The Last Watch, by J.S. Dewes, manages the impressive feat of being, and not being, a military science fiction story at the same time. It has all the trappings of a military science fiction: age-old alien threat to humanity, the grizzled old general who kicks ass, a new recruit who is complete garbage but shows potential, and more terminology and army buzz words than you can shake a rifle at. But, it’s actually about a group of soldiers doing their best to man a lifeboat and retreat from an oncoming calamity. Against that backdrop, the military aspect feels like window dressing. This makes the book feel very refreshing and the exact kind of hot take that I look for in one of our Dark Horse debuts.
The book follows two POV characters: Rake, the grizzled kick-ass general (called a Titan in this instance), and Cavalon, an exiled prince who has been thrown into involuntary military service as a fresh recruit. Both of them are members of the Sentinels, a group of universe gatekeepers made up of banished criminals whose job is to sit at the edge of the known universe and watch for attacks from hostile alien species. The book starts with Cavalon showing up on the Argus, the giant defunct capital ship that Rake commands. They go through the usual new recruit tropes (insubordination, creative punishment, moments of distinguishing valor, and slowly building respect on both sides). However, the wrench thrown into the formula comes when the universe starts to rapidly contract and begins eating all of existence. Now this crew of criminals on a busted ancient ship must find a way to save themselves before reality around them ceases to be.
The meat of The Last Watch sits upon a tripod of foci: Rake’s backstory, Cavalon’s character growth, and the mad sprint for survival from the shrinking edge of the universe. Rake is a decorated war hero who has been banished to the edge of the universe to babysit a bunch of criminals. Obviously, she has done something spectacularly awful to end up in this situation, and Dewes parcels out the juicy details at a glacial pace (in a tantalizing good way) over the course of the book. Some of her story beats are a little too trope-y for my taste, but she generally is a great character with a fascinating past that I was on board with.
Up next we have Cavalon, who was a mixed bag. He’s a spoiled brat, and a rake (which is ironic, given the other character’s name), which works nicely as clashing personality points to make him interesting. He is also desperate for Rake’s approval, which was an interesting character growth hook that I liked a lot more than I expected. But, I found that a lot of his sections felt extremely contrived and it often sucked me right out of the story. First, we have the fact that we have a derelict spaceship that suddenly needs to outrun the edge of the universe – so it’s so lucky that Cavalon, with his 3 spaceship repair degrees, arrived the same day. Then we have the fact that he is obsessed with “cutting the shit” – a request Rake makes of him early in the story. She essentially wants him to stop creating problems and just be a productive member of the team, but Cavalon makes being unproblematic his entire personality. There was a particularly unpleasant series of events where Cavalon gets tortured to the point he almost dies by another squadmate, and he doesn’t report it because he doesn’t want to be difficult?!?! WHAT? It just goes a little too far to be believable, and I wish his entire deal had been reined in a bit.
Finally, we have the mad dash for survival – and this is actually where the book shines the most. The escape from the boundary of space is exciting, and the various set pieces that the crew jumps around in their escape keep the book moving at a great pace with a lot of memorable scenes. The one problem I ran into a few times was struggling badly with understanding Dewes’ descriptions of actions. Despite rereading some scenes 5+ times, I just could not figure out what was happening in certain space maneuvers. I was left scratching my head when I was supposed to be exulting in moments of character triumph, which could be frustrating.
All in all, I definitely liked The Last Watch and recommend that you check it out. There are certain pieces of it that I struggled with, but the sum is definitely more than the parts. Its strange combination of characters and plot creates a wonderful vehicle for a wild and memorable ride and the character stories have me fully invested and excited for the sequel. I just hope that between now and the next book I find a way to better understand how to read some of Dewes’ big moments.
Rating: The Last Watch – 7.0/10