Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction, space opera
on January 17, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
Lieutenant Kiera Markov is a scout platoon leader for a peacekeeping force on the remote planet of Tanara, where little has happened for decades, and the only mission is to keep the lithium flowing up the space elevator to feed the galaxy’s incessant demand. But when an unprecedented attack kills the entirety of the brigade’s leadership, the untested lieutenant suddenly finds herself in command.
Isolated and alone, Markov must contend with rival politicians on both sides of the border, all of whom have suspect motives and reason to take advantage of an untested leader, while an unseen enemy seeks to drive the two sides toward a war that Markov has a mission to prevent. It’s enough to test even a seasoned leader.
Markov isn’t that.
With challenges from all sides, and even from her own troops, Markov will have to learn quickly and establish her authority. Because what hangs in the balance is not only the future of the peacekeeping force, but of the planet itself.
“War is hell,” or so said Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was most certainly in a position to know. But that is far from the only thing he had to say about the topic. So, while that famous phrase is certainly relevant to this story, one of his lesser-known quotes is even more so, that “one class of men makes war and leaves another to fight it out.”
Or, to put it another way, equally applicable to the story in hand, quoting a somewhat more down-to-earth source, one who frequently proclaimed, “Let’s you and him fight.”
But that’s not where The Weight of Command begins. Instead, the story begins as that all-too-literal weight of command falls with the force of a bomb dropping onto the shoulders of 23-year-old Lieutenant Keira Markov, just a few months into a peacekeeping mission on the planet Tanara.
Because she’s the only officer left in the command after a nuclear detonation took out all the other officers in the entire mission along with officials from at least one of the two sniping factions on the planet – the two groups the mission has been keeping the peace between for the past 50 years.
It’s not just Markov’s command structure that has been wiped out. An EMP pulse has knocked out all off planet communications. Not just hers. Everyone’s.
While it’s barely possible that one of the two local groups might have gotten their hands on a small nuke, the EMP pulse that silenced ALL the satellites surrounding the planet AND knocked out power on the station at the TOP of the space elevator that handles all incoming intergalactic transit is beyond either side’s technology.
But of course they descend into blaming each other – because they’ve been doing that for centuries and the grooves in the local psyches are well-worn and eager to fight – even if neither of them can win.
Whoever or whatever – not to mention whyever – someone wanted to isolate the planet as well as figuring out what it will take to end that isolation has just become the responsibility of a young Lieutenant who has never led a group larger than a platoon. Suddenly she’s been promoted to Major by the ranking noncom and has 4,000 people she has to keep alive until help can arrive.
While both local factions are ready – if not downright eager – to start a shooting war. And someone – or more likely a whole lot of someones – is pulling a whole lot of very sophisticated strings to keep everyone on planet busy while whatever schemes they’re scheming have a chance to hatch out in the wider, unsuspecting galaxy.
Major Markov has to figure out who the real enemy is, keep the two factions from doing someone else’s dirty work, and get word out to someone who can, will, and should relieve her from the weight of a command that she knows she’s not ready for – but has to rise to regardless.
She knows that history will judge her, and probably harshly, even if anyone of her sudden command lives to tell the tale. And especially if they don’t.
Escape Rating A: This is not exactly the first time this scenario has been done. (There are at least SIX different variations of it in the TV Tropes Wiki that each have their own separate lists of examples.) The two that initially came to my mind were Executive Orders by Tom Clancy and the 2003 Battlestar Galactica miniseries that kicked off that series. But there are clearly legions of stories including several by Robert A. Heinlein and more than a few occasions in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series.
What makes the application of this often-used trope so compelling in The Weight of Command is that we are not observing events from a dispassionate third-person perspective. This story is told from inside Markov’s head, so we’re with her through every moment of fear, self-doubt, desperation, indecision and anguish. She has the universe’s worst case of Impostor Syndrome but it’s not a syndrome. She isn’t qualified. She isn’t ready. She’s not deluding herself. But she’s all they’ve got.
Even better, we’re with her as she stumbles, falls and picks herself back up again. We’re in her head as she learns lessons that were supposed to take years to be trained into her. All she has is minutes – if she’s lucky. We see her screw up and we see her learn from her mistakes.
We see every problem that occurs with her crash-course of on the job training in a situation where that training time can get people killed – and does.
But it’s not all blood and guts. After all, the spraying of those is exactly what Markov is trying to prevent. She also has a mystery to solve and politics to navigate – which are tied together in a Gordian knot she should take the time to unravel but is much more likely to just slice into two with the biggest sword she can lay her hands on – metaphorical or otherwise.
The politics, at least, are part of her learning curve. She wants to be a blunt instrument, even though she knows that’s not going to serve her mission. Except when it does. Figuring out which is which goes right back to that learning curve. But it’s also the fun part when she knows she shouldn’t and does it anyway and it works in her favor – if not nearly often enough.
I picked up The Weight of Command because I adored the author’s previous work, especially his Planetside series and its universe-weary protagonist Carl Butler. Markov is a bit less of a blunt instrument than Butler – not because she’s not so inclined and certainly not because she has a higher opinion of politics or politicians or even humanity in general no matter how much she cares for individuals in particular – but she could certainly be said to be a chip off that old block. She just hasn’t had nearly the amount of time and experience needed to be as crusty or as jaded. (I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing EITHER character again!)
Still, the resemblance is definitely there, which made this reader feel right at home in this story. Now that I’ve finished it, I’m looking forward to the author’s next SFnal adventure in Generation Ship, coming in October.