Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shown what World War III might look like, so a review of Dayton Ward's The Last World War is timely. This novel, written by a former U.S. Marine in the early 2000s, offers a glimpse into how a world war started by aliens might unfold. In a refreshing twist, aliens do not arrive in spaceships. Ward's approach is intriguing because he not only tells the story from the human perspective, but also from the alien one.
This allows the reader to develop empathy for a range of characters, and the wealth of characters that Ward introduces deepens this dynamic. There are so many viewpoint characters that the pacing never slows down, and Ward adroitly pulls these varied threads without scrunching the wider scope of the story.
This means that there is something here for just about any reader of military science fiction, from combat and violent struggle to human passions and thoughtful sequences on strategy. In fact, Ward manages to telescope between tactical and strategic perspectives without giving short shrift to either, something that is deceptively easy to screw up as an author. In Ward's depictions of combat, the reader feels in the center of the action, yet strategic planning sessions are short enough to keep from getting boring and long enough to keep the story satisfying.
This complicated novel receives a solid four bullets in my book. I respect the meticulous level of planning it took to write it, and I loved being right in the action from the beginning. Ward's prose is also a model of showing versus telling. At the same time, some of the combat sequences dragged on a bit too long, and the operational artist in me wondered why the defending force didn't constrain the attacking force's choke points with a lot more vigor. I also desperately wanted to learn more about the alien characters' story arcs, especially those on the enemy side. There are too many military science fiction stories that demonize the enemy. Ward's ability to humanize enemy aliens was refreshing, and it left me wanting just a bit more.
Readers looking for a new military science fiction author (who has served in the military) would benefit from cracking The Last World War. It offers a rich set of narratives and a compelling depiction of what infantry combat against a globally deployed alien force would feel like. In addition, this reflection on early twenty-first century warfare is a worthy comparison to Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine. It gives readers a great deal to ponder about how to avoid the destructive potential of global war.
Dayton Ward is a New York Times bestselling author or co-author of more than 40 novels and novellas, often working with his best friend, Kevin Dilmore. His short fiction has appeared in more than 20 anthologies, and he's written for magazines such as NCO Journal, Kansas City Voices, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Star Trek, and Star Trek Communicator, as well as the websites Tor.com, StarTrek.com, and Syfy.com. You can find him at daytonward.com.