The Black Fleet Trilogy: Call to Arms and Counterstrike

Call to armsLast time, I sung the praises of  Warship, a novel about people fighting aliens while tensely staring at computer panels onboard a warship. Today, I move on to the next two books in the trilogy to see if the author can keep us on the edge of our seat while those characters stare tensely at computer screens!

Call to Arms, the second book in Joshua Dalzelle’s Black Fleet Trilogy, opens with a brief prologue about the development of the Black Fleet universe’s warp drive in a fifteen-minutes-from-now future. When the book takes us back to the 25th century, four years have passed since the events of Warship. Jackson Wolfe, hero of Warship, is now in charge of a squadron of the fleet’s newest destroyers, advanced, mean ships tuned specifically to fight the Phage. Unfortunately, in the intervening four years, contact with the Phage has been sporadic. People are becoming complacent, politicians are doing what they do (the stupidest things possible), and Wolfe is still the only captain with any real combat experience when the Phage finally begin showing up for real. Wolfe’s new destroyers are more than capable of mowing down the average Phage ship, but with only a handful of ships under his command a fleet still more or less untested, things start going south.

And of course, the aforementioned politicians doing the aforementioned stupidest things possible begin throwing monkey wrenches into humanity’s hope of survival. Several large, powerful enclaves have decided that the best hope for survival is to protect themselves instead of the entire species, and announce that they are withdrawing from their fleets from the Confederacy, shattering any hope for successfully repulsing a Phage fleet massing for attack.

One thing that worried me about the trilogy when I was reading Warship was that the first book was so very straightforward and by the numbers. It was fantastic, and I really quite enjoyed it, but when a book is very straightforward like that, you start to wonder how the series is going to support another 700 pages of spaceships blowing stuff up. Even BLTs need something to break up the monotony, right? Fortunately, Call to Arms begins shaking things up a bit. We get some politics. Some angry senators. Some spec ops action. New types of Phage, including the tiny starfighter-esque Bravos and world-killing Charlies. And Dalzelle’s got a knack for ending things on a hook that makes you want to pick up the next book. Warship‘s hook didn’t really startle me, but it worked; Call to Arms, on the other hand, definitely sent my eyebrows up. (And anything that gets a reaction from me while I’m sweating and gasping on an elliptical impresses me.)

When Counterstrike opens, the hook from Call to Arms has shaken things up pretty thoroughly. Dalzelle opens up his world pretty significantly here, and adds enough twists and complications that I’m not sure I can discuss much of anything about the book without spoiling something. Suffice it to say that the Confederacy had been pretty thoroughly threatened by the events of Call to Arms, but has gained some useful information: the Phage hive-intelligence is focused through a central core mind, hidden far away from human space. If the Confederacy can locate and destroy it, then humanity has some hope of surviving the Phage.

I first picked up Warship a year ago to the day, oddly enough, and I loved it then, but the follow ups weren’t out yet. Between seminary, my own novel, and reading other things, I missed Call to Arms and Counterstrike coming out until a month or so ago. Since then, I’ve torn through both books as fast as homework will allow. One of my major complaints from Warship has disappeared from Call to Arms and Counterstrike; the lingering feeling of Star Trek fan fiction is gone. We’ve gotten to see a little more of Dalzelle’s world, and it’s clearly not the Federation or Starfleet. Plus, as much as I enjoyed Warship, I did have, as I said, concerns about how the whole trilogy would fare.  Pleasantly, though, the end product is a trilogy reminiscent in some ways of Peter F. Hamilton’s giant space opera tomes, minus about 1500 pages.

How you feel about that is probably dependent on how you feel about all those pages in Hamilton’s novels where people are renovating apartments and farming before aliens or demons or whatever show up and wreck the galaxy. For me, that stuff’s actually a selling point for Hamilton’s works. It’s like the first couple movies of Harry Potter, or the first season of Babylon 5. All that stuff that’s tonally lighter or seemingly filler goes a long way towards creating a world for the heroes to protect. (More so in B5; one of Harry Potter‘s flaws is how the wizard world seems very separate from the muggle world.) So for me, streamlining a space opera like that is actually kind of detractor. A minor one, to be sure; I still really enjoyed the books. But I’d like to have seen more of Black Fleet‘s world, because honestly, I had to keep looking up what name human society goes by, and the organization of the Confederacy’s fleet. The story, from beginning to end is enthralling, but it’s enthralling in a way that’s a little bit lacking in context. (Comparatively, at least.)

On the other hand, if you don’t want all those apartment renovations and don’t want to keep track of approximately 75,874 characters, I’m not sure there’s anything I’d change here. The whole trilogy is just as much fun as the first book.

Call to Arms and Counterstrike were released in June and October of 2015, respectively.

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  • Tamquam

    Having read the review I was inspired to get the books, which I consumed in short order, purchasing and reading them one after another. The story moves along pretty briskly, 99% of the time. The battle scenes are gripping enough to cause me to bark at my wife when she disturbed me.

    Those battle scenes were one of the things I loved about this series, I felt I had a good grip on what was happening with no breaks (wait, how did they get there?) The other was the thoughtful application of Navy practice to the ship. Being ex Navy that attention to correct detail was greatly appreciated. So when the order is given to “light off reactor number 1” it fit perfectly with my experience of hearing the officer of the deck ordering number 1 boiler to be lit off.

    As far as Captain Wolfe’s relationship to his officers, that too seemed to fit the naval tradition. Of course every office is unique and handles himself differently, but the sense of mutual respect and reliance is well conveyed. I was very much relieved that Captain Wolfe didn’t ravish his XOs, or they he; the sexual tension was conveyed but did not dominate the story. The quirk about Wolfe not liking to sit in his command chair still warm from the previous occupant was priceless.

    Two niggles. First, spell the correct word. Several times the word “hoards” was used, but there was no treasure. What should have been used was “hordes.” A small thing, but it grated enough on me to pop me out of the story. Second, distance, velocity and time. I’m no mathematical genius, but I know that .1c=30,000 kps. So when things take substantially longer or shorter than might be expected it distracts. Might be better to just let the numbers perk in the imagination than to specify numbers that don’t add up.

    If any more Black Fleet stories come out I want to sign up for a tour of duty.

    • I’m glad my review inspired you to pick them up! Probably not as glad as Mr. Dalzelle is, but I’m always happy when I can point people towards something I enjoyed.