A Just Determination

by John G. Hemry

Cover image

Series: Paul Sinclair #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: May 2003
ISBN: 0-441-01052-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 259

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Paul Sinclair is a newly minted ensign, fresh out of the academy and assigned for his first duty to the USS Michaelson, a United States spaceship patrolling areas of space claimed by the US. His primary duties are assistant CICO (combat information), but like all officers he picks up a pile of secondary duties, which at first seem innocuous. At first, his life is busy with attempting to learn correct behavior aboard a ship and avoid the ire of a critical superior, a demanding XO, and an incompetent captain. But his role as the ship's legal officer ends up far more critical than he could have imagined.

This is the first of a series of legal dramas by John Hemry set in a near-future space navy. The tag line is "JAG in Space" (after the popular television show), but I think A Just Determination is better described as a military procedural. It's a detailed look at the realistic life of a naval officer, including some of the minutia of everyday life on-board and many details of leadership, command structure, and balancing obedience to military authority with ethics, honor, and standing orders. This makes it sound a bit dry, and after reading other reviews I was skeptical. But Hemry's portrayal is surprisingly compelling, helped by a strong viewpoint character I found easy to identify with.

Hemry does an excellent job of finding the drama in everyday life aboard a spaceship, which mostly means interpersonal interactions and detailed characterization. This book is full of complex people, with strengths and weaknesses, personal flaws and coping strategies, and different attitudes towards risk. There are a few "villains," but only as annoyances and not at the center of the plot. Instead, Hemry builds a picture of realistic tensions between competence and leadership techniques, lays the groundwork for understanding the characters while keeping up the pacing, and then hits the ship in a weak spot and shows how the characters react. It's difficult to write a novel without a grand threat, hissable villain, or big idea; what Hemry pulls off here is far more difficult than he makes it look.

Even the payoff, the courtroom drama that you know must be coming in anything presented as "JAG in Space," is surprisingly subtle. The main point of conflict isn't around guilt or innocence, but around more subtle issues of justice and fairness. Sinclair's involvement is more ancillary than one of the TV dramas would allow for, but allows Hemry to tackle some hard questions of how to balance a legal officer's obligations to the justice system, an officer's obligations to his superiors, and one's own career and loyalty to shipmates. I was particularly impressed that, in the end, not everyone agrees with Sinclair's actions, and while his role is important, it's not exaggerated past the point of believability for an ensign.

There's a lot of military background here that one has to take for granted as part of the story. I personally wouldn't want to live under the system that Sinclair agrees to live under, and taking a step back, I find the justification for the US Navy's actions in Hemry's universe highly dubious. As an exercise in future world-building, I also disagree with some of the premises (I have a hard time believing that nations could effectively claim and patrol regions of space, for example). But all that slides smoothly away under the story and matters little to enjoying Hemry's detailed presentation of military life.

I went in dubious and came away planning on buying the rest of this series (if I can find it; it's sadly horribly out of print). This is solid writing and a very different angle on the typically guns-and-glory genre of military SF. Hemry's work is unjustly obscure in my opinion and deserves to be more widely read. Recommended.

Followed by Burden of Proof.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-11-02

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21