The Exiled Fleet by J.S. Dewes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This series is billed as "The Expanse meets Game of Thrones," and while that's a marketing tag to sell the series, I can't say it's wrong. Especially in this book: the backstory of one of the main characters is revealed, and it's a scheme of Machiavellian proportions. It's a testament to the depth of characterization in this book that when this happens, the reader (or at least this reader) really felt for the poor guy. The characters are put through the wringer in this one, with increasingly elevated crises and stakes, until the last quarter of the book with the desperate rocket ride of their attempts to escape the antagonist.
Don't start the series with this book. It picks up immediately after the first book,
The Last Watch,
with no explanation, and if you read this one first you will be hopelessly confused. The universe-destroying crisis of the first book is being kept at bay (at least for now) and the new challenge is for Adequin Rake, Cavalon Mercer, Jackin North, and the supporting cast to rescue four thousand Sentinels from the Divide before they starve. This requires igniting a freaking star in the depths of their ancient warship to power their FTL jumps, containing and stabilizing it successfully, and when that doesn't quite work, mounting a stealth mission to the Core (the same place they are trying to escape from) to round up the supplies they need.
This mission takes up most of the book, and piles complication upon complication. Along the way, Adequin meets the alien Viator breeder she freed in the first book, who proves to be an valuable and unexpected ally, and Cavalon confronts his grandfather, the villain Augustus Mercer, and discovers what he really is. The escape from the Mercer compound results in Adequin getting captured and Jackin trading himself for her release. (We also find out more of Jackin North's past and just how he is tied into the Mercers.)
Despite the relentless pacing and the incredible chase/battle scenes that take up the latter part of the book, the best part of it is the character interactions. Many authors have cardboard or at best shallow characters in this kind of book, preferring to let the gosh-wow space opera elements take center stage. I'm so glad Dewes doesn't do that. She continues the tradition in the first book of slowing down to let the characters (and the reader) breathe. All her characters are flawed, relatable, fascinating people, and Adequin and Cavalon in particular in this book are developed further. Adequin learns to step up and take on the burden of leadership without depending on Jackin, and Cavalon gets past the shock of his origins and realizes he is not his grandfather.
As soon as I finished this book, I went to Amazon and searched for further books in the series. It doesn't quite end on a cliffhanger, but there is clearly much more story to be told. I couldn't find anything, but I fervently hope the author can wrap this series up. These books are among my favorites of the year.
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