Simon Parkinson asked me to review his novel "Predation" and I've spent the last two weeks or so reading it. It's a hard science fiction space opera that pits the human Federation Space Fleet Nine against the lizard-like Drakk'Har Alliance on the planet Mindon-2. I had difficulty rating this book because its strengths and weaknesses are the same things. What follows is the pro and con of World Building, Characters, and Plot and how I both liked and disliked all three.
World Building: Pro
I've said it once and I'll say it again; I love world building. Creating a fictional reality that the reader can immerse themselves in requires thought and detail and research. No one can accuss Mr. Parkinson of not including those in his story. He will explain how the ships work, the support system behind the military, the reasoning for the weapons, the enviorment in full sensory detail, etc. I particularly enjoyed the Drakk'Har society from a anthropolgic point of view. While other stories have some Always Chaotic Evil race that everyone acknowledges as such with nothing more to it, Mr. Parkinson addresses this view point in Geneva Convention level detail.
World Building: Con
There is a reason why tropes such as Techno Babble and It Runs On Nonsensoleum exist: the author wants to get to the meat of the plot without dragging down the plot. Most of "Predation" is mechanics and protocol and other things delivered via Omniscient Narration. A space battle is interrupted so Mr.Parkinson can give a several page history of the human's development of hyperspace technology and why ships must travel to the edge of solar systems before using it. While the point of the lecture is relevant to the event it interrupts, it didn't have to be so long and frankly it sounds arrogant because it calls a number of real life theories wrong and posists its own. If it were my novel I would have put it at the back of the book in a 'notes' section.
"Predation" has a ensemble cast; there is no main character. On TvTropes we call these kinds of characters 'mauve shirts' because they have enough characterization to avoid a meaningless death in the name of action and instead receive a meaningful death in the name of tragedy.
Despite being mauve shirts, the humans of the Fredation have enough sustanance to stand on their own. Jefferson, for instance, is a sneaky soldier, a calm sniper and also a prankster. Compared to other characters, she gets enough screen time to be a 'semi-main character'. She, alongside Perkins, is my favorite character.
Also, because of the ensemble nature, Mr. Parkinson can move to all areas of Space Fleet Nine. There are scenes with the Marshal on the command deck, with squad/platoon officiers talking to the men under their responsibility, with the engineers in the landing bay, with the field commanders in their special moving HQ, and with Special Forces doing their intel thing. In this way, Space Fleet Nine itself becomes a composite character.
Like I said earlier, I liked learning about the Drakk'Har culture. The ritualized arrogance, differences in living, and other culturel nodes were more interesting than the humans and their stoic protocols.
Because they are mauve shirts it's hard to get attached to characters and if one doesn't care about the characters than one doesn't care about what happens too them i.e. the plot. A ship crash that doomed a couple guys is a downer but with the focus spread over the entire fleet the effect is minimized vs a decoy main character. In a sense they're like chess pieces; one does not mourn a pawn unless its loss endangers the rest. I didn't have any big concern during the battles unless a handful of characters, like Jefferson for instance, were involved and even she took one hundred pages or so to get to that point.
While the Drakk'Har culture is interesting, its characters are not. They are so similar (because of their Always Chaotic Evil nature) that they bleed together. The only way I could tell them apart was by their rank. Grunts did not have names or roles; they're mooks. More importantly, their culture as a whole is so steeped in treachery I couldn't believe they worked together long enough to create a galaxy spanning empire and if they could, why it didn't implode in on itself.
Space Fleet Nine's mission is laid out near the start: a clear and straight forward military expedition. I apperciate that Mr.Parkinson didn't include any intrigue or late game twist in accordance with the Unspoken Plan Guarante; that would have made the book dreadful. The humans go there, have some excitement along the way, and then implement the plan as described at the start of the book. The plot picks up here because the action starts up and there is little exposition left. Indeed, the second half of the book is much better than the first. The plot focuses on Hill 170 so the characters there get more focus and by now have coalest into engaging characters. When he's not explaining the Hawking Zone, Mr. Parkinson can write a suspensful battle. Ch.22 "Swarm" is amazing in this regard. Most important of all, the initial conflict is resolved. There is no cliff hanger. The war goes on but this particular mission is resolved.
Two major problems: 1.) exposition and 2.) Suspension of Disbelief.
From the time Space Fleet Nine enters the Mindon system to their arrival at Mindon-2 the plot is bogged down in exposition and protocols and general minutia of military life. This is addressed with the phrase "hurry up and wait" and the saying that military life is 'hours of boredom separated by seconds of intense fear' but I don't want to read about bored soldiers. Unless it's a comedy but that's another issue.
As I said in 'Characters Con' the Drakk'Har spend more time and energy scheming against each other than fighting the humans. Whenever they encounter humans they are defeated or outwitted. It was hard for me to believe that the humans had been fighting a lossing war for the last three years because of this. While it is to some extent justified by the humans not knowing exactly how to fight them (for instance, they didn't know the Drakk'Har grew their ships in giant tubes instead of building in factories and so their early raids did little damage to the Drakk'Har war machine) I expected something more for such an important target. This breaks my suspension of disbelief which cheapens the human victory and denigrades the plot as a whole.
Without a doubt Mr.Parkinson gets an A for effort but an overall score is more difficult. For the problems listed above I'm tempted to give it a D but for the successes listed above I'm tempted to give it a B. I'll settle in the middle.
Trickster Eric Novels gives "Predation" a C+
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