The second volume in a military sci-fi trilogy entitled “The Astral Saga,” Bennett R. Coles’ Ghosts of War (Titan Books) follows the typical trajectory of a well-honed trilogy. Having introduced its cast and set the grounds for conflict in the first book, Ghosts ratchets up the peril and grows grimmer – the better to hook the reader into getting into volume three.
Set in the aftermath of a successfully repelled invasion of Earth by rebellious settlers of the Centauri system, Ghosts follows three Astral Force veterans of that conflict as they struggle with their lives away from war. Of the three, the most damaged is Lieutenant Katja Emmes, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, prone to fits of explosive that get her “buried in a washed-out backwater.”
Pilot Jack Mallory, his face rebuilt after being captured and tortured, has been posted to a non-combat research ship, the Neil Armstrong, where his battle experience is ignored by those in command. Careerist Lieutenant Commander Thomas Kane, experiencing fall-out in the aftermath of what is being called a “police action,” strives to negotiate the treacherous political terrain. Though recently married into money, he still has to fend off the back-stabbing by former nav officer Charity Brisebois.
But the figure most visited by the ghosts of war is a new one: Kete Obadele, a Centauri terrorist who has imbedded himself as a Terran journalist. Having witnessed his family perish in an attack led by Katja Emmes, Obadele is driven toward exacting a far-reaching revenge against the woman he considers the Angel of Death and the planet she serves. Though we know his planned terror attack is going to be horrendous, we can also see the reason for his angry bereavement.
Where the first entry in Coles’ “Astral Saga” focused on fast-paced intergalactic warfare, the second is more deliberate and contemplative, more suspenseful as we watch our would-be terrorist insert himself into the lives of his Terrain enemies. Back on Terrain soil, we learn more about the world that Katja and her peers defend, and as we suspected it’s not all Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. Both Katja and her former commander Kane, while struggling with their own war-grown demons, have to work their way through a military culture only too willing to punish whoever it tags as the right scapegoat.
Where Ghosts works best is in examining the damaged psyches of his protagonists and antagonist (even the relatively easygoing pilot Mallory has his moments of disconnectedness) and as a futuristic suspenser. To this reader, more attuned to the tick/tock of a psychologically complex spy thriller than a noisy battle yarn, I enjoyed the shift in story focus, though I suspect the final entry in Coles’ saga will return to its action-packed format. With his three damaged veterans even more clearly delineated, I’m thinking the emotional stakes will be higher.