Poor Man’s Fight by Elliott Kay

Poor Man's Fight

– By Jacob Foxx –

Amazon has been an excellent platform for self-published and indie authors over the past five years. As part of the enterprise, they established Amazon Publishing which has a family of imprints, including 47North and Skyscape. Elliott Kay’s Poor Man’s Fight is one of many success stories among the Amazon imprints. The novel was revised and re-released this summer. It is one of many examples of new voices in genre fiction that are finding ways to break through without taking the traditional route.

Before Amazon, the best bet for military SF authors was Baen Books. If Baen didn’t buy the manuscript, there weren’t many other publishers that inhabited the space. The Military SF subgenre is a pretty specialized niche. People who read it love it while others find it painfully boring, a bit juvenile, and at times misogynistic. Every once in a while, a good one rises to the top and deserves to be recognized. Poor Man’s Fight is one of them.

Tanner Malone is a high school graduate who bombs on his college entry exams. A bad alarm clock and panic lead to a future with heavy student loan debt. No one is going to give a scholarship to someone with low scores. To help pay for college, he joins the local planetary navy, called the Archangel Navy, which is essentially the Coast Guard of his home system. The bulk of the book is the experiences of this almost valedictorian transforming from a cautious nerd into a war hero.

It is the ultimate nerd fantasy. The unlikely hero rises from being just another smart kid to being a war hero, receiving medals, popularity, and of course, better luck with the ladies. Tanner Malone’s journey is compelling and demonstrates the inevitable challenges of a reluctant, unenthusiastic smart kid that tries to become a soldier. The best part is that Malone isn’t a natural hero or leader, he develops these qualities during the book largely through training and a little sagely advice from his friends.

The details of basic training and some of the inner workings of military bureaucracy feel very real. As it turns out, the author served in the Coast Guard. The hard science and technology also have enough basis in our current understanding in physics to be plausible while not being overwhelming. Elliott Kay did an excellent job avoiding the scourge of sci-fi writers: infodumping.

The other characters all played their roles well. There was Madelyn, Tanner’s high school sweetheart who also joins the military, and his friend Alicia from boot camp. Other than these two, his journey was largely an isolated one. There are also his many nemesis including jealous crewmates, and arrogant officers. While the novel is largely about his journey through basic training, the antagonists in the book are a violent group of pirates that threaten the Archangel system.

The depiction of space pirates was a little cliché but seems to have been partially inspired by the pirates of the 18th and 19th centuries. Think Treasure Island in space.

Casey and Lauren lead the crew of the Vengeance, recruiting a young man named Darren to join them and become a pirate. Darren becomes immersed in pirate life, the violence, theft, and enjoyment of prostitutes. The nature of the pirate crew and their system felt akin to the old school pirate days of a captain and quartermaster. They are democratic and anarchic at the same time. Instead of a rigid chain of command, their subordination is on an ongoing voluntary basis.

Some characters were stereotypical for military SF, including the sexually aggressive female crew members, overbearing drill sergeant, and foul-mouthed womanizing soldiers and pirates. Military SF likes to replace traditional romance and flirtation with a courtship of sexual equality, where the woman is often the aggressor. Tanner is no ladies man yet finds himself gaining the attention of several ladies as he progresses in his military career. There were a few parts where the drill sergeant had cheesy lines, but it wasn’t often. The pirates, meanwhile, were sort of what you’d expect despite their interesting internal governance.

I liked this book a lot and struggled to find things to criticize in order to make the review a bit more balanced. Cliché or not, all of it fit well together into a beautifully executed novel. The only real knock I can think of is that it has a pretty conventional plot. It fits comfortably in the tradition of Starship Troopers with no real innovative aspects, with the exception of the pirates’ perspective. There is a contrast between Tanner’s experience in the military and Darren’s experience with the pirates, one that is interesting at a few points but forgettable in others. Perhaps if Darren’s character was a bit more developed, the contrast would’ve been a unique theme.

Otherwise, it is an excellent novel. I highly recommend for fans of hard science fiction and military science fiction. It isn’t necessarily young adult fiction but I think a lot of high school and college-age readers will relate to the problems of student loan debt, and for-profit education system.