A space opera for younger readers, which is eminently readable, Dawn is the answer to the question nobody cared to ask: How would a John Scalzi book look without all the edginess and curse words? The end result is a fast-paced militaristic science fiction without much logic, but plenty of endearing anachronisms, likable characters and a few surprisingly deep insights.
The story takes place in a not-too-distant future, when humanity is split in three factions: the dictatorial Empire, the corrupt but democratic Free Planets Alliance, and the secretive mercantile Dominion of Phezzan. The former two entities are constantly at war, which is draining their resources, and they are being kept at a stalemate thanks to secret interference by Phezzan. The break in this status quo may come when a new generation of smart and ambitious leaders emerges.
On one side is Reinhard von Lohengramm, who has risen to power within the Empire’s military structures thanks to his sister, the emperor’s favorite concubine. He is very ambitious, aiming for the imperial seat himself, but also extremely smart and not afraid of employing new tactics. On the side of the Free Planets is Yang Wen-li, an introspective man who would like nothing more than to retire from the military and read historical books. Unfortunately for him, he is at least Lohengramm’s equal, and his exploits just result in one promotion after next.
When the two first meet, Lohengramm commands his own fleet, while Wen-li is just a lower-ranking officer. The Imperial fleet decimates the numerically superior Free Planets fleets, but as his admiral is injured, command is passed to Wen-li, and he manages to escape total destruction of his forces. Despite the defeat, Wen-li is hailed as a hero and becomes a pawn in political machinations back home, where he is given the seemingly impossible task to conquer an enemy fortress. He manages to do it without any losses. The Free Planets council, eager to score some pre-election political points, orders an all-out attack on the Empire, using the fortress as its staging area. Despite the protests of Wen-li and other seasoned commanders, the offensive is launched. Lohengramm, who commands the Imperial forces, waits until the Free Planets fleets are too far apart to support each other, and their supply lines are too stretched, before he attacks and begins annihilating one fleet after another. Once again, Wen-li is forced to organize an orderly withdrawal and manages to escape with the surviving forces. However, by that time the Free Plants fleets are nearly completely destroyed. Their only saving grace comes in the form of the old emperor’s death, and Lohengramm’s withdrawal to support his favorite for the throne.
This book has been written in 1982, and it shows. It reads more like a Heinlein high adventure than the kind of dour or edgy fiction we appreciate these days. It would be wrong to call the characters one-dimensional: they are actually less than that. Whether it’s the two protagonists of the plethora of side characters, they are all given a very narrow personality, and they don’t deviate from it at all. Lohengramm is a power-hungry iconoclast who is willing to walk over the dead bodies of his subordinates, if that brings him closer to victory. Wen-li lives inside his mind. Most of his dialogue consists of thoughts he never speaks out loud, and his command decisions are abrupt, without any overt display of analytical thinking. Other characters range from completely incompetent military leaders to doggedly loyal sidekicks, with both types just reinforcing the main traits of the protagonists. In fact, the only more complex characters are the few antagonists, but even these are very transparent in their intentions.
The worldbuilding doesn’t fare much better. The author directly outlines his universe in the prologue, so there is no need for the reader to guess anything. However, I did find the setting strangely endearing. The Empire is fashioned after the Prussian empire, while Free Planets are a mess of politicking. The two entities are just as one-dimensional as the characters, but the visuals are superb, and I could fully picture everything from the political systems down to interiors of important buildings. On a larger scale, however, there’s little to praise. The battles aren’t all that well described on a tactical level, and on a strategic scale they make absolutely no sense, in particular with fleets moving at vastly different speeds between star systems, depending what the action dictates.
And yet, all of this simplistic writing somehow meshes together into an engrossing adventure. Maybe it’s the lack of distractions from complex characters and workable physics, but I could fully invest into the two protagonists. They seemingly stand on the opposite sides, but I liked both of them and wished that eventually they’d meet over a cup of tea with brandy. The action, as simplistic as it is, is still gripping, and the politics in both systems is just as captivating as the battles. In fact, this is where the author shines. Next year, this book will be forty years old, and yet he captured the awful side of politics with a wonderfully cynical eye. Whether it’s the rise of a new populist leader, or the paramilitary forces that try to intimidate political opponents but are afraid of garden sprinklers, it’s almost as if some first world countries took this book as a recipe on how to misbehave.
Overall, I was so pleased with this book that I will keep on following the series. I will be looking for more of the same: simplistic worldbuilding and action, and just as simple but likable protagonists. The gentle humor and translation that makes it seem like the books were originally written in English are greatly appreciated as well.
Note: While researching the book, I found out that there was an animated TV series made, based on the novels. I have not seen any of it, nor do I plan to see anything, so my review is entirely based on the 2016 English translation of Tanaka’s work.