March of War, Bennett R. Coles (Titan 978-1-78329-427-5, $14.95, 336pp, pb) October 2017.
If more military SF books were like the Virtues of War trilogy by Bennett R. Coles, I’d read much more of this subgenre. March of War has gripping, suspenseful writing with excellent characters and very believable conflicts within and between individuals, and a firm grasp of the idea that, in any war, there are good and evil people on each side.
This is the third book in the series. I started with the second one, Ghosts of War. Coles dropped me into the middle of a war between the solar system (referred to as Terra) and its extra-terrestrial colonies. In that book, he wrote a sympathetic terrorist and several sympathetic people trying to prevent terrorist actions; he wrote of nasty patriots on both sides and showed how they were manipulating the world in very believable and understandable ways. It made me think about the ways wars are playing out around us right now, and helped me see the way both sides thought. This book shows that Coles can do that again, and more. Most of the characters in this book were active in Ghosts of War: they continue to meet challenges, grow, and change in unexpected and believable ways.
The stakes are higher now. The weapons have taken the next step up in deadliness that was implied in Ghosts of War, and can now cause far greater destruction. There’s a former military ship captain who’s been dropped in rank, a conniving politician’s wife, a special agent whose former identity has been announced to have died, and their friends and companions. These people must each make choices about whether to obey orders that will probably end the war, but have a terrifying cost. It strongly echoes the question of whether to use the atomic bomb, with even higher stakes – and the choices these people make are obviously informed by their knowledge of history. Coles takes seriously the quotation: “War isn’t about who’s right; it’s about who’s left.” In the end, enough characters do what’s right for the book to be profoundly hopeful, rather than depressing. That’s hard to do in a book about the military that feels realistic.
This series is not just for those who know they like military SF. This is for readers who love good characters, suspense, and unexpected plot twists. Coles is an author to watch: his military background is clear, and his skill at observing people and figuring out why they would do the unconscionable is astounding. This book taught me about a side of people that I’ve avoided, and I’m a better person for knowing about it. Try these books: they will surprise you.
This review and more like it in the December 2017 issue of Locus.