Book Review: To Hell's Heart by Jay Allen

Another quarter, another entry into Jay Allen's outstanding Crimson Worlds series. In his last book, humanity had (just barely) stopped the onslaught of the First Imperium's robotic warriors, at horrific cost, on the three worlds that constituted The Line- a space-based variant of the "Maginot Line", except that this one actually worked. The Marines on the ground at Sandoval, led by the relentless and ruthless hero of the series, Erik Cain, completely annihilated an entire First Imperium landing force, while in space Admiral Augustus Garret's Grand Fleet wiped out the enemy's fleets. The same story is repeated across the other worlds of The Line.

At the end of the book, at a strategy conference involving the commanders of the allied forces that took part in the action, it was firmly resolved that the time had come to take the fight to the enemy, to stop them from breaching the security of the allied worlds ever again.

And thus we come to the latest book in the series. The plot is, as usual for this series, pretty straightforward: humanity sends a huge force into enemy space, lots of vicious battles ensue, lots of people die, lots of stuff gets destroyed in spectacular fashion. Jay Allen's signature achievement is and remains his ability to create interesting, likeable characters, and that unquestionably persists in this book. By this point, if you've been reading the series religiously, you've come to hold characters like Erik Cain, Elias Holm, Sarah Linden, Augustus Garret, and Terrence Compton in high esteem.

Speaking of characters, this book is where the semi-psychotic head of Alliance Intelligence, Gavin Stark, pushes through his final preparations for achieving revenge upon his enemies for the humiliations he suffered in the third novel. Stark's "Project Shadow" comes to fruition here and is deployed right at the end of the book, ending this particular instalment on a real cliffhanger that the next book will look to resolve.

As for the remainder of the plot, one would be tempted to think that it will follow the usual mil-sci-fi tropes by presenting an outmatched and outgunned human fleet achieving the impossible and defeating a monolithic alien empire. (See also: the entire HALO canon.) Yet this is exactly what doesn't happen. Through a series of brutal and epic engagements, the human forces drive deep into enemy space, only for the alien machine intelligence ruling the First Imperium, the Regent, to pull its trump card near the end of the book.

The resulting plot twist is as powerful as it is unexpected. I'm not going to ruin it for you by telling you what happens, but suffice to say that you're going to feel a real sense of loss by the time the book wraps up. That ability to write interesting characters has always been Allen's strength, and he really does a great job here. Indeed, out of the six books and two short stories released in the series (so far), this one is by far my favourite in terms of showing the human side of the characters involved. The wrenching loss at the end of the book is described from the points of view of those hardest hit, and is done with great skill and deftness.

I've reviewed all of the books extant in the series thus far by now, and every single one of them has had the same strengths and weaknesses (just to varying degrees), so I'll leave off my usual complaints about this and the other books. I'll simply close by saying that, if you really like good, high-quality military science fiction that makes you genuinely care about the characters and the events within it, then you should definitely read this and all of the other books in the series.

Didact's Verdict: 4/5, the usual flaws fail to detract from the usual strengths in any significant fashion; a fast read that is nonetheless very enjoyable.

Buy/download To Hell's Heart here.

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