care.
The supporting cast around Randy make up for him somewhat; I enjoyed Abby in the beginning of the novel and Serena and Buddy later on, though none of them really aspire to anything more than, “Yeah, they’re alright.” The only stand-out character I was truly invested in was Randy’s dog Thor, but I can’t really talk about him too much without giving away some spoilers. Suffice to say, I even soured on him by the end of the novel (though not as a character but at how he’s handled).
The third and final big problem with Dark Victory is its payoff. The novel’s core mystery is, “Why did the Creepers come here and why are they killing us?” which is the only thing that kept me going. The actual answer given—rushed within the last five or six pages mind you—is alright on the surface but completely falls apart when you give it even a little thought.
Because this is a Baen book, I have to talk about the editing. Thankfully, Dark Victory is much better edited than the military scifi novels I mentioned earlier, but it isn’t flawless. There are comma errors here and there, and now and then a sentence was missing a crucial word. I also noticed some tense shifts, which adds to my theory of, “This was originally written in the past tense but changed in a second or third draft.”
It should be noted that my review copy is “unproofed;” however, this is Baen were talking about, so I imagine all of those little errors made it into the final printing.
Despite the criticisms, Dark Victory is an all-around easy book to read.I didn’t particularly like it, yet I rushed through it in three days of 100+ page marathon sessions. It helps that all the chapters are short and end on little cliffhangers, but even if that weren’t the case, the writing style is accessible and easy to get into, perspective problems notwithstanding.
Or to put that in a more optimistic way: Dark Victory: A Novel of the Alien Resistance is the perfect book to take with you on a long plane ride.