This book, Fog of War by Forest Wells, hit me right in the sweet spot between ‘too compelling for me to give up on’ and ‘so frustrating I want to put it down and forget about it’. As you can likely guess, this is not going to be an easy book for me to structure my thoughts on.
Fog of War (Gold 1 Book 1) is a science fiction romp through a classic MilSF Space Navy. When the United Systems Republic is betrayed from within by remnants of the supposedly extinct Confederation of Polaris – an offshoot of early human colonization efforts – they risk a generations-long war against the antagonistic alien Marcallans turning hot, just when a ceasefire becomes possible for the first time after generations of war. Pilot Jason Harlem will have to risk his life and the lives of his dearest friends and crewmembers – a pair of fox-like alien Holdren, Yarian and Sundale – to have any chance of finding peace.
Sounds good, right? Well, I did my best not to be too reductive up there, because… sadly, it is possible to get very reductive with this book. One could dismiss it as ‘Wing Commander with magic energy-being foxes who have laser-tails’, and while that’s kinda factually accurate, it really buries what makes this book good. There is a lot that buries what makes this book good, unhappily – I don’t want to get too far into technical nitpicky craftsmanship type criticism, but it really does read in places like the only edits this book got were a quick run through a spell check. Plenty of malapropisms – surly for surely, grizzly for grisly, ally for alley – along with some writing-style choices I disagree with all conspired to kick me out of enjoying this book, repeatedly. (Although apparently there have been updates to the e-book since the copy I read for SPSFC was submitted, so you may have a smoother reading experience than I did.) This leads to an obvious question: with all of this stuff burying what makes this book good, what does make this book good?
You might ask, why, reviewer, did you not only repeatedly want to throw the book down, but repeatedly want to pick it up?
The book’s plotline and characterization work. They work frustratingly well. The pacing through both the core high-level plot – the return of a thought-extinct branch of humanity, infiltrating and seeking revenge against our protagonists’ society – and all the subplots and character-pieces run through each other with a fluidity that, for whatever reason, caught me in exactly the right way to keep me moving through this story.
I constantly expected to put it down. Maybe I was having a moment of ‘foxes with laser tails? REALLY?!’, only for Sundale (one of said foxes) to have a moment of well-earned peace and rest interrupted by the discovery that traitors are watching him and his family in a way that compelled me to find out what happened next. Maybe I was having an internal moment of ‘as a MilSF fan do I really feel like the way these people are behaving REALLY reflects a functional military?’, only for Major Jason Harlem – commander of Gold Squadron – to leap across the page with a conflicting struggle between his duties as unit commander and his desire to try and do right by his closest compadre Sundale. Should he keep Sundale on the line, or force Sundale to rest for his own well being, and that of the rest of Sundale’s pack (which Jason has been adopted into)?
So I wound up unable to put it down. I wound up battling my frustrations to read through the whole thing – straight to a satisfyingly non-cliffhangery end that sets up the next book. While I can see the benefits of a cliffhanger ending? I really appreciate novels, like this one, where the book’s narrative feels like it has a degree of completeness in itself, even if many elements of the larger plot will wait to be resolved in the future.
Can I recommend this book wholeheartedly? Not a chance. I’m way too much of a stickler, and for me, this book lacks a lot. So… let’s turn to an imaginary panel of readers.
Reader the first: Enthusiastic Everest
Everest? Everest wants momentum in a book. Speed – something that carries them from scene to scene smoothly. And on that, Fog of War delivers – the chapter-to-chapter flow always feels very relevant, there are hooks to pull you straight through this story, and they vary. Sometimes it’ll be moving along on a character’s plotline, like Yarian’s doubts that she might be suited to an independent command, viewing herself as someone who supports, and sometimes it’ll be touching back in with the traitorous Confederacy of Polaris who shadow this story from the starting Prologue right to the end. But there is always something happening, even in the few moments of quiet downtime, and that makes Everest happy.
Reader the second: Militant Mickey
Mickey’s not quite as sure, here. Militant Mickey’s the type of reader who can, and will, send in a letter to complain if a writer says that the M1911 was designed by Colt. (Colt founded the company that manufactured it, John Browning designed it.) While the book has plenty of MilSF goodness, it feels filtered through an almost comic-booky lens – lots of soldiers behaving as if they’re in an action movie. The technology is fantastical, but doesn’t feel rigorously worked out. (There are teleportation pads that seem able to send anything a reasonable distance – it’s unclear why that can’t be used to send bombs into enemy ships.) So Mickey’s not happy about that, but Mickey is absolutely on board for much of the rest of it. There’s guns, war, politics, space ships. This is Mickey’s happy low-attention read for relaxation between crunchier books.
Reader the third: Parasocial Pepper
Pepper is here to see the world through the eyes of new characters, and while Pepper isn’t so sure about foxes with laser tails, along with some other issues, there’s a hell of a lot here for them to like. Going deep into a pack mentality and the whole adoration-of-canids thing is not something Pepper does much of, but it’s an interesting place to visit once in awhile. Major Jason Harlem does have moments that feel a little too melodramatic or overblown, but there are also beautiful moments where he gets to come home for the first time in a long time, the exploration of his relationships with his wife Marcy and his adopted family of Sundale and Yarian, and encountering the alien Marcallans face to face – and finding a possibility for peace.
So. Where’s that leave us? I am genuinely unsure how a more mainstream reader will react to some elements of this book – I’m right in the middle of the furry fandom, and even I found the fox-like aliens, the Holdren, to be a little too much sometimes… but, only sometimes. And, as I’ve said repeatedly, every time something kicked me out of this book and made me want to put it down? There was also something that made me pick it back up again.
So, while it’s a shame that stylistic, craft and editorial issues will spoil Fog of War for many readers, there is still an audience out there who will appreciate it.
If you’re interested in finding out if you’re one of them, you can find out more at the author’s site – https://www.forestwells.com/fogofwar.html
This book has not yet progressed far enough through SPSFC to require scoring. If it does, I will update this with a score.
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You can find all my reviews and posts dealing with SPSFC 2023 here: https://sinisbeautiful.com/tag/spsfc3/
Disclaimer: Please be aware that I am deliberately trying to take a different perspective to my usual one while judging for SPSFC 2023. Ordinarily I have a very narrow taste profile for what I like, and as part of my writerly practice I usually engage with books by tearing them to shreds and picking through what’s left to see if I can learn anything. I don’t think that’s a helpful point of view to review/judge from, and since reviews are for readers, not for writers, I’ve tried to avoid that here. (As you can see above. Your call on whether or not I succeeded, of course.)