The Alliance has been fighting the Syndics for a century—and losing badly. Now its fleet is crippled and stranded in enemy territory. Their only hope is a man who's emerged from a century-long hibernation to find he has been heroically idealized, beyond belief...
Captain John "Black Jack" Geary's legendary exploits are known to every schoolchild. Revered for his heroic "last stand" in the early days of the war, he was presumed dead. But a century later, Geary miraculously returns from survival hibernation and reluctantly takes command of the Alliance fleet as it faces annihilation by the Syndics.
Appalled by the hero-worship around him, Geary is nevertheless a man who will do his duty. And he knows that bringing the stolen Syndic hypernet key safely home is the Alliance's one chance to win the war. But to do that, Geary will have to live up to the impossibly heroic "Black Jack" legend.
This book got off to an awkward start for me. We're introduced to Geary shortly before he's ordered to take command of the Alliance fleet. First impression: cranky and in serious need of a chill pill. After we're finally given some backstory, we learn why he's so irritable. He eventually learns how to deal with his situation, so between the two, he grew on me as the book went along. But I can't help but feel that that initial awkwardness could've been avoided if Campbell had written a prologue that depicted the "heroic last stand" attributed to Geary or the scene where they revive him from stasis with his mind clouded by confusion over memories of the battle and waking up a century later. I think either scene would've generated immediate sympathy for Geary rather than this standoffish behavior.
Jack Campbell is the nom de plume of John G. Hemry, a retired Naval officer. Given his experience, the manuscript has an air of authenticity when it comes to the interactions between the characters. Hemry lived the life; it's second nature to him. So while the story takes place centuries from now, the way Hemry handles navy culture makes the story all the more relatable.
The story is told entirely from Geary's POV, but the narrative is in third-person so Geary can't hide his feelings or motivations from the reader. He struggles with returning military discipline to a fleet full of would be heroes, a trend that he inadvertently helped to create. While other characters might accuse him of duplicity, we know that isn't the case. Speaking of other characters, the two other characters that interact the most with Geary are Captain Tanya Desjani, who commands the Dauntless, and Victoria Rione, Co-President of the Callas Republic, a key Alliance ally. Both of them believe in the legend of Black Jack Geary, but interpret it differently. As "ancestor worship" has become the de facto religion among humans, having a legend seemingly return from the dead is seen by a blessing by some and a curse by others. Desjani hopes that it means Geary will lead the fleet home, but she doesn't fawn all over him like a schoolgirl with a crush. Rione shares the same hopes, but she worries that the legend will overtake the man and fuel an ambition for political power.
I'm going to speculate a bit here since I can't find the answer on the internet. Geary is shocked to learn that the Alliance navy has grown distant from the values and traditions that were held in high regard back in his day. Some things are merely surprising (hardly anyone salutes); others are downright shocking to him. The rules of war seem to have largely been abandoned. In particular, the way the Alliance treats POWs disgusts him. This book was first published in 2006. Given how long it takes for a novel to make it to market, I wouldn't be surprised if Hemry started writing this element into the story after learning about the Bush administration's use of waterboarding as an "enhanced interrogation" technique. I can't imagine that John McCain was the only veteran to be sickened by that. I don't know Hemry, but if Geary's values are in any way a reflection of his, then I have to think that those revelations played a part in this story.
Overall I found it an enjoyable story, even if the dialogue was a little stiff at times and the relativistic physics lessons were repetitive. Geary was a clever character put into a difficult situation with problems to solve and relationships to juggle. I can see why the series has been so successful and continue with it.