Full disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
There's something refreshing about a boots-on-the-ground alien invasion of Earth. When aliens darken our doorstep, they seldom need to send troops down to pacify the population, probably because any species advanced enough to have interstellar spaceflight capability will also have some pretty terrible weapons. Why send wave after wave of soldiers when some well-placed bombs and a few destroyed satellites will accomplish the same goal? That's the conundrum at the core of Dawn of Destiny, the first book in the Epic series. Three alien species—the Bakma, the Ceratopians, and the Ithini—and their minions have been haranguing the Earth Defense Network (EDEN) for nine years now, but to what end?
Scott Remington, the protagonist, rises quickly through the ranks after facing several pitched battles from which he manages to emerge the hero (or at least not die). This earns him the admiration of his fellow grunts and begrudging respect from most officers—but not all. Scott's competence could quickly grow annoying; thankfully, Stephen compensates by including plenty of people who think that, "Remington is overestimated by everyone." And when Scott does save the day, it's always with a plan that makes sense in the context of the situation, managing to make fantastic battle scenes seem realistic. This balanced perspective keeps Scott from becoming a larger-than-life action hero and plays counterpoint to the book's science fiction conflict of human versus alien.
In general, I loved Stephen's characterization. Scott's companions have diverse background stories and interesting but not one-dimensional personalities and quirks. Some of them, like Jayden, start out stoic and gradually warm up, even manage to find a girl. Others, like the experienced cop, David, and Scott himself, already have signficant others and must struggle to balance their long-distance relationships with their lives in EDEN. And then you've got Becan, who verges on succumbing to the "lovable Irish rascal" trope except that he has genuine moments of weakness—and tenderness too.
As antagonists, the Bakma aren't characters so much as character devices. We really only get to interact with one, and it has a bit part. Indeed, although this book concerns an "Alien War," the aliens play a small role in it. This perplexes even the main characters, who spend a great deal of time speculating on the motives of the Bakma and their fellow aliens—why wage a ground war when they clearly have the ability to simply wipe out humanity from orbit? Dawn of Destiny sets the stage for the rest of the series to explore this all-too-important question, but at the expense of reducing the primary villain to an abstraction. As a result, throughout the numerous combat scenes I couldn't shake the comparison with Starship Troopers out of my head, unfair though it is.
There are a couple of humans who serve as articulate antagonists in the aliens' stead, however. EDEN's highest level is a council of "judges," who are desperately searching for a technological edge over the highly-advanced aliens. Intrigue among the council causes the death of one judge after he stumbles onto a secret his colleague apparently wants to keep secret. I'm looking forward to discovering what this secret is, and what ramifications it's going to have for Scott and his friends. Also, there's the taciturn and unapologetically brutal General Thoor. Borderline psychotic, and definitely a sociopath, he's one piece of bad road, doing whatever it takes to ensure victory. The order to promote Scott to epsilon comes from Thoor himself, pointing toward a creepy, and rocky, future relationship between these two.
Aside from its presentation of the Bakma, Dawn of Destiny falls short in one more aspect of characterization: there's a dearth of badass female heroines. Yes, there's a couple of developed female characters, but they always seem to have support roles—combat medic and wife. And we all know doctors can't fight (wives sure can, but that's neither here nor there...). I wouldn't mind seeing a couple of capable women added to the roster alongside Scott and his current cadre.
I don't want to make a big deal out of this, but also absent are major expletives, which have been downsized and replaced with less profane alternatives, such as "flick" and "veck." This blatant attempt to avoid profanity sticks out like a sore thumb against the otherwise honest and gritty landscape of war. Characters get their fingers blown off, but they don't swear (or at least, Jim, it's not swearing as we know it). Set in the far future, or far far away (BSG and Farscape, I'm looking at you) this would be acceptable and even clever. As it is, it got distracting, particularly during some of the scenes that were supposed to evoke suspense and dread. In one scene, the protagonists are hunting flesh-eating bug aliens in an abandoned school—no power, no plans, no backup. It's the perfect recipe for horror, old-school B-movie alien horror, and then suddenly the characters start saying things like, "I hope to flickin' God" and the moment is gone.
Stephen could also work on his exposition. Occasionally, it's oddly-timed and awkwardly-poised as paragraphs dumped by the narrator after the subject comes up in dialogue. Although this is subjective, I actually prefer it when the exposition is light in the first half the book and then gets heavier later on, once my attention has been captivated by the characters and the story itself. Drop me just enough hints to keep me interested, but I don't need to know about, say, the comparative xenobiology of the Bakma, Ceratopians, and Ithini. It's not a big issue, in that it never compromises the story's unity or breaks up the frequent action scenes that tend to crop up once every couple of chapters. Still, it's something I hope improves as the series continues.
In that same vein, I would have liked to learn more about Earth's culture in this universe. We get some minimal glimpses at what the media is like when Scott does a press conference after winning a prestigious military award; beyond that, we get precious little idea of what civilian life is like on war-torn Earth. How are people coping with nine years of constant alien attacks on major cities? What's this doing to the global unity supposedly in place when the aliens first showed up? Did world peace come with a three-for-one deal, bringing us solutions to world poverty and world hunger as well? Or does humanity face more than just the threat of alien invasion? Certainly, I don't expect Dawn of Destiny to spell everything out for me. In some areas, however, it's rather sparse.
By far, the best part of this book is its action. Stephen writes a mean combat scene. Eschewing overly-flowery descriptions of scenery in favour of clear, crisp tactical overviews of a situation, Stephen's action scenes are always fast paced and high stake. From the moment Scott and his comrades enter the combat zone, we know they're in danger; with each new mission, however, Stephen manages to keep the challenges varied enough that it doesn't get boring. I've been known to get lost during combat scenes because I don't have a good conception of how the battle is unfolding ... not so here; I feel like I'm there, watching through someone's HUD. In many ways, Dawn of Destiny is a favourable mix of movie and video game, a little bit cutscene and a little bit rock and roll—er, I mean action. It's intense and everything you expect from a book in a series called Epic.
So far, the Alien War is more an excuse for conflict, which provides a backdrop for combat scenes and character development. Dawn of Destiny comes in a shiny sci-fi package, but it's more properly a military thriller than thought-provoking science fiction. Did Dawn of Destiny wow me? No. But it did make me laugh at times, and it did provide me with a good afternoon read.