I want to start out by saying how absolutely terrible I feel about how long it took me to finish this book. According to Goodreads, I started it February 24, which actually wasn't as long ago as I feared. It really WAS excellent, and the last 30% or so really flew by because I was actually able to devote a proper amount of focus to it.
I had never heard of this series or even of Joel Shepherd until some friends recommended this book. I read the blurb and was immediately hooked by the whole on-the-run-after-being-framed-for-murder thing. I downloaded it and then it gathered dust on my Kindle for a couple of months before I decided I should go ahead and read it or I'd never get it done.
I'm really glad I did.
I can't really explain it, but there was something about the characters that had be absolutely hooked from the beginning. Nothing was really even happening, aside from establishing the setting and backstory, but they somehow still seemed totally real and I was very drawn to them. A lot of other reviews for this book have mentioned the characters as well. And despite the (very) large cast, there are still only 3 POV characters -- one of which has significantly fewer scenes than the other two -- so you don't feel totally overwhelmed. We have Erik Debogande, lieutenant commander of the battle ship Phoenix, Major Trace Thakur, leader of the marine company aboard Phoenix, and Erik's sister Lisbeth, an engineering student who gets caught up in the action when Erik and Trace are on the run with Phoenix after Erik is framed for the murder of their captain. Despite the fact that these characters are interacting regularly, the military man, the warrior, and the civilian all have very differing perspectives and I thought that made for a great dynamic. The racial diversity among all the characters was interesting and really well done too.
While not combat trained, Erik can still hold his own in the chaos. He's determined and intelligent, and his skills as a pilot are unmatched. His growth throughout the book was great too; he started out as a reluctant subordinate and ended up really embracing his role, transforming into a fearless leader by the end. The banter and interactions between him and Trace was great and had me laughing out loud on a couple of occasions. Trace is a freakin' badass and has definitely found herself on my list of Favorite Female Characters. Despite the fact that she's kind of an indestructible super soldier, she still has very human moments throughout the book that make her believable. I absolutely loved the interactions between her and the rest of her marines; the camaraderie and respect among them was SO well done. Between her combat skills and her relationships with her soldiers, she's my Commander-Shepard-headcanon incarnate. Next time I play Mass Effect, I'm totally making a Shep based on her.
Lisbeth and the rest of the Phoenix crew are a little harder to discuss just because they weren't in the spotlight as often and therefore weren't as developed. I admit to having trouble keeping track of all the different marines (a dramatis personae for this book would be great!), but names definitely became familiar enough that I felt like I sort of knew the people. That made for fun reading.
Speaking of fun reading, here are just a few of my favorite passages. Some of the wording absolutely cracked me up! (click for larger view)
And speaking of Mass Effect, I loved all the ME vibes I was getting from the galactic structure and political history in this story. There are numerous alien species, some of which are allies to humans, some of which are allies to each other, some of which are enemies to all, and...some of which were thought to be extinct. The combat, both in space and on the ground, is really well-written, and although there's a lot of it, it doesn't get old. The fight scenes are lengthy and thorough without being repetitive, which is something I've always struggled with as a writer.
As the Phoenix crew evade their pursuers and fight for survival, they discover clues that hint at cover-ups and conspiracies involving those at the very top of the (human) galactic government. While this book had a reasonably happy ending, the real battle is just beginning, and I'm definitely picking up book 2.