Self-published, 2014, 440 pages
"If you wish for peace, prepare for war." (Royal Navy Motto)
Seventy years ago, the interstellar supercarrier Ark Royal was the pride of the Royal Navy. But now, her weapons are outdated and her solid-state armour nothing more than a burden on her colossal hull. She floats in permanent orbit near Earth, a dumping ground for the officers and crew the Royal Navy wishes to keep out of the public eye. But when a deadly alien threat appears, the modern starships built by humanity are no match for the powerful alien weapons. Ark Royal and her mismatched crew must go on the offensive, buying time with their lives And yet, with a drunkard for a Captain, an over-ambitious first officer and a crew composed of reservists and the dregs of the service, do they have even the faintest hope of surviving....
And returning to an Earth which may no longer be there?
If The Lost Fleet series reminds me of a RTS spaceship combat game, Ark Royal is more like a turn-based 4X game. It's basically an alien invasion scenario with Earth defended by several fleets desperately trying to upgrade their tech tree as the invaders cut through them and capture their colonies.
It's also so heavily derivative of Battlestar Galactica (the author even throws in a self-aware wink to a "rag-tag fleet") that it's practically fan fiction.
The Ark Royal is an obsolete "supercarrier" with a captain who's had nothing to do for years but keep it in a state of pointless readiness and drink a lot. The universe is a far future in which the nation-states of today's Earth have apparently expanded to the stars without much change in geo/interstellar politics. So Nuttall clearly wanted to get away from the "one world government" so common in most futuristic space operas, but little was done to develop the idea of how Britain and America and Russia and Mexico and Japan all having their own colony worlds will change those nations.
Of course it doesn't matter when aliens invade. While all the nations have apparently maintained combat starships just in case, there's never been a serious interstellar shooting war, and humanity has yet to encounter intelligent aliens. That changes abruptly. In response to the loss of a colony, a multinational fleet is assembled to take on the aliens at a heavily defended Russian colony world. The Earth ships are torn apart by the aliens' weapons, but the author carefully describes the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two sides, making the book read much like one of those space combat games I referenced, where the Earth player has been given a scenario with the odds heavily stacked against him, but if he plays his cards right (by correctly deploying his Ark Royal supercarrier, of course!) he can still win.
The Ark Royal turns out to be a trump card because it has heavy solid armor plating, built for the previous generation of space warfare when carriers were more like combination carriers and battlecruisers. There's more than a touch of Space Battleship Yamato as well when the old girl cruises out of retirement to lead the human fleet to (temporary) victory.
Ark Royal, like a lot of successful self-published novels, is written competently but without sufficient editing. There is a lot of repetition, of characters' thoughts, of plot points already explained, and of certain phrases like "He couldn't disagree." The characters have motives and loyalties that swing wildly. There are female starfighter pilots and ship's officers, but there are really only two standard issue female characters: humorless shrew and tearful but nubile hottie. (In fairness, there isn't much more variety among the male characters.)
I enjoyed the book but didn't love it and like most series beginners, Ark Royal basically resolves only the opening scenario of the long campaign, and so far almost nothing has been revealed about the aliens, which annoys the hell out of me. I like self-contained novels with room for more much more than the episodic style that requires a significant commitment to a series. I am undecided about whether to follow this one; it's not bad, but it's no better than all the similar series out there.
Verdict: If you like Battlestar Galactica, 4X space combat games, or formulaic military SF in general, you will probably enjoy Ark Royal. It's neither original nor remarkably well-written, but it's a decent serving of exactly what it promises for genre junkies. 6/10.
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