Trial by Fire is the second book in a series by Charles Gannon. It is a good book in many ways and worthy of being read, but readers who do not read its predecessor (Fire with Fire) will get very very confused, In fact I reread Fire with Fire after about a chapter or two of this book because I realized that I couldn’t remember enough of the environment and what had gone before to make sense of it. And I will say that reading Fire with Fire on its own, when I did so some time back, was frustrating because while there is some closure, it is very clear that many things remain to be tidied up in this book.
Getting that bad bit out of the way, why should you read this book? The world-building is good and the author knows his craft: Characters are generally three dimensional and sympathetic, the plotting is excellent and there are spots where you want to keep reading despite it being midnight and you have stuff to do the next day. Oh and if there is a message in it, I’m not sure what it is, except possibly a warning to think about whether extra-terrestrial life is necessarily friendly or indeed necessarily anything other than alien. Finally reading the two books together makes for a highly satisfying read. Almost all the mysteries and apparently unnecessary side-plots of book 1 get cleaned up in book two so there is good closure, yet there are still plenty of options for more books to be written.
When you have alien contact novels typically there are three basic scenarios:
- Aliens are massively more powerful than humans, at least to start with
- Aliens are roughly as powerful as humans with similar technological development
- Aliens are far less powerful than humans
Type 1 is your typical alien invasion tale (e.g. Independence Day), Type 3 is many episodes of Star Trek. Type 2 (sometimes with a lean towards type 1) is where it gets interesting because that’s where you find the author having to come up with convincing aliens that are better than humans in some ways and worse than humans in others. In these stories the challenge is having alien races that are alien enough that they aren’t humans in a rubber suit but yet are sufficiently understandable to the human reader.
This story is solidly in the type 2 (lean to 1) category, in some ways it is reminiscent of Ringo’s Live Free or Die series, at least as far as the background goes, but there are plenty of differences. As with LFD we have a couple of alien races who are significantly more advanced technologically than humanity and some others that appear to be on a similar level if not slightly below. And as with LFD humans are allying with the race that is mostly the most technologically advanced but which is also being challenged by one of the other races. Unlike LFD though in this tale we have humans who are keen to be quislings and aliens who have reasons to fear humans that don’t seem to make total sense based on humanity’s known history.
In the previous book the joy of the book were the first contacts with aliens and the discussions and preparations from them. In this book that novelty rather goes away as humanity is in a fight against some of the aliens. However we do get some nice views of humanity from the viewpoint of aliens. Unfortunately though, this is perhaps the weakest part of the book. Some of the author’s aliens seemed more like stereotypes of specific human traits/types than totally believably alien and it was hard to see how one race would have achieved space flight at all on its own, given the behavior of its leaders in this book. Still all the aliens had depths and were individuals with their own motivations and thoughts. The aliens behave in ways that are, well, alien, but yet are ways that are mostly comprehensible. This seems to be pretty much true to what one might expect. So even if there are some small holes in the back story there is no point where you are pulled out of the story by something, and indeed I’d say that I only really thought about the back story and its holes after finishing the story and starting the review. The action driven plot helps you ignore these minor issues because you still need to know “what happens next”.
So, in conclusion, would this book be a suitable nebula award winner? yes. It is perfect? no, but it is a positive story with great characters and lots of imagination Sadly one suspects that the action packed plot means that it won’t win, because to a certain subset of the speculative fiction world, positive messages and imagination are actually not what they want in a book.