When I read the first reviews for this book I was quite intrigued: the trope about people waking up in a damaged ship and not knowing what happened is one I’ve always found fascinating. As I started reading Admiral, though, I had a few misgivings: the tone felt somewhat off, the exchanges between the characters a little stilted, the overall impression that of uncertainty – and not related to the situation at hand.
Yet something kept me reading on, the few disturbances I perceived not being enough to make me close the book: now I’m happy to have persevered because once the story finds its footing it becomes a compelling read, and a quite satisfactory one.
Four people wake up from stasis on what looks like an abandoned freighter: three of them are freshly graduated trainees from the Evagardian Imperial academy, the fourth is the unnamed narrator himself, whose stasis pod bears the markings of an admiral and should put him automatically in charge. I said should, because the three young officers react with varying degrees of puzzlement and suspicion to the man’s lack of uniform, un-military bearing and off-hand manners – not to mention the fact that the Admiral himself appears quite surprised of his promotion…
Lieutenant Deilani is the more vocal and mistrustful of the three: the Evagardian Empire just signed a truce with the Ganraen, with whom they have been at war, and finding herself in a re-conditioned Ganraen ship, with a man who doesn’t fit the image of an Evalgardian ranking officer, Deilani thinks immediately they are dealing with a spy, and proceeds to say so in no uncertain terms. The fact that all the Admiral does is deflect her accusations while offering no real answers only manages to enhance her doubts.
Private Salmagard, on the other hand, acts in a more detached manner – there are shades of Vulcan aplomb in her attitude – and seems more inclined to concentrate on the group’s more immediate problems, leaving the identity and fate of their senior officer to a more propitious moment.
And finally, Ensign Nils is the more accepting of the three: it becomes quite clear from the beginning that he’s a natural-born follower and responds well to authority – or what he perceives as such – preferring to deal with the many mechanical issues plaguing the group, and applying his remarkable engineering skills to their survival.
The ship the four find themselves in is deserted, the power is off and there are all the indications of massive system failure: the discovery of the bodies of the two-men crew, later on, only adds to the huge pile of unanswered questions they have to face before they can start working on a rescue plan. Here is where my initial reservations made themselves felt: first, the exchanges between the four people did not sound… natural (for want of a better word), the disparity between the almost-flippant tone of the Admiral and the trainees’ doubts – especially Deilani’s accusations – felt forced, not at all in sync with the situation at hand. Moreover, there were a couple of instances where I actually stopped and stared in bafflement at the page I was reading: for example, at some point the four discover that the ship suffered a hull breach, and the Admiral’s line reads: “I swore, amazed. We hadn’t even suspected a breach.”
Seriously? They did crash-land on a planet, and the very first thought should have been about hull integrity! Or again, take this little snippet:
“This is some kind of combat damage.”
I sighed. Couldn’t these three take a hint and just stop noticing things? (…) How could I convince them that they were happier just getting on with their lives?
Am I wrong in thinking that noticing things would be the first step toward ensuring their survival? As I said, these details took me out of the narrative flow and made me doubt the soundness of the story, or of the characters. But once I was past these initial… “hiccups”, I was completely captivated by the story and these four people’s plight, one that swiftly turns from a mystery-solving situation to a battle for survival. From that point on, I was one hundred percent onboard – and very happy to have soldiered on.
To define the planet where the ship crashed ‘hostile’ would be a massive understatement, and as the story progresses the dangers the four survivors face become increasingly deadly: unbreathable atmosphere, eerie green-tinted mist, weird rock formations and a very unstable ground are just the tip of the iceberg, because the Admiral and his trainees soon realize they might not be alone in there… More than once my mind flashed to the more harrowing scenes in the Alien narrative arc, and each chapter brought on a new, nasty hurdle to be overcome, either through Nils’ powers of improvisation or the others’ need to survive at any cost while they wait for rescue.
All through this I developed a certain fondness for the Admiral: from the very start he appears like the proverbial unreliable narrator – he makes no mystery about this point – and it’s also very clear that he is hiding something, but at the same time he comes across as a very resourceful person, and what’s more important he cares about his young charges, constantly urging them not to give up, even when the situation becomes most dire. No matter who he is, he acts like the ranking officer he appears to be, and his heart is indeed in the right place:
No I wasn’t a real admiral, but that didn’t make it okay for people to die on my watch.
At this point, his real identity becomes a moot point, and the almost-revelation that occurs toward the end of the novel is far less important than the road the foursome traveled to get there: the partial answers the readers glean from that part of the story might or might not be the truth (I keep thinking that the Admiral might still be dissembling, since it’s clear this is second nature to him), but at this point it hardly matters.
What does is the sheer fun of the adventure we enjoy getting there: there are times when this is all we want from a book, and on this score Admiral delivers in a very enjoyable manner. I will be waiting for the second book in this series with great expectations.