'The Last Campaign' by Martin L. Shoemaker
A cop story in space that's all about politics
This is the second book in the series, which I didn’t know when I picked it up. There are references to things that happened in the past—at least some of which I’m assuming are from the first book. I didn’t exactly have trouble following anything, since things were explained, but I felt like I would have gotten more out of it if I’d read the first book.
The book starts with some nice humans-against-environment action, then quickly gets into some more personal stuff with the characters. It did a good job of pulling me in and getting me connected with them so that I cared about them and what was happening, even if I still didn’t super understand everything yet. There’s a politician who shows up and acts like an expletive, as politicians do, which I didn’t love—but that’s a personal thing because I hate politics, even fictional politics.
Unfortunately, my interest waned considerably around 20% into the story, when the actual police stuff started, for reasons I’ll explain farther down.
I liked the main character at first, but I grew to like her less as the story went on. She’s capable, confident, smart, and has integrity. But she risks her marriage for the sake of her job, which is wrong. And she makes some choices regarding her ex which she should have known were bad decisions.
There were times where I thought the pacing was a bit off, where most of a chapter would go by with the characters basically doing busy work without anything substantial (either plot-wise or character-building-wise). Or where the author would summarize events rather than showing them, which could make the developments feel oddly abrupt and meaningless. For example, early in the book, there’s a confrontation that happens between the main character and another guy. The confrontation is written well, with plenty of detail and emotion. But when they make amends, it’s skipped through with basically just a few paragraphs of summary description. I felt like actually having some kind of written-out conversation between the two of them would have been a more satisfying conclusion to that particular story beat.
This book wasn’t what I expected it to be. I thought it would be a police procedural or detective story in space, where we’d get some good mystery, investigation of crime scenes, tense interviews of witnesses, and peril/fighting/action sprinkled throughout. There is a certain amount of most of that (though very little action, except at the end), but the book has a whole lot of politics. (Fictional politics about fictional issues, at least, but still very much politics.) Mostly, it has politics and bureaucracy getting in the way. Also, journalists who are not even attempting to convey impartial truth but are blatantly pushing certain agendas, including trying to help the campaign of a certain politician while pretending to be impartial. And I . . . just kind of hate all of that stuff. It’s too realistic, and I read fiction for escapism. But maybe people who like that sort of realism and who like politics in their crime/police novels will like those aspects.
The setting of being on Mars was fairly interesting. Mostly, it takes place in a certain Martian city, but because of the facts of being on Mars, things are different in mostly fairly minor ways which build an interesting overall backdrop.
Personally, there isn’t enough criminal investigation or action in this story for me, and way too much politics. I found myself, at various points, not even remembering what exactly they were investigating or why certain developments were important—because so much time was spent dealing with issues of politics that I lost track of the rest of the plot.
I think this book has a real problem with stakes. For at least half the book, the main crime being investigated is insurance fraud. Sure, there are a few murders, but whenever a body appears and things look like they might be getting more interesting, nothing really comes of it. The murder is basically swept aside and it’s back to the insurance fraud case. This was a very strange choice, since it should be obvious to anyone that murder is a far more interesting crime to hang a plot on than insurance fraud. About 70% in, another criminal scheme was revealed, one which amounted to large-scale . . . building without a permit. In the very last part of the book, things get more exciting, but it came so late in the game that I’d stopped caring and had started skimming.
There’s also a problem with the way the investigation (such as it is) is conducted. The discussions and theories are very vague, such that the reader in some cases doesn’t actually know what specifically the characters are thinking happened. Discussions are vaguely summarized as having taken place, and new directions are said like, “But what if we pursue the simple option?” I don’t read a lot of crime/detective stories, so it’s hard to put this critique into words, but the book just wasn’t written in a way that let me follow along with the investigation very well.
I really had high hopes for this book when I started. I liked the main character right off, I liked that her husband was a major character and the dynamic they had, I got pulled into what was happening (though that first 20% of the story ended up being nearly irrelevant to the rest of it). But the whole police investigation part was just not what I wanted, since so little time was spent on investigating, even less of that time was spent on investigating the murders, and a huge majority of the time was spent complaining about politics, politicking, doing interviews with the press, figuring out how to spin things politically, etc. etc. It’s a book about a sheriff trying to do her job and the primary antagonist is politics. And the primary stakes are the main character's marriage (where the two of them mostly refuse to actually talk anything out), the mayor’s political campaign, and (what appears for most of the book to be) insurance fraud. It just completely missed the mark for me.
(I got a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.)