Review: The Exiled Fleet, by J.S. Dewes

Russ Allbery eagle at eyrie.org
Sun Nov 19 19:53:06 PST 2023


The Exiled Fleet
by J.S. Dewes

Series:    Divide #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
ISBN:      1-250-23635-5
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     421

The Exiled Fleet is far-future interstellar military SF. It is a direct
sequel to The Last Watch. You don't want to start here.

The Last Watch took a while to get going, but it ended with some
fascinating world-building and a suitably enormous threat. I was hoping
Dewes would carry that momentum into the second book. I was
disappointed; instead, The Exiled Fleet starts with interpersonal angst
and wallowing and takes an annoyingly long time to build up narrative
tension again.

The world-building of the first book looked outward, towards aliens and
strange technology and stranger physics, while setting up contributing
problems on the home front. The Exiled Fleet pivots inwards, both in
terms of world-building and in terms of character introspection.
Neither of those worked as well for me.

There's nothing wrong with the revelations here about human power
structures and the politics that the Sentinels have been missing at the
edge of space, but it also felt like a classic human autocracy without
much new to offer in either wee thinky bits or plot structure. We knew
most of shape from the start of the first book: Cavalon's grandfather
is evil, human society is run as an oligarchy, and everything is
trending authoritarian. Once the action started, I was entertained but
not gripped the way that I was when reading The Last Watch. Dewes makes
a brief attempt to tap into the morally complex question of the
military serving as a brake on tyranny, but then does very little with
it. Instead, everything is excessively personal, turning the political
into less of a confrontation of ideologies or ethics and more a story
of family abuse and rebellion.

There is even more psychodrama in this book than there was in the
previous book. I found it exhausting. Rake is barely functional after
the events of the previous book and pushing herself way too hard at the
start of this one. Cavalon regresses considerably and starts falling
apart again. There's a lot of moping, a lot of angst, and a lot of
characters berating themselves and occasionally each other. It was
annoying enough that I took a couple of weeks break from this book in
the middle before I could work up the enthusiasm to finish it.

Some of this is personal preference. My favorite type of story is
competence porn: details about something esoteric and satisfyingly
complex, a challenge to overcome, and a main character who deploys
their expertise to overcome that challenge in a way that shows they
generally have their shit together. I can enjoy other types of stories,
but that's the story I'll keep reaching for.

Other people prefer stories about fuck-ups and walking disasters,
people who barely pull together enough to survive the plot (or
sometimes not even that). There's nothing wrong with that, and neither
approach is right or wrong, but my tolerance for that story is usually
lot lower. I think Dewes is heading towards the type of story in which
dysfunctional characters compensate for each other's flaws in order to
keep each other going, and intellectually I can see the appeal. But
it's not my thing, and when the main characters are falling apart and
the supporting characters project considerably more competence, I wish
the story had different protagonists.

It didn't help that this is in theory military SF, but Dewes does not
seem to want to deploy any of the support framework of the military to
address any of her characters' problems. This book is a lot of Rake and
Cavalon dragging each other through emotional turmoil while coming to
terms with Cavalon's family. I liked their dynamic in the first book
when it felt more like Rake showing leadership skills. Here, it turns
into something closer to found family in ways that seemed wildly
inconsistent with the military structure, and while I'm normally not
one to defend hierarchical discipline, I felt like Rake threw out the
only structure she had to handle the thousands of other people under
her command and started winging it based on personal friendship. If
this were a small commercial crew, sure, fine, but Rake has a personal
command responsibility that she obsessively angsts about and yet keeps
abandoning.

I realize this is probably another way to complain that I wanted
competence porn and got barely-functional fuck-ups.

The best parts of this series are the strange technologies and the
aliens, and they are again the best part of this book. There was a
truly great moment involving Viator technology that I found utterly
delightful, and there was an intriguing setup for future books that
caught my attention. Unfortunately, there were also a lot of deus ex
machina solutions to problems, both from convenient undisclosed
character backstories and from alien tech. I felt like the characters
had to work satisfyingly hard for their victories in the first book;
here, I felt like Dewes kept having issues with her characters being at
point A and her plot at point B and pulling some rabbit out of the hat
to make the plot work. This unfortunately undermined the cool factor of
the world-building by making its plot device aspects a bit too obvious.

This series also turns out not to be a duology (I have no idea why I
thought it would be). By the end of The Exiled Fleet, none of the major
political or world-building problems have been resolved. At best, the
characters are in a more stable space to start being proactive. I'm
cautiously optimistic that could mean the series would turn into the
type of story I was hoping for, but I'm worried that Dewes is
interested in writing a different type of character story than I am
interested in reading. Hopefully there will be some clues in the
synopsis of the (as yet unannounced) third book.

I thought The Last Watch had some first-novel problems but was worth
reading. I am much more reluctant to recommend The Exiled Fleet, or the
series as a whole given that it is incomplete. Unless you like
dysfunctional characters, proceed with caution.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-11-19

URL: https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/reviews/books/1-250-23635-5.html

-- 
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org)             <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>


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