John G. Hemry,
Burden of Proof
(Ace, 2004)

With Burden of Proof, the follow-up novel to A Just Determination, John G. Hemry cements his position as the best writer of legalistic military science fiction working today.

Drawing on his own naval career, Hemry brings the world of the U.S. Space Navy of 2100 to vivid life, populating it with some of the most human, realistic, vibrant characters I've ever been introduced to. Paul Sinclair, recently promoted from ensign to lieutenant junior grade, is a remarkable hero. Committed and hard-working, he cares only about doing his job to the best of his ability and constantly chides himself for his own small mistakes. While he struggles to live up to the expectations of some of his senior officers, he is on the best of terms with most of his fellow junior officers and the ranks of enlisted men and women, actively seeking the advice of those around him and always acting in the most thoughtful, ethical of ways.

Things are going pretty well for Paul. His relationship with Jen Shen remains strong, even though she now serves on a different ship, and he has finally witnessed a return to normalcy after his critical involvement in the courtmartial trial of his previous captain. Unfortunately for Paul, that two-week legal training course he took early in his career is about to come back and bite him once again.

I love the opening of this novel, as it features the disruption of a test-firing mission by protestors. In a remarkable scene, Greenspacers fly in and launch themselves into the target zone in individual pods, forcing Sinclair's ship, the Michaelson, to pick them up one by one and take them back to port. Soon thereafter, most unexpectedly, an explosion rocks the ship and takes out most of forward engineering. With the chief engineer missing in action and the fire suppression system not working, Sinclair leads the dangerous fire-fighting mission into the affected area.

It soon becomes clear that Chief Asher died in the explosion, and an investigation concludes that Asher caused the disaster by working on a critical piece of equipment alone -- a clear violation of navy policy. The man in charge of that investigation happens to be the father of Jen Shen, a man who has already made it clear that he finds Sinclair unworthy of his daughter's affection. The official report actually blames Paul -- indirectly -- for the tragedy, but the most galling thing of all is the awarding of a medal to Lt. Silver, the new replacement for Paul's best buddy on the ship. Anyone with eyes can see that Silver gets by on personal charm alone while foisting his work on his subordinates (including Sinclair) -- and Silver was particularly useless at the time of the explosion.

Soon, information reaches Paul that casts the official report's conclusions in doubt, and Sinclair is anxious to clear Asher's name and see justice done. The focus of attention quickly becomes Lt. Silver, putting Sinclair in a tough position. If he recommends courtmartial proceedings against Silver based on his growing evidence, some will question whether he is trying to make Silver the scapegoat in order to deflect the doubts cast upon his own performance. There's another tiny little matter to consider, as well --Silver is the son of a powerful vice admiral. Once again, Sinclair is forced to make a tough choice that could threaten his reputation and naval career -- not to mention his relationship with Jen Shen, as her father will of course be called to testify for the defense.

The case against Silver is far from a slam-dunk because virtually all of the evidence is circumstantial. Clearly, though, that evidence points to Silver's wrongdoing. As in A Just Determination, the climax of the novel plays out in a military courtroom. It is here that Hemry's incredible skills at characterization really come to the fore, as this is by no means a boring courtroom drama.

Hemry has done the impossible and actually produced a novel more exciting, more engrossing and more impressive than A Just Determination. I'm quickly coming to the conclusion that Hemry is the best science fiction writer on the current market. No other author manages to hook me mind, body and soul from the very first page, and no other author creates characters who become such an integral part of my life.

The first hundred pages are quite telling, as Hemry spends all of that initial time describing Sinclair's performance on the job and his interaction with friends and fellow officers. Only when the reader is firmly grounded in Sinclair's character and the nature of life aboard a space navy vessel does the central action of the novel, namely the explosion, take place. It's a picture perfect approach to making this legalistic science fiction thriller such an engrossing, addictive reading experience.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 23 October 2004

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