The first book in what appears to be a planned trilogy called “The Astral Saga,” Bennett R. Coles’ Virtues of War (Titan Books) is a hard-bolted, cynical take on intergalactic warfare. Told from the P.o.V. of Terran soldiers – Lt. Katja Emmes, the ops officer of battle ship Rapier; Lt. Commander Thomas Kane, Rapier’s careerist c.o.; Lt. Charity Brisebois, the ship’s manipulative nav officer; and Sublieutenant, Jack Mallory, the open-faced pilot of a small anti-stealth warfare craft – Virtues takes place in a future where Earth has colonized planets light years away in the Centauri system, and these colonies have begun to make a move toward breaking away from their mother world. The book opens with Lieutenant Emmes leading a strike force onto the colony of Cerberus, investigating arms smuggling activities between the colonies. This mission quickly turns violent, and though Katja’s captured prisoner doesn’t survive, it is instantly clear that reports of an incipient rebellion are true.
Coles divides his focus between his outer space conflict and internecine power struggles within the Rapier’s crew. If Katja appears determined to prove herself to a military father who has nothing but scorn for the service path she’s taken, both Kane and Brisebois are so driven by their desire to climb the ranks that at times the actual battles seem a distraction. Of the four, the only character to stay most connected to the fight outside is the pilot Mallory, so naturally he’s the one who gets most bruised and beaten.
As a former military man himself, Coles has the ability to recreate a convincingly dangerous battle scene. The book climaxes with a long strategic battle between the Rapier and rebel forces outside the jump gates that allow ships to pass through “spacetime” (and thus make intergalactic travel possible). If the hard science explanations occasionally grow more techno-babbly than this reader would prefer, Coles is generally able to pull you back on the strength of his characterization, which is tough-minded and distinctive. He isn’t afraid to make each of his characters unlikable at one point or another; war may have its “virtues,” but it isn’t about likeability, after all.
At times, while reading the book, I found myself thinking back to the American Revolution, and with that as a marker, our Terran soldiers would be the equivalent to the British. When we actually get face to face with members of the resistance, though, they prove to be an unpleasant lot, terrorists more than freedom fighters – which, of course, adds a more contemporary aspect to Coles’ story. As Virtues progresses, we see Katja, who commits an appalling act of war in the opening pages, grow more aware of the nature of the hard path she’s chosen. As a mark of Coles’ storytelling strength, I found myself wondering how each of his fallible figures will be changed by their war experience.