I’m a big fan of Meluch’s novel War Birds, but other books I’ve tried by her were pretty much disappointing. The earlier Jerusalem Fire because the characters annoyed me to no end and the Tour of the Merrimack books because they showed a writer who had replaced the complexity of plot and characterization of her earlier novels with simplistic and dumbed-down notions of the same. Entertaining in a way, but utterly without ambition nor substance.
The Queen’s Squadron on the other hand showed that Meluch’s War Birds wasn’t just a one-hit-wonder. The background is odd, with a race of immortals establishing a space empire far off from Earth once humanity has discovered space flight and gone to the stars. The various groups fighting each other seems to originate on the same planet (two nations of free mortals and the immortals) and yet various other worlds (connected by wormhole-gates) are colonized and Earth is still around, though playing not much of a role.
The immortals have the tactical advantage, because they have true FTL-drives and aren’t depend on the gate. Their disadvantage is their age and their believe that they are unassailable.
It’s told mostly from two viewpoints and Meluch manages to give both characters a different style. The male character reminded me both in outlook and writing style of Garrett from Glen Cook’s Garrett, P.I. series, the other is a female immortal who has gone native among her own people’s military to abandon her former live.
I didn’t mention Glen Cook’s writing just for the character similarities. A core value of his entire output is that whoever you are, however mighty, nobody can plan for everything and bad luck can fuck up the best of plans. And that outlook, that no plan survives contact with reality, that nobody can ever really control the outcome of any scheme, is at the heart of Meluch’s novel. Things happen, very often horrible things, and the characters either survive them or don’t, but control is rarely in the hands of anyone and even those who think they have it, loose it when it counts the most.
There are few scenes that make for pretty uncomfortable reading, the torture scenes halfway in were pretty graphic and the whole follow-up with a Stockholm effect by one survivor a bit too neatly and flippant written to not feel disturbing. Still, it’s a hell of novel in many ways, marrying complex characterization to an interesting, slightly hard SF setting and a space opera plot that feels realistic enough with all the political shenanigans and yet with enough action to also satisfy those aspects. It’s as best as any other space opera I’ve read for some time and it’s levels above any of the stuff Meluch has written as part of the Merrimack series.