Full disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
Reviewing series always poses a challenge. I've reviewed the two previous books in Lee Stephen's Epic series: Dawn of Destiny and Outlaw Trigger, and I don't think it's demeaning to Hero to call it "more of the same." Most of what I said regarding the first two books stands for this book as well: there's plenty of action, great dialogue, and the plot, as they say, thickens to a pleasing viscosity.
Hero begins in a much darker place than either of the first two books did. Scott Remington, once the Golden Lion, is now a feared Nightman of Novosibirsk. He's lost his fiancée, murdered an innocent man, and pretty much shut himself off from anyone who cares about him. This all happened in Outlaw Trigger and makes the direction of Hero obvious: this is a story of redemption—and not just redemption for Scott—and rediscovery of what it means to be a hero.
Try as I might (and I tried really, really hard), I could not enjoy Scott's redemption as much as I'd like to enjoy it. Scott's arc is so technically precise from a literary viewpoint, and that's the problem. There's a little meta-cynic inside me puncturing my suspension of disbelief as it comments on Scott's progression from anti-hero back to hero, Nightman to Black Lion. It happens exactly as I expect, and for that reason, it fell flat. There are some things that work excellently when they meet expectations rather than defy them—but Scott's redemption isn't one of those things.
For me, the best part of Hero is the parallel development that happens for Esther, Svetlana, and Dostoevsky. It's the intersection of these characters' quests that coheres the motif of redemption. Even though I found Scott's personal issues dull, these three characters had more than enough going on to distract me.
In Outlaw Trigger, the Fourteenth company gets a tactical scout by the name of Esther Brooking. On her first big mission, she mistakenly comms the wrong unit and sends most of its members into the waiting arms of the enemy—a costly beginner's mistake. Now Esther's trying to do everything she can to make up for that misstep and is more than ever driven to excel. At the same time, she's one of several of Scott's comrades who refuse to give up on him, even when he seems unreachable. Interestingly enough, she resents the arrival of Svetlana, who proclaims herself the saviour of both Scott and the Fourteenth, leading to a bit of rivalry. Also, I was critical of the earlier books' lack of combat-driven heroines. Finally, in Hero, Esther earns her redemption and shows that she can use a gun. I was quite pleased.
I eagerly awaited the return of Svetlana. She may be Scott's link to his past life, but she herself needs redemption. In her time away, she's realized that her relationship with Scott was as aborted as her relationship with the ill-fated Anatoly Baranov. Svetlana blames herself for setting Scott on the path to becoming a Nightman (a charge I find spurious, but that's neither here nor there) and thus feels responsible, in part, for his current state. She returns out of a sense of guilt and duty and finds her task entirely an uphill one. I also appreciate the ambiguous nature of Svetlana and Scott's relationship: she could be a potential future love interest, but they could also just remain good friends.
Dostoevsky, a Nightman, is the Fourteenth's executive officer, and he played a crucial role in Scott's coerced recruitment into the Nightmen. Beginning with Outlaw Trigger, however, that pesky conscience has been rearing its small, persistent head, and finally Dostoevsky begins to listen. This is perhaps the most poignant redemption arc, in my opinion. Scott became a Nightman out of guilt; he wears the armour as a weighty symbol that he took an innocent life. Doestoevsky became a Nightman by active choice; presumably he rose to the rank of fulcrum through dedication to his duty. He accepted General van Thoor as, if not a god, a messianic figure to whom he pledged his life. Compared to Dostoevsky, Scott's just having a bad couple of months.
It's the comparison, however, that's the best part. Watching these four characters go through their personal tribulations toward the same goal is literary harmony at its best. And these individual plots come together to form an important theme about war. These are soldiers, humans at war, and that takes a psychological toll. People under pressure make mistakes, have regrets, and there's no such thing as "making up for one's mistakes"—there's only "doing better." Even a good man, like Scott Remington, can't avoid being scarred by war.
There were a couple of quaint, humourous parts of Hero. Firstly, the Fourteenth adopted a dog whom Svetlana named Flopper. Secondly, Will "BBQ Sauce" Harbinger and Derrick Cole, formerly of the Eighth, join the Fourteenth and immediately marvel at their good fortune to be in the only unit where women dump porridge on each other (I kid you not). Now, these weren't my favourite moments: I'm just not a dog person, and while I did find Will's stunned reactions funny asides, that's all they are, asides. However, I mention them not to criticize them, but to praise their inclusion: this is a war story, and in a time of war, soldiers always need outlets for their frustration. A little frivolity and levity is necessary to keep everyone sane. Asides though they are, these scenes are important asides that strengthen Stephen's universe and further emphasizes the seriousness of the war going on between humanity and extraterrestrials.
Speaking of which, we still don't know why aliens are attacking Earth in utterly illogical ways. I'm going to limit what I say here so I can keep the review spoiler free. In the prologue chapter, we witness the shadowy Judge Archer recording a message for someone (Intelligence Director Kang?) that reveals Archer knows more about the cause of the war than we previously thought. Apparently, the Bakma, Ithini, and the Ceratopians aren't the only ones interested in Earth—there are other species out there, who haven't arrived yet, but whose coming apparently won't mean cake and candles.
I stand by my opinion that Archer, and most of the other judges, are cardboard characters. I do enjoy their machinations, however. Stephen puts us in a nice moral conundrum. As far as we know, Archer and his cadre still have the best interests of humanity in mind—well, they think they have the greater good in mind; for all I know, they could turn out to be Knights Templar. However, it seems evident, at least so far, that Archer isn't working against humanity. Still, he's skulking around behind the backs of the legitimate authorities. Not exactly laudable behaviour.
Then again, much of the book consists of less-than-laudable behaviour. Hero is greyer than a bucket of dirty mop water—to good effect. We even see some humanization of the enemy aliens, particularly the Bakma. In the first two books, the Bakma were little more than external threats; none of them were even one-dimensional characters. That changes in Hero, where Scott personally rescues a Bakma prisoner from execution and establishes a hesitant rapport. This is an important step in the evolution of both Scott and the series.
And there I shall end: the evolution of the series. My opinion of the Epic series has continually improved with each book, not in leaps and bounds but by steady increments. This series, and each component book for that matter, is easy to read but not light reading, consisting of a well-paced mixture of action, emotion, and intrigue. It's solid, with both its flaws and its virtues in the best places for each.