The Last Watch is the debut novel from author, cinematographer, and video editor J.S. Dewes and is the first book in a new series called, The Divide. It tells the story of the crew of The Argus, a spaceship at the edge of the universe, part of a fleet of Sentinels standing guard against the inevitable return of the enemy Viators from beyond the blackness. However, their problems begin without the Viators as they find that the universe is crashing in on them, and somehow they must stop it despite being alone on the far edge of space with no communications and no help from the empire. The story combines likeable rogue characters, interesting scientific speculation, and some subtly great, unpretentious writing into a very entertaining space opera. Although the publishers have humbly billed it as Game of Thrones meets The Expanse, what will come of the series remains to be seen, but it seems to be off to a great start.
Perhaps the most endearing aspect of The Last Watch is the story’s characters. Dewes has smartly limited the cast of this sprawling novel to just a few very important characters, whom the reader will have a hard time not empathizing with. Perhaps it is not the first time that a cast of blackguards has been sent off into space for one reason or another, but the two main characters in this adventure, Cavalon Mercer and Adequin Rake, are very nicely drawn both deep and wide. Cavalon Mercer is the heir to the empire, which he tries to keep secret because everyone else on board The Argus has been sent out to the edge of the universe for crimes against the empire of one sort or another. The story starts with Cavalon’s imprisonment on the ship in lieu of a death sentence after he rebels against his grandfather, the emperor. He is quiet about his crime but eventually reveals what he’s done, and as an example of the author’s dexterity in plotting, his crime is intimately tied to the duty of The Argus, to keep Viators out of the human-dominated universe. Rake also has a past that she slowly reveals to Cavalon, and the stories they tell each other not only reveal their inner humanity and fallibility, but are also very successfully plotted into slower-paced sections of the story as a great contrast to the fast-paced action. Complicating their growing relationship is the return of Rake’s beloved Griffith, whose ship seems to have been lost to the encroaching edge of the universe. But Rake has been keeping a secret from him that could throw their whole lives into hell and take several others down with them. It’s a really well done, deep, and human problem, and it creeps out of the background to throw a spanner in the works.
The other aspect of this novel that I enjoyed quite a bit was the author’s use of scientific speculation. (I use the term specifically because this is not a hard science fiction book.) The science becomes the integral to the plot, which I think is missing in some science fiction. For example, this is not a gang crime story or a war that happens to be set in space. The universes is collapsing—big science problem. Equally important, though, is how Dewes uses the science to create a good ol’ fashioned sense of wonder that harkens back to classic speculative fiction. As the edge of the universe creeps closer, time starts to slip a little, forward and backward, which Dewes deftly shows instead of having her narrator explain it in boring, abstract exposition. Likewise, the characters have certain active tattoos embedded mostly on their arms, according to their class and rank and other societal categories. This idea leans more toward fantasy than science fiction, but it is beautifully done. The concept is intriguing at first, but when Dewes puts it into action, it is surprising and very well thought out. There are other science fiction tropes in the novel that readers of the genre will recognize such as abandoned spaceships, communications units that fail, characters that age differently according to where and how fast they travel, etc., and they all seem quite well done to me, especially when the characters get to the massive space buoy at the edge of the universe. Dewes does a fantastic job of immersing the reader in this giant mechanical construct, which I think many writers would find difficult to translate into words on the page.
And words on the page is really what swept me through this fine novel. The writing is completely unpretentious, sharp, occasionally witty, and everything comes through the characters, not the narrator. The third-person narrator facilitates the story in such a way the narration is nearly invisible, allowing the characters to always be in the forefront of the action and dialogue.
But is it grimdark? I always like to ask myself this question near the end of my reviews because we are, after all, Grimdark Magazine. However, when I come across a book that cannot be locked down to grimdark, I am still mostly concerned about whether or not I enjoyed the story. The Last Watch contains nice grim settings that show the desolation of outer space, with its space junk and abandoned ships. In this particular story, there has been a movement to retrieve personnel from the edges of the universe, but no one has told the rogues aboard The Argus, which is a pretty grim situation. The characters all have criminal or transgressive backgrounds that have led them to be outcast at the edge of the universe, which I enjoy in grimdark fiction. Both Cavalon and Rake have made decision in their pasts that society has deemed morally wrong. So in that way, The Last Watch should be very appealing to grimdark readers. Overall, I am more inclined to think of The Last Watch as less a grimdark story than a story of unlikely heroes. Nevertheless, it is very well executed and beautifully written in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. I enjoyed it very much, and I highly recommend it to readers of space opera and other character-driven science fiction. I look forward to reading book two in The Divide Series, The Exiled Fleet, which is currently scheduled for August 2021.
The Last Watch is scheduled for release on 20 April 2021 in the US by Tor Books.
Read The Last Watch by J.S. Dewes
This review was originally published in Grimdark Magazine Issue #26.