This is the third book in Huff's Confederation series starring Torin Kerr. This story is mostly self-contained, but some background that the reader needs to really understand isn't covered in much detail, such as the general nature of the non-human races, as well as the origin of the situation in the current novel. (And, in fact, I wished for a better memory of some of the previous events myself, though my failure to remember details from The Better Part of Valor was just personal frustration, not a source of real confusion.)
This is a military novel, so it does have a lot of things and people blowing up. But not so much that it's really the story. There's mystery (although, as presented, it's more a mystery to the characters than the reader), and examination of alienness on several levels. There's personal development, and a good deal of succeeding in military situations by clever thinking rather than simple brute force. Mainly, it's engaging writing that makes the characters live enough that I wish I could be part of the group when they were on leave at a spaceport bar, even though I don't really have any desire to be a space marine (or any delusions that I'd make it through the rigors of training). Oh, and some in-jokes that kicked up my enjoyment of the novel at least another notch. I think Dr. Sloan's catalogs would be funny even to people who don't know about the real Dr. Sloan and her relationship with catalogs, but they were side-splittingly funny for me.
On a briefly serious note, much of why this universe appeals so much is my belief that humanity would end up being a lot saner if we were in close contact with some other species. (And life would be more fun, as well as a lot less mentally screwed up, if one of them were the Taykan. But I probably shouldn't dwell on that.)
Not a book that the ages are likely to hold in reverence, but that's the ages' loss, because it's quite a fun read. 9 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
There are two intertwined plots here, and I'm not going to even try to remember how they are paced against each other.
At the beginning of the book, Torin is on station, suffering through interminable briefings about the lizard species she single-handedly won as an ally in Valor's Choice. Craig, her sometime lover who was rescued in the previous book in an escape pod from the alien ship called Big Yellow, is trying to get some credit for bringing in the escape pod, since he's a civilian salvage operator, and he's running into bureaucratic stonewalling. So he has Torin try asking some questions, and Torin quickly discovers that nobody seems to remember the escape pod at all, which is profoundly disturbing. Major Svensson has just come out of the tank after having his whole body reconstructed, although his new left arm has some synthetic parts, and the civilian specialist Dr. Kathleen Sloan wants to monitor it. Svensson decides to accompany a new platoon of recruits on their shakedown mission to Crucible, and convinces Dr. Sloan to approve it and go along as a non-combatant. He drafts Torin to go to keep him and the doctor safe. Very quickly on landing, things start to go wrong: the orbital platform is shot down by a surface to air missile, and events on the ground quickly diverge from the programmed training scenario. The DIs, Torin, and Svensson all assume that the Others, the mysterious enemy the military they're part of exists to fight off, have somehow infiltrated. They divert to a simulated village built around a small fortress called an Anchor, hoping to hole up there until the ship returns. Along the way, one of the recruits, McGuinty, proves to have considerable talent as a hacker, and he's drafted into trying to retake control of the automated system that's attacking them. And Staff Sergeant Beyhn, the senior DI (and just for spice, he was also Torin's own DI when she was a recruit), starts behaving erratically and eventually goes into a coma. Dr. Sloan figures out that he's changing from diTaykan to the next stage, qui. There are major cultural issues here; even the other Taykan don't understand what the transition will involve, but they're seriously conflicted because it's a biological imperative for them to protect him. Things are lurching along mostly OK, but Torin gets a garbled message on her implant that implies that at least one of the other platoons is only under attack by the scenario they were supposed to face, which totally upsets the theory that the Others are involved, since the Others wouldn't concentrate on just one group. Some facts are added together, and Torin comes to suspect that the major's new arm is somehow responsible. Knowing what to look for, they quickly find confirmation with a medical scan: part of the material of the arm has wrapped around the major's central nervous system. They drug the major and cut his arm off with an axe. Unfortunately, they didn't know that Dr. Sloan's non-combatant chip was actually part of the alien that was in the arm, and fail to realize that it has detached itself from her in time to keep her out of danger, and she takes a training missile in the chest. With bravery, cleverness, and luck, they manage to survive until rescue arrives, though Torin takes some damage at the end and is a little fuzzy on the transition out of Crucible.
While this is happening, Craig hasn't been idle. At Torin's suggestion, he looks up the obnoxious Katrien reporter Presit a Tur durValintrisy, who got the same brain scan that Torin and Craig (and no one else) got on Big Yellow. Sure enough, she remembers the escape pod. And she goes to check with the Katrien chief scientist, who should be deeply involved in the investigation, knows nothing of the pod. Now convinced she's onto a big story, Presit bulls her way into the office of Torin's nemesis General Morris. Who doesn't remember it either. But he has a strange plaque on his wall, which reacts physically (in a most un-plaque-like manner) to Craig, convincing Morris that something is up.
As the two threads come together, the Marines accept the theory that the escape pod was not an escape pod at all, but a part of the collective alien that has come to infiltrate human space. Unfortunately, Torin's plan for communicating with the piece that was Major Svensson's arm got interrupted by the battle, and we'll have to see how it turns out in the next book. There are hints that Big Yellow might actually be the Others, and that the war might be a misunderstanding. Or at least, that Big Yellow might have some inside connection that would make it possible to sort out this war. And there's also a hint that Torin might be happy to be done with her military career and free to retire with Craig.