I received a copy of this book in an unusual way: Chuck Gannon gave it to my First Reader and I as a wedding gift. He was apologetic about it, saying that he just didn’t have anything else with him to give us. But it is, I want him to know, the perfect symbolic gift for the two of us. We both love science fiction, reading… and we met through Baen. Back when we were both denizens of the Bar, we knew one another’s names, but not much more. It was only during the great exile and regathering of Baen’s Barflies on facebook where we started talking to one another directly, and even then it was a long time before we were more than friends. So this book made a wonderful wedding gift, thank you.
It helps, of course, that it’s a really good book. Trial by Fire is the second book in a series, but it can be read as a stand-alone. Gannon does a good job of filling his reader in on backstory without overdoing it. Our hero, Caine Riordan, is a man with a really good brain, who has been manipulated by friends in high places, and finds himself doing things he’d never dreamed of. But the motivation to succeed is high: he’s the one man who can save the human race. Now, my little summary looks melodramatic, but Gannon builds it up slowly, and Caine himself doesn’t seem to realize the gravity of his position until he’s neck deep and has no choice but to keep walking into the deep end whether he can swim or not.
If you enjoy space opera, this one will grab you. It’s more cerebral than most in the genre, but it manages this without losing great action scenes, emotional human and alien characters you will enjoy getting to know, and a nice element of suspense as you see the plot unfurling slowly in front of you like a rose – or a really big explosion. Gannon builds in his secondary characters to the mesh of the story without losing a beat – this isn’t just a story about Caine Riordan, and we see changes in more than our hero as the story goes on. Just when you think the climax is nigh, Gannon reveals another layer. This is a matryoshka doll of a story, one nested into another until you finally see the last solution, seamless.
The alien invasion in the story is very cleverly done, and very believable. As is the action taken against it. That it wasn’t the primary climax of the book succeeded in surprising me, which was delightful. As much as I read, finding surprises in plotting – not tricks, mind you, but a genuine ‘ oh, that’s clever!’ moment – is a rare pleasure.
Even then, there are tantalizing clues to more mysteries left unexplained, and enough threads to keep this story going further into a series. It’s a satisfying read, and I’m delighted with the gift of it.