Trial by Fire: A high-stakes game of war

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTrial by Fire by Charles E. Gannon science fiction book reviewsTrial by Fire by Charles E. Gannon

There’s no sophomore slump with Trial by Fire, the second book in Charles E. Gannon’s TALES OF THE TERRAN REPUBLIC series. Trial by Fire is a white-knuckle adventure, with revelations that lay the groundwork for conflicts in future books.

In Fire with Fire, Caine Riordan and the team from Earth met exo-sapients (we used to call them space aliens) and attended a Convocation. Sabotage, both technical and political, caused the Convocation to fail. Along the way, several attempts were made on Caine’s life, mostly authored by a mysterious man who likes to eat olives.

Trial by Fire opens with another attempt on Caine’s life at the base orbiting Barnard’s Star. Caine survives, but as he and Trevor Corcoran are preparing to head back to Earth, the base and its fleet are attacked with no warning by the technologically advanced Arat Kur, who are supporting the bellicose but tech-primitive Hkh’Rkh race. Earth’s fleet is destroyed and soon Earth is occupied.

The Arat Kur and the Hkh’Rkh both insist with varying degrees of sincerity that they are not an occupation force, but a peace-keeping one, and that they were “invited” by one government to protect it against aggression. This is technically true, and not unlike certain current events (wave to Ukraine, everybody!). From this point on, most of the story is varying degrees of war; an intelligence war, a “formal” military engagement, and a war of insurgency as the locals around Jakarta, where the exo-saps are headquartered, express their displeasure with their uninvited planet-mates.

Caine is off-stage for about one third of Trial by Fire, which gives more space to characters like super-soldier Trevor, military bodyguard Opal Patrone who is a woman out of her time, and spymaster Richard Downing. Gannon also develops key exo-sap characters. My favorite is Darzhee Kut, a member of the Arat Kur occupation force. Darzhee Kut is smart and clear-sighted, and sees that the alliance with the Hkh’Rkh, and the invasion, is wrong-headed and morally cloudy. He is also unswervingly loyal. This gives him conflict. The Arat Kur are a communal society who value harmony, and are not very warlike (although for a peace-loving race they have some awesome war-tech), and at first glance it’s hard to see why they’re involved in this at all. As the story progresses, the cause of the Arat Kur’s fear of humans is revealed, and we can see their point of view. We even understand the point of view of the Klingon-like Hkh’Rkh, although we may not agree with it.

At the end of Trial by Fire, a villain we love to hate gets just desserts. In a beautiful reveal, we learn the identity of the Olive Eating Man. We’ve also lost a number of characters we liked, including a beloved one, because this is a book about war. Some readers may think that Gannon set up a plot point only to drop it unfinished, though I suspect that the plot element is not dropped, but merely deferred. They have the technology. I will watch this particular element with interest.

Gannon contrasts the intelligence-gathering and strategic aspects of a war, the more “game-like” side, with real losses in the field. The probably-right-but-universally-disliked spymaster Richard is the perfect character to show us this calculus, and he does so thoroughly.

Because I don’t read much military SF I found some terms and acronyms going over my head. Gannon is pretty good about an early definition, but some just didn’t stick. It didn’t affect the action; I could certainly follow what was going on.

In the first book, Fire with Fire, I found Caine to be unbelievably perfect. In Trial by Fire, Caine misses an important clue until the crucial moment that a plot element is deployed. Far from making him look stupid, this was a believable oversight and made him more relateable. In this outing Caine reminds me of an early Tom Clancy hero, Jack Ryan: smart, innovative, analytical and brave, just a bit out of his depth and rising to the occasion, instead of being always flawless.

The book was a bit talky. Some of that is unavoidable as new technology has to be explained. As the “game” aspect of the book continues, with numerous schemes and counter-schemes, operations running blind to each other, there does have to some kind of on-site narrator. I wish Gannon had done a bit more of that as indirect narrative rather than characters, in the heat of battle, lecturing each other. Well, maybe it wasn’t in the “heat” of battle, but in the “warmth” of battle. Still, I think an alert reader could follow some of the thought processes without having it all spelled out.

This was an exciting adventure with real stakes, and sets up the next challenge for the newly named Terran Republic. Gannon is making it easy for me to meet my goal of reading more military SF this year, and I look forward to Book Three, Raising Caine, due out in October, 2015.


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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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7 comments

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    Nice review, Marion! But the expression should be “just deserts,” not “desserts.” Everybody makes that mistake….

  2. Sandy, what’s the history of the expression? I didn’t look it up, but I really did think that it was “desserts”– like the thing you get at the end of a meal, because you “deserve” it for eating all your vegetables. Now you’ve got me curious!

  3. Sandy — The Grammarist agrees with you! And it does come from the idea of “that which is deserved” which is what I was going for.

    I’m not going to change it in the review this time, but I will remember for future uses. Thanks! I learned something interesting today.

    http://grammarist.com/spelling/just-deserts-just-desserts/

  4. I didn’t know that either! And I’m such a word snob, too. :(
    Thanks, Sandy!!

  5. Sandy Ferber /

    Now the three of us know…and hardly anybody else! You can impress–or, more likely, annoy–your friends and coworkers with this bit of trivia!

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