Burden of Proof

by John G. Hemry

Cover image

Series: Paul Sinclair #2
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: March 2004
ISBN: 0-441-01147-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 293

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This is the second book in the series following the career of Paul Sinclair and his duties as ship legal officer in a near-future space navy. There are multiple references to the events of A Just Determination, but the plot is independent. Burden of Proof would be quite readable on its own.

If you have read A Just Determination, this is more of the same, with about the same strengths and weaknesses. It's essentially a navy legal procedural, set in the near-future without interstellar drives, on-board ships of a US Navy that patrols sectors of space the way that the Navy patrols the oceans. I find the premise of this sort of navy a bit questionable, but since it plays essentially no role in the events of the story, it's easily ignorable.

Lieutenant JG Paul Sinclair's primary duty is in the Combat Information Center, but he was assigned secondary duties as ship legal officer when he first started his tour. JAG (the navy legal branch) isn't his career goal, but legal problems are still his problems when they come up. After a long scene-setting introduction of various characters, a problem unsurprisingly comes up, and Sinclair ends up involved in both the investigation and another court scene.

This series is a bit odd for military SF in that there's very little need for the science fiction setting. Setting it on a space ship instead of a water ship adds a bit of flavor and background, but nothing in the plot depends on that part of the setting. With some fiddling, it could have just as easily been told without the SF. I don't know enough about the current navy to say for certain how close Hemry's space navy is, but it would surprise me if he diverges far. Don't turn to this one expecting interesting SFnal ideas or much in the way of future speculation.

What one gets from Burden of Proof instead is a tightly-paced and surprisingly fascinating procedural. It starts a bit slow, with some bumpy dialogue in the earlier sections and rough edges around everything other than military procedure. Once the story starts, though, it's almost impossible to put down, even though in retrospect the plot is not particularly complex and most of its twists are well-telegraphed. Hemry's pacing is excellent, and while his characterization suffers a bit in depth, it's pitch-perfect for the sort of story he's telling. Sinclair is young, a bit uncertain, and fallible enough that he doesn't feel too perfect, but he doesn't make stupid mistakes. Hemry never falls into the trap of advancing the plot by having the characters do things the reader is screaming at them not to do. There is a refreshing lack of stupidity in this book, which I think is often overlooked and harder to pull off than it sounds.

Burden of Proof is all investigation and trial mixed with daily operations and navy jargon; it's not the book to pick up when looking for deep characterization or complex plot. But it's a great procedural, taking full advantage of the fact that courtroom trials are inherently dramatic and simply relating them with a competent cast provides plenty of tension. The surfeit of navy procedure, paperwork, and tight chain of command and responsibility makes this series feel like one of the more realistic military SF stories. If for some reason countries had space navies, I have no difficulty believing they'd be a lot like Hemry's portrayal.

If you like legal procedurals and realistic peacetime military life, hunt up this series. It's unfortunately out of print, probably because it's not what the typical military SF reader is looking for, but it's surprisingly good (even despite the brief cheap shot at a Greenpeace straw man at the start).

Followed by Rule of Evidence.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-10-29

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