Review: Divide Series, by J. S. Dewes

Nathan W. Toronto

August 1, 2023

J. S. Dewes is working on the third installment of her Divide series. Can she get on with it already? Her first two novels in the series, The Last Watch and The Exiled Fleet, offer refreshing space opera at its finest, exploring the human side of leadership and warfare on a scale that lands somewhere between Scalzi's Interdependency and Asimov's Foundation.

Dewes' series is so refreshing because it tackles complicated human relationships head-on. The emotional range and intelligence (and flaws) of her characters are awe-inspiring. The interrelationships between characters are multifaceted, not just about one thing (for example, ambition, drugs, violence, or politics), but often about all these things at once. At the same time, Dewes' characterization is powerful in its simplicity. I never found myself asking, "What is this character trying to achieve?"

The most rewarding characters, as one might expect, stand squarely at the center of the story: Cavalon Mercer and Adequin Rake. They start the first book as rivals, or maybe enemies, and by the end of the second book they're, well, not that exactly. The progression isn't creepy or forced, and Dewes uses the tension between them with such adroitness that readers will absolutely keep turning the pages.

Every set of characters has a similarly well-planned narrative associated with it. Dewes weaves these arcs into the plot in a way that shows the story moving forward rather than just telling the reader what happened. The effect is so effortless that it makes the reader believe that Dewes does all this without thinking or planning it out.

The only quibbles—and the reasons this series receives four bullets instead of five—may seem like picking nits out of well-groomed fur, but they're important for a war geek. At the start of the second book, the human relationships remain strong while the thread of the overarching war frays a bit. One reason is that the putative enemy in this phase of the story doesn't exhibit agency, per se, and when human (and nonhuman) agency reenters the war story in an antagonist role, the plot really starts to move again, resulting in a completely satisfying climax at the end of Exiled Fleet.

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The other war geek quibble has to do with the proto-Roman rank structure. The system of ranks and military institutions exhibits internal consistency, but it is unclear how this Roman heritage was passed down from ancient times through to the galactic age in the story. There might be a metanarrative about rigid (Roman) versus flexible (Adequin Rake) leadership styles, but it's not clear how a rigid, Roman-style command structure could have achieved effective military results over the galactic expansion that humanity has achieved by the time the Divide story begins. The operational friction inherent in the space domain—massive distances, difficult communications, a nearly impossible logistical tail—would likely favor a more flexible command and control structure than what the backstory seems to represent.

This is not to draw from the satisfying sweep and tenor of the war story overall. The tactical sequences connect beautifully to character development, and very few of these sequences feel overwrought. Dewes does a masterful job of positioning combat operationally in space, conveying the relational details that matter but rarely those that do not. The strategic stakes of the struggle are not only compelling but also plausible given the world she has created.

Last Watch and Exiled Fleet provide readers with military science fiction that understands warfare. The promise of the third installment in the series is that the war geek will find a comprehensive and compelling picture of galactic warfare. No date is set for the third book yet, but it is confirmed, so it's only a matter of time before war geeks enjoy more meaningful military science fiction from an exciting author.

J.S. Dewes is an author, cinematographer, and video editor who has written scripts for award-winning feature films and shorts. A video game writer by day, she spends her free time drawing, scrolling ArtStation, cuddling her two sweet dogs and mercurial cat, and occasionally sleeping. Find her online @jsdewes.