What happens when humanity becomes confident that they're the only species in space and gets comfortable? What happens when no one plans for conflict with an alien race? How about if humanity is so worried about border skirmishes with other Earth nations that they're not looking outward for trouble? Well, if they're in Christopher Nutall's Ark Royal they start off getting their asses kicked. It makes sense.
Ark Royal features a few classic tropes that just make my day. The first and most obvious is old-ship-comes-out-of-mothballs-to-kick-ass. I like this trope, but Nutall does it better than most, simply by providing a reason that the Ark Royal is able to light it up. Simply put the Ark Royal is armored. The new ships are not. The older ship can take a beating that would leave nothing of the newer ships but a debris pile. I like the trope and it's even better when it makes sense. Nutall got this one straight as well.
Ark Royal is a tale of redemption not just for the ship but for her crew and her captain. The vast majority of the crew was stationed on the ship because they were problems. Commodore Sir Theodore Smith is the captain of the ship... but he should have been cashiered because of his drinking problem. He starts off the book hung over and craving another drink. He manages to bring himself back from the abyss though. The whole crew does.
In a weird sort of way (and I'm not sure if Nutall intended this or not) the redemption of the crew is also the redemption of humanity. The human race has become complacent. It has done nothing to protect itself from outside attack. Humanity has not armored its carriers. It has no workable plans in place to protect itself from attack and no one trained to handle a peaceful first contact. Yet, when the Ark Royal's crew gets itself together, things get better for the Earth. The first victories against the aliens are led by a recovering alcoholic and his misfit crew.
It's odd too that the Ark Royal is a ship of the British Royal Navy but is put together from parts of only God and her captain know how many various nations. Honestly, I'd almost bet that the captain would have to sit down and count. This reflects the fact that all nations of the Earth are going to need to work together to repel the alien threat. Again, I'm not sure if Nutall meant it this way or not but the ship again takes on the mantle of the entire human race. The juxtaposition is a fascinating aspect of the story. I'm just not sure it was intended.
Nutall's alien invaders are mysteries throughout this first book. I like this approach. The humans know nothing about their enemies. They just know that these things showed up and started killing people. They're not even sure why or what the enemy wants. They work out how to fight them based on trial and error. It's all they can do. I am often a fan of the reader knowing things that the protagonist does not but this time I think Nutall has done the right thing.
Now, I will grant that there are eight books that follow this one (Ark Royalis the first in the series) and at some point I hope that Nutall makes more of the alien thought process known to his readers. That only makes sense. In an ongoing series more will most likely be revealed. I just started this series though, so I can't comment on whether or how it happens.
The combat scenes in the book work well. It helps that the aliens aren't stupid. The Ark Royal has a weapon that the ships they've fought previously have already abandoned and it catches them flat-footed.It makes sense in the context of the story. Just as important though, is the fact that the aliens respond and find an intelligent way to fight back. This leads humanity to adjust their tactics... and so on. This is how wars actually work in the real world though, so that makes sense. Both sides use whatever information they can find about the other side against them.
Commodore Smith's superiors don't trust him as much as he would probably like and that makes sense too. He is a known alcoholic. It's interesting though, to see how the loyalty of the people under his command shines through when they're asked to spy on him. It's twice as interesting to watch how the perceptions of one particular character change over the course of the book. Nutall does a good job showing the interlocking and sometimes conflicting duties and loyalties of a member of the military. Loyalty is key but it's not always clear which loyalty is more important. Nutall shows this clearly and his characters agonize. It fits. The battles with family/marital loyalty make sense as well. He even teases a problem with for the next book. I'm betting dollars to doughnuts that I've figured out at least part of it, but I could be wrong. I haven't bought it yet. (Sorry, Mr. Nutall. Rent was due.)
Smith and crew are hardcore and resilient. They think outside of the box. In short, they're precisely what they need to be to defeat a force that superior in both technology and numbers. It's often a close run thing but they fight and/or find a way through. Their missions turn out at least marginally successful because they refuse for them not to. This is a crew you can really admire. I'd go to war with them.
I'm trying to find something to complain about and it's just not working. I'm not going to say that this is a perfect work of Science Fiction but there are no MAJOR flaws that I could detect.I was never thrown from the story. The only characters I found annoying were the ones that were supposed to be annoying. I'm no expert on the tactics of space combat but everything in the book made sense from a fan's point of view.
Bottom Line: 4.75 out of 5 Mass Drivers
Self Published, 2014
Ark Royal is available at the link below: