Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this title from the publisher in exchange for review consideration. While I make every attempt to avoid spoilers, please be aware that an ARC synopsis, press release, or review request may disclose details that are not revealed in the published cover blurb.
Dragon of the Stars largely eschews the pulp adventure of Alex J. Cavanaugh's Cassastar saga, opting instead for a more mature sort of morality tale. It's a rather dark evolution of his earlier space opera themes, and one with an air of desperation, rather than optimism, behind it, but certainly no less exciting because of it.
To put it in Star Trek terms, this is Cavanaugh's DS9 to the Cassastar's TNG - and that's entirely a good thing!
Lt. Commander Aden Pendar is one of the most intriguing leads I've ever come across in a space opera tale. He's smart, clever, and technically proficient, with an intuitive understanding of tactics and strategy. Unfortunately, he's painfully obtuse when it comes to how to manage or relate to other human beings. He's coldly impersonal, a stickler for regulations, and quick to offer correction when appreciation is due. He's admirable as a soldier, but entirely unlikable as a leader (or as a human being).
It's the growth and development of Pendar's character that really drives the tale, especially once he's made aware that his long-expected promotion to Captain is entirely dependent upon him learning how to relate to his crew. While he does get the command he's always wanted, it's a temporary command, of a skeleton crew, on a mission that seems doomed to failure. The fate of an entire world rests, quite literally, on his shoulders, and he has to learn how to relate to the officers inside the uniforms he commands if they're to succeed.
The core conflict here, the one around which the morality tale is based, is exceptionally intriguing. On one side you have the Alliance, a group of races and cultures that are willing to go to war and destroy an entire planet to prevent one race from increasing its own wealth and power. On the other hand, you have the Hyrathians themselves, a culture that's become wealthy through the production of a highly addictive drug, and who are willing to turn a blind eye to slavery in order to gain that wealth and power. It a conflict borne of fear, prejudice, politics, and greed, in which there really is no 'good' side.
It all, of course, leads to a desperate search for the legendary Dragon, a ship with which the Hyrathians could claim immediate victory, but which went rogue years ago. It's a shameful secret that Hyrath has been content ignore, and finding it promises to raise more questions and conflicts of conscience that it solves, especially once we discover why it's remained lost for so long.
Even if this is a darker, more thoughtful tale, Dragon of the Stars is still full of cinematic action sequences that even the most jaded space opera fan will love. Cavanaugh maintains the intimate focus and quick pacing that we've come to expect of him, and surrounds Pendar with a crew that draws the reader in and humanizes the tale, providing the breathing room we need to allow for Pendar's growth. It's still as fun and exciting as his first forays into space opera, but the darker themes and deeper level of introspection absolutely elevate the novel to a new level.
Paperback, 276 pages
Expected publication: April 7th 2015 by Dancing Lemur Press L.L.C.