As a fan of the LOST FLEET series by Jack Campbell, I was intrigued by a book written from the perspective of the “enemy.” With the Alliance victory over the Syndicate and the series moving on to another conflict, it’s a great time to start looking at what is going on with the Syndicate worlds. Thus, Tarnished Knight is the opening volume of LOST STARS, a spin-off series which runs parallel to events in the LOST FLEET series. Reading LOST FLEET first is probably a good idea because Tarnished Knight assumes you’re familiar with that background information.
Artur Drakon is a Syndicate CEO: an emotionless, driven, scheming, selfish rising star in the Syndicate firmament. People are useful commodities to him as they enhance his career and personal satisfaction. CEO Drakon is on Midway instead of back in Prime, the home system of the Syndicate, because he is not a poster-boy CEO. More so than his peers, he actually recognizes value in his subordinates. At times in the past this has made him appear to be a less than ideal CEO, and as a result he has been shunted aside.
It is important to point out that a Syndicate CEO is such a generic rank that even though Artur is actually a ground forces commander, there is no distinction between his skills and those of an office administrator. Campbell gives this some solid background support by showing how the lack of distinction between the different groups and the implied vanilla nature of the bureaucracy create a lot of unexpected problems. Soldiers’ ability to take pride in the uniform they wear and how that affects their investment in what they do, for example, is considered unimportant in the name of “efficiency.”
Gwen Iceni is the female and space navy equivalent of Artur Drakon. She plays an important role in the transit of the victorious Alliance fleet through Syndicate territory as they move to confront an emerging threat. Her previous roles as a Syndicate CEO have not met the level of performance that leads to advancement and she too has been placed on a “going nowhere” career trajectory. When she sees an opportunity to take matters into her own hands and rebel against the Syndicate government by using the local fleet assets loyal to herself to control the Midway system, she decides, with the tenuous, complex support of Artur Drakon, to roll the dice.
Tarnished Knight is as much an intellectual puzzle as it is a space adventure. The political and social aspects of overturning a centrally run government that controls its people through terror and strict regulations are truly interesting. How much freedom can people who have been ruthlessly repressed really stomach? What do you do with the “innocent” families of the members of the secret police organization after the secret police have all been killed? There are many different paths that the characters can choose and each carries second-order effects that may create even more problems.
At the core of Tarnished Knight is the relationship between two competing leaders who don’t know how to trust each other. Both Iceni and Drakon want things to change, but working together to make that happen is terrifying to each of them because the only way is to learn to trust the other. What they do know is that they are not satisfied with the Syndicate status quo and want something better. With subordinates who are only now learning that assassination is not always the first reaction to a difference of opinion with a competitor, this leaves a path to the future that’s narrow as a razor. The protagonists’ names suggest Arthurian legend, and perhaps, like their namesakes, they will bring about a better time.