RogerBW's Blog

The First Casualty, Mike Moscoe 22 September 2015

1999 military SF, first of a series that comes both chronologically and in publication date before the Kris Longknife books. Four soldiers on opposite sides of the war between the Society of Humanity and the Unity do their best to stay alive in the face of enemies both of the conventional kind and in their own ranks.

This is very clearly an earlier work by Shepherd (at this point writing as Mike Moscoe). The Unity are old-school commies in space, complete with labour-movement slogans, a tendency to shoot any general who loses a battle, pervasive surveillance and a personality-cult around their leader. And an unfortunate malapropism in the narration:

"That's what the jollies tell us." Rita spat the epitaph for political officers.

And yet the other side isn't a whole lot better: it's full of incompetent officers and men, including a group of miners who survive their first battle only because they indulged in wholesale theft from the mine when they were laid off and drafted.

There are rather more battles here than in Mutineer, both on the ground and in space, where ships fire broadsides of eight-inch guns at each other… but, fair enough, they're eight-inch lasers, and since the ships are basically cylinders clad in ice the concept of a broadside is at least supportable (since said lasers are mounted in rings forward, midships and aft).

A great deal of effort goes into avoiding infodumping: maybe it goes too far the other way, and someone who isn't an habitual SF reader might well feel lost here, but I rather liked it. It gives the feeling of coming in to a story that's already been going on for centuries, rather than everything starting when the curtain rises.

Viewpoints shift often. There are four major ones: on the Society side there are Sergeant Mary Rodrigo, miner and Marine draftee, and Captain Mattim Abeeb, whose merchant ship has been taken into the Navy. For Unity, we get Major Ray Longknife (also an infantryman) and Senior Pilot Rita Nuu. Various other characters also get viewpoint moments, and the switching between them can be disconcerting at times; there doesn't seem to be any particular reason for it to happen when it does.

None of these characters is superbly well developed, but it's still possible to tell them from each other, and this is definitely a story of people rather than hardware. Rodrigo and Abeeb are both distinctly reluctant soldiers, and ready to believe the worst of their superiors; Longknife and Nuu, as volunteers and professionals, take longer to come to the same conclusion. Some minor characters are less convincing: the secret masters who are orchestrating things talk as if they're in a conspiracy thriller (which they are, of course, but they shouldn't know it), and one of their agents seems foolhardy in the extreme. I should have thought that an admiral using female Marines as his personal harem would get broken limbs at the least. Still, he is politically connected…

If this had been the first book I read, I wouldn't have been hugely impressed, though clearly you can start here. As it is, it fills in interesting backstory for the Kris Longknife books. Followed by The Price of Peace.

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