August 19, 2023

Review: The Last Watch

The Last Watch The Last Watch by J.S. Dewes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a grand space opera with universe-level stakes, but it would be a typical shoot-em-up and save-the-world were it not for the richly drawn characters. The characterization sets this book apart, even more so than the worldbuilding, which depends on whether or not you can accept the central MacGuffin of the plot: a universe with a titular physical Divide between our matter/reality and the void of nothingness from which the Big Bang sprang. I don't think that is a thing, and I especially don't think it could be found somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy, reachable by human technology (or rather stolen technology, taken from the Viators, the alien race humans fought to a standstill for a thousand years and condemned to extinction [maybe] shortly before the story opens). But there are usually one or more impossibilities baked into this kind of story from the get-go. In this case, the book as a whole is so strong they can be overlooked.

We have two viewpoint characters. Adequin Rake is the commander of the Argus, the kilometer-long two-hundred-year-old warship repurposed to stand watch at the Divide along with many other similar ships housing the Sentinels, the cast-off dregs of this society's galactic empire, the System Collective Legion. If you screw up and disobey orders too many times, you get assigned to the Sentinels at the ass-end of the universe to watch an invisible border that is suddenly doing some crazy ominous things. The second protagonist is Cavalon Mercer, a royal fuckup in two senses of the phrase, as he is heir to Augustus Mercer, the master manipulator behind the scenes of the plot. Cavalon is young and brash and idealistic, and ended up at the Divide because he blew up his grandfather's genetic-engineering facility, which he discovered was to be used to create clone soldiers to replace the Sentinels and eventually take over the Legion. Cavalon has a satisfying character arc through this story, going from a snarky, immature smartass to a selfless grownup who is willing to put his life on the line to save others.

The first few chapters set up the characters, world and relationships, and then the plot kicks into high gear: the Divide is collapsing, the universe contracting, and if not stopped it will wipe out everything. The reason why this is happening stretches far into the past, linked to the technology and (supposed) extinction of the Viators. When the Argus's section of the Divide contracts and wipes the entire ship and most of its crew from existence, Adequin escapes with a very few survivors and begins a frantic quest to learn what is going on and how to stop it. Adequin is another wonderful character, a woman with an almost fanatical loyalty to the Legion that is slowly, painfully undone as the story progresses and she learns how the Legion has abandoned the Sentinels to their fate.

This book is expertly paced, with the right amount of pauses for character interactions to allow the characters (and the reader) to breathe before the next crisis. I always have been a sucker for ancient technology (think Andre Norton's Forerunners and the backstory of The Expanse, among others) and this story has plenty of that. The ending is a bit abrupt (continued in the next book, The Exiled Fleet) so if you're not a fan of cliffhangers you might want to get both books at once so you can dive into the next.

I assure you, you will be in for one helluva ride.

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