‘Virtues of War’ by Bennett R. Coles has been hailed by critics as “top-notch military sci-fi.” It has also won the grand prize for the Cygnus Awards from Chanticleer Book Reviews in its category. If you pick it up, you won’t be disappointed — it does live up to its cover blurbs, for the most part.
‘Virtues of War’ is the tale of four relatively low-level figures in the Terran interstellar military who become entangled in the events leading up to a civil war. The Terran, or Earth-based, military is spread across the galaxy and controls several other planets and territories. The chief conflict of the story is between the Terrans and the Cerberans, who want autonomy from an Earth-ruled government. Smugglers, conspiracies and warlords abound in the book’s list of antagonists.
While this conflict is important, the book isn’t all interstellar politics. ‘Virtues of War’ focuses more on the human story, drawing a picture of the lives of the soldiers at the center of the conflict. Coles, himself a veteran, captures an expert portrayal of military life and culture. ‘Virtues of War’ centers on the crew of Rapier, a speciality space-flight craft designed for fast, high-risk ops. The four main characters are Katja, the soldier on the cover; Thomas, her C.O.; Charity “Breeze” Brisebois, an ambitious intelligence officer; and Jack, a stealth pilot.
The first scene is action-packed, describing a mission to catch a spy. Katja’s perspective leads us into the book — but it’s very hard to like a character when one of the first things she does is murder a non-combatant in cold blood. Katja is young, inexperienced and eager to prove herself, with a demanding father back home who expects only the best. Coles first introduces a character whose hasty, brutal actions ought to turn the reader off from her completely. Then, however, the rest of the chapter — and the rest of the book — slowly transforms Katja into one of the most likeable characters in ‘Virtues of War.’ Coles shows us the person behind the uniform, explaining if not justifying Katja’s actions. Her character development and progress as a protagonist and reader avatar is very satisfying.
The other characters are flawed as well, Thomas and Breeze most noticeably so. Breeze is determined to get ahead and doesn’t want her assignment to Rapier to be a career dead-end. Thomas is conflicted between his loyalty to a distant fiance and the more present temptations of Katja, who looks up to him, and even Breeze. Jack is a nice, easy-going guy, but can be annoyingly naive. The four characters and their development are the best parts of the novel. Coles slips easily between their perspectives, and each is written with a strong, unique voice.
‘Virtues of War’ is military sci-fi, but strays into the range of “hard” sci-fi as well. “Hard” sci-fi refers to the genre of science fiction which pays close attention to making the science behind it as plausible as possible. ‘Virtues of War’ sometimes goes a little too far in-depth explaining its world, machinations, and procedures — in minute, mind-numbing detail. If you can plow through those sections, however, the story is worth it. If not, they are easily skimmable. And if you’re the kind of reader who takes special joy in long descriptions of things like stealth spacecraft calibrations — a process that even the stealth pilot himself admits is boring — there will be plenty for you to read.
‘Virtues of War’ is the first in a trilogy. Readers will find it engaging, imaginative in scope, and perhaps even relevant.