Have you read this book?
I met Walter H. Hunt at a science fiction convention (Readercon) in 2002. He had the good fortune of receiving praise first hand from the reviewer for Analog for his first novel, The Dark Wing. Mr. Hunt was beaming after that exchange. He was a beacon of cheer and optimism. It was hard not to feel great talking to him because he was so genuine in his surprise at being acknowledged as a writer of merit. After a brief conversion, I promised him I would step into the nearby booksellers’ room and purchase his book. Off I sallied to ask for the book, which turned out to have an ominous and decidedly militaristic cover. I sighed, paid my $27.95 and thought ruefully to myself that the shelf of books I would never read was about to be increased by one. I ran into him later, book in hand and walked away with a book signed “Hope you enjoy my book.”
For months, the book sat in my to-be-read pile. A little voice kept at me that I should at least peek at it. What was I, after all, an indifferent black hole for all that optimism to vanish into? Aren’t we told not to judge a book by its cover? My theory that it was a militaristic “guy” book would be an embarrassingly poor excuse not to read it.
Reading the first few pages of The Dark Wing gave me the spins. Action scene here with this character… quick pan to another action scene there with someone else… not confused yet? Try to make sense of this scene! I was not sure anything would speak to me in this book. I persisted, hoping the plot would settle down and I could get to a story line to sink my teeth into. Patience is sometimes rewarded and in this case amply. The Dark Wing is a roller coaster ride not only because of the fast-paced action, but because at the heart of the book there is a delicious process of figuring out if the writer can be trusted enough to follow him through to the story’s end.
The Dark Wing’s plot revolves around the question of under what, if any, circumstances is xenocide an acceptable solution. In the 24th century, Earth is faced with the zor — an intolerant, warlike, alien society. The zor and humans have been at war for 60 years. The zor attack, hot warfare ensues, heavy losses are suffered by both sides until a treaty is signed in which Earth makes the lion’s share of the concessions.
During the quiet of treaty years, the zor refit their military so they can once again viciously attack Earth outposts and ships. The zor have no regard for the normal rules of warfare and kill civilians indiscriminately. The root of the problem is that the zor’s religion tells them they are the chosen people and the very existence of the human race is an offense against its most cherished tenets.
Enter in one revolutionary academic, Lord Marais. He believes that unless there is a radical paradigm shift in how Earth wages war, humans will be exterminated. His book The Absolute Victory finds its way into the empire’s hands. Political pressure for revenge for recent attacks and for an end to the cyclical warfare is mounting. The empire gives Lord Marais an admiralty, a fleet and an open-ended order giving him absolute power to win the war by any means necessary. The war quickly gets very ugly. At home, the political winds shift and now there is a movement to recall Marais for investigation into his methods. Caught in the middle of the argument over whether the ends justify the means are the career military who make up the fleet.
This is a remarkable first novel. It is not perfect — in some places, it stumbles a little. One or two arcs in the plot may be vulnerable to criticism but they worked for this reader. I was in turns horrified, surprised and ultimately won over.