This novel caught my interest from the very first pages and didn’t let it go until I’d read the final word. Colonel Carl Butler is getting ready to retire when his old friend and the second most powerful general in his branch of the military asks him to travel to the planet, Cappa, halfway across the galaxy to investigate the disappearance of an important politician’s son. It actually seems like a pretty straight forward assignment except that at, Cappa, no one will cooperate with him. The young man disappeared from the shuttle taking his injured body from the battlefield to the space station hospital. The hospital claims he never arrived. The shuttle pilots are now dead. And all the records that might trace what happened have disappeared—and all of that is BEFORE the mystery gets complicated.
This is both a great story and a great mystery. Carl Butler is a superb character—an old colonel with a heroic past he won’t discuss and very little in the way of diplomatic skills. He’s a bulldog who won’t stop once he has a mission and yet he also has a peculiar sense of honor and duty that becomes very important to the resolution of the case.
Mammay plays fair with the reader throughout this book. I don’t say that just because I figured out the core of the mystery halfway through the novel. There are plenty of clues, many of them coming in the middle of shocking surprises. The ending was powerful, made total sense, and yet, I didn’t see it coming. Anyone who likes a good mystery will enjoy this novel.
Finally, narrator R.C. Bray, really enhances an already superb novel with his spot-on depiction of Butler’s voice—a totally credible aging colonel who lacks patience for most of the BS happening around him.
Poor Man's Fight
Poor Man's Fight by Elliot Kay
This is the first novel in what promises to be another great series by Elliot Kay. This story has everything you need in military science fiction—great action and memorable characters. It also has the extras that take a book from being fun to great—convincing politics, really rotten bad guys, and a setting that helps build the credibility of the storyline rather than burning it away. Let me start with the setting.
The key to understanding Kay’s future society is debt. The major interstellar corporations have succeeded in basically taking over human space by corrupting politicians and effectively tricking the population into enslaving themselves through various kinds of debt. It starts when children are actually children being charged for their education and continues throughout their lives with a thousand tricks to keep the debt rising no matter how hard people work to pay it off. And if that isn’t bad enough, the whole system is secretly rigged to make certain that nobody can actually get out from under the corporate thumb and take control of their own lives.
Enter the solar system of Archangel—ninth largest economy in the Union—whose newly elected leaders have constructed a very dangerous plan to free their people from what is effectively debt slavery. This ongoing effort will probably be the primary focus of the entire series, but it’s just getting ratcheted up in this first book. It’s driving the action, but it’s mostly behind the scenes making you wonder which of the many bad things that are happening to and around Archangel are really the result of nefarious corporate efforts to stop Archangel from freeing itself and its citizens.
While all of that is happening in the backdrop, Kay spends most of his energy focusing on Tanner Malone. He’s an incredibly bright kid who gets shafted by his parents and the system and ends up tanking on the all-important Test that determines how much money each student owes as he graduates high school. Feeling he is out of options, Tanner joins the navy as a way to start paying down his debt and getting some help with college. The early portion of the novel is a boot camp story that was surprisingly interesting despite the fact that I’ve probably read a couple of hundred other boot camp stories over the years. It’s entertaining and really helps us get into Tanner’s head. The young man really isn’t fit for the military because he really hates the idea of hurting other people. He’s not a pacifist, but he’s really too nice for his own good. Helping him come to the point where he understands on an emotional level why militaries sometimes have to hurt people is a great set up for the crises he faces in the rest of the book.
I don’t want to put any spoilers into this review, but I will say that the crises—especially the final one—are exceedingly well done. Tanner accomplishes things that should have had me turning off my book and saying—no, that’s too much—and yet I really didn’t have any problem believing anything that happened. That not only requires great writing, it demands superb characterization. Something that has always been a strength of Kay’s novels.
The final thing I want to say about this book is that the epilogue-like ending is a terrific set up for the next novel. I can’t wait to see where Kay is going to take this one.
Rich Man's War by Elliot Kay
The system of Archangel is in dire straits at the start of Rich Man’s War as three major interstellar corporations twist the screws on its government after a spectacular series of security failures led Archangel to suspend both its security contracts with the corporations and suspend its debt payments to them. We the reader know that Archangel covertly arranged those spectacular security failures in the last book. For their part, the corporations only know that the game is supposed to be rigged in their favor and that they cannot afford to let Archangel get away with rewriting the rules or else other governments within the Union may try and do the same. They must do everything possible to keep that from happening including using their tremendous influence to stop other companies from dealing with Archangel and attacking the government through its citizens by jacking up the interest rates on already incurred private debt. They also try and embarrass and hurt Archangel by taking covert military action against them in other areas of the Union.
As the tensions continue to increase, we return to the POV of Tanner Malone who is trying to come to grips with his fame and to hold on to his decision to serve out his term and return to private life. Unfortunately, his commanding officers understand what kind of a man they have serving under them and keep putting him into troubled areas where his unique combination of qualities might prove the most useful. This works very well as we see Tanner pulled into another fantastically depicted military action.
We also get to see more of life for a normal enlisted man in the Archangel navy. Tanner finally gets to go to school, this time to become a military policeman, finishing his training just in time to be involved in the defense of the system against a major corporate fleet which should crush Archangel like a tiny bug on the tarmac. The corporations are convinced they are using overwhelming force, but Kay has permitted the Archangel navy brass to construct a truly clever (if far fetched) counter plan. It requires a little conscious suspension of disbelief, but if you give it that little bit of extra leeway, the action (as in the first novel) is absolutely superb right to the end of the novel.
Yet action alone does not make a great sf novel and once again Kay comes through with superb characterization. Tanner with his regrets and grudging acceptance of the role he has to play in the military crisis is totally credible, but once again it is the secondary cast—recurring and new—that really make this book so wonderful. They’re real people—many of whom you’d want as friends. There are also a couple of really great enemies—including the pirate from the first novel—who manage to be both cool and despicable at the same time.
A lot of times sequels are weaker than the first book, but not in this
case. Kay has delivered a worthy follow up to Poor Man’s Fight and I’m looking
forward to reading book 3.
Dead Man’s Debt by Elliot Kay
The third book in the Poor Man’s Fight series could have been the closing book of a trilogy. It wraps up all of the important storylines and even gives Tanner his chance to bring the pirate, Casey, to justice. It’s a good novel, but not quite up to the quality of the first two books in the series.
Despite all of the politics and the space battles, this series has always been principally the story of Tanner Malone, a book smart and extremely ethical young man who keeps finding himself in the proverbial fire having to take on extraordinary odds to save the day. Tanner is extremely likeable, keeping a tight rein on his temper—most of the time. This third novel shows what the wear and tear of too much warfare will do to that temper and the lengths to which a very smart young man will go to find out if his nation’s enemies are the only bad guys in this fight.
Tanner doesn’t always make good decisions, but it’s really hard not to respect his choices—especially when he knows what sort of penalties he will have to pay to remain true to himself and his ethical code. I’m glad to see that he will be a major player in the fifth book of this series and I’m hoping he gets some significant screen time in the fourth.I guess I’ll have to keep reading to find out.
No Medals for Secret by Elliot Kay
The fourth book in the Poor Man’s Fight series recounts a side story left over from the war between Archangel and the big Corporations told in the first three books. References to things that happened as a result of this novel appear in the third book of the series. It follows one of the secret missions that Corporal Alicia Wong was drawn into and gives us our first look at two of the extraterrestrial species in Kay’s universe.
Like much of the series an important theme of the books is ethical—what is the correct use of force even in a war. What are the correct rules of engagement in a covert operation with huge implications for the future of Archangel? Kay handles these questions quite well and makes them meaningful with real consequences for the decisions of his characters.
I found this book a little bit slower moving than the first two in the series. Perhaps I was just disappointed that we had gone back in time to tell another story of the war when I was ready to look at the consequences of the fighting for our characters. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good story and it gives us further insight into some of the important members of the supporting cast of the first three books.
The latest novel in the Poor Man’s Fight series finally brings us past the Debtor’s War and into a whole new galaxy of troubles. Tanner Malone has become one of the most hated men in the galaxy thanks to the propaganda machine of the Northstar Corporation which has succeeded in twisting his heroic deeds against them into the actions of a blood thirsty war criminal in the eyes of much of the Union. Fresh out of the military, Tanner is trying to get his life started again by finally heading to college, but he discovers that many of his fellow classmates are more interested in protesting his presence than in learning anything approaching the truth about what actually happened. To make matters worse, many who lost a lot of money because of the war have decided that killing Tanner would give them no small manner of satisfaction.
With his life in danger and apparently going nowhere, Tanner gets an opportunity to join a xenoarchaelogical dig which would get him away from campus for a semester and earn him tons of college credits. He agrees and in so doing gets himself firmly entrenched in a mystery involving another greedy corporation, colonial insurgents, and an alien technology from a race that died off five hundred years before.
This is the most complicated of the books so far with plots and subplots
galore, but ultimately, like all the others it’s a wild ride with the kind of
action that makes this series stand out from so many others. By the end of the
novel, the galaxy of Poor Man’s Fight has gotten a lot wider. I can’t wait to
see where Kay plans to take the series next.