Review: “Stars Like Cold Fire,” Brent Nichols

Pros: Engrossing, intriguing military sf
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Brent Nichols’s Stars Like Cold Fire introduces us to officer trainee Jeff Yi. He and his good friend Carolita (Carrie) Doolittle are each outcasts in their class of twelve. Jeff is Chinese, and most of the higher-ups are also Chinese, so his classmates see him as having an unfair advantage and thus seek to take him down a peg (or five) at every opportunity. Carrie is from Ryland, a planet that’s threatening to go to war with our heroes. After surviving the Naval Academy, Jeff hopes things will get better. But before he even gets his first assignment several men try to kill him. Apparently Jeff’s father is a hero who killed a man who attempted a coup, and his followers, the Carverites, see Jeff as a symbol they need to destroy. To keep Jeff safe from officers who sympathize with the Carverites, he’s given his own tiny command, of a small stealth ship that’s going out to patrol the border with Ryland. (Note: Jeff is a queer character.)

Naturally Jeff isn’t seen by his more experienced crew as being ready to command them, which seems to confirm their belief that Chinese officers benefit from favoritism. His own second in command bullies him, the cook makes excellent food for others while ruining his meals, and so forth. This part of the book was a bit hard to read for me–I find it difficult to read about bullying. Luckily it doesn’t take too long before Jeff starts getting clever, finding ways to win over or overcome his crew. He clearly does have the capacity to become a great officer; he just got thrust into the role of command before he was ready. When he starts, he doesn’t even know how to draw up a duty roster, or even whether that’s his job or his second’s.

I love the characters in this book. They all have depth and interest to them. Jeff’s crew (seven plus himself) is small enough to let us get to know the individuals and their quirks. Jeff comes up with some very creative ways to work with, through, and around his crew, although it doesn’t always work, which is also a nice touch.

Jeff’s ship is not any kind of warship, so you won’t see a lot of extensive space battles. There’s one or two, however, in which Jeff and his crew have to be doubly creative because they have so few weapons. There are also some great escape sequences. The action is engrossing and tense and kept me riveted to the page.

This is a delightful bit of military SF escapism. Well worth the read!

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