Review: The Last Watch, by J.S. Dewes
eagle at eyrie.org
Tue Oct 3 20:32:21 PDT 2023
The Last Watch
by J.S. Dewes
Series: Divide #1
The Last Watch is the first book of a far-future science fiction
duology. It was J.S. Dewes's first novel.
The station of the SCS Argus is the literal edge of the universe: the
Divide, beyond which there is nothing. Not simply an absence of stars,
but a nothing from a deeper level of physics. The Argus is there to
guard against a return of the Viators, the technologically superior
alien race that nearly conquered humanity hundreds of years prior and
has already returned once, apparently traveling along the Divide.
Humanity believes the Viators have been wiped out, but they're not
It is not a sought-after assignment.
The Sentinels are the dregs of the military: convicts, troublemakers,
and misfits, banished to the literal edge of nowhere. Joining them at
the start of this book is the merchant prince, cocky asshole, and
exiled sabateur Cavalon Mercer. He doesn't know what to expect from
either military service or service on the edge of the universe. He
certainly did not expect the Argus to be commanded by Adequin Rake, a
literal war hero and a far more effective leader than this post would
seem to warrant.
There are reasons why Rake is out on the edge of the universe, ones
that she's not eager to talk about. They quickly become an afterthought
when the Argus discovers that the Divide is approaching their position.
The universe is collapsing, and the only people who know about it are
people the System Collective would prefer to forget exist.
Yes, the edge of the universe, not the edge of the galaxy. Yes, despite
having two FTL mechanisms, this book has a scale problem that it never
reconciles. And yes, the physics do not really make sense, although
this is not the sort of book that tries to explain the science. The
characters are too busy trying to survive to develop new foundational
theories of physics.
I was looking for more good military SF after enjoying Artifact Space
so much (and still eagerly awaiting the sequel), so I picked this up.
It has some of the same elements: the military as a place where you can
make a fresh start with found family elements, the equalizing effects
of military assignments, and the merits of good leadership. They're a
bit disguised here, since this is a crew of often-hostile misfits under
a lot of stress with a partly checked-out captain, but they do surface
towards the end of the book.
The strength of this book is the mystery of the contracting universe,
which poses both an immediate threat to the ship and a longer-term
potential threat to, well, everything. The first part of the book
builds tension with the immediate threat, but the story comes into its
own when the crew starts piecing together the connections between the
Viators and the Divide while jury-rigging technology and making risky
choices between a lot of bad options. This is the first half of a
duology, so the mysteries are not resolved here, but they do reach a
satisfying and tantalizing intermediate conclusion.
The writing is servicable and adequate, but it's a bit clunky in
places. Dewes doesn't quite have the balance right between setting the
emotional stakes and not letting the characters indulge in rumination.
Rake is a good captain who is worn down and partly checked out, Mercer
is scared and hiding it with arrogance and will do well when given the
right sort of attention, and all of this is reasonably obvious early on
and didn't need as many of the book's pages as it gets. I could have
done without the romantic subplot, which I thought was an unnecessary
distraction from the plot and turned into a lot of tedious angst, but I
suspect I was not the target audience. (Writers, please remember that
people can still care about each other and be highly motivated by fear
for each other without being romantic partners.)
I would not call this a great book. The characters are not going to
surprise you that much, and it's a bit long for the amount of plot that
it delivers. If you are the sort of person who nit-picks the physics of
SF novels and gets annoyed at writers who don't understand how big the
universe is, you will have to take a deep breath and hold on to your
suspension of disbelief. But Dewes does a good job with ratcheting up
the tension and conveying an atmosphere of mysterious things happening
at the edge of nowhere, while still keeping it in the genre of
mysterious technology and mind-boggingly huge physical phenomena rather
than space horror. If you've been looking for that sort of book, this
will do. I was hooked and will definitely read the sequel.
Followed by The Exiled Fleet.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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