At heart, Armada is a science fiction adventure blended with a family drama. Our protagonist is a damaged teenager – a product of a single parent family without a father, a smart young everyman with a few self-control issues. He’s the bridge between the two strands of the story; one strand about the movement from teenager to adulthood, about dealing with loss, and the importance of friendship, and the other…well, the other is about Starfighters, alien species, mysterious government agencies, and a great many explosions. It’s to Cline’s credit that he largely manages to balance these competing narratives, and actually merge them into a cohesive whole.
From a character point of view, the focus is very much on our protagonist, the somewhat improbably named Zack Lightman. At the start of the story, he spends a great deal of time at school, where he’s apparently viewed somewhat askance due to an alluded to “Incident” in his past, but seems reasonably well adjusted .When not at school, he’s either working as a clerk at the local video-game emporium, or at home, attempting to avoid his mother, as well as questions about what he’s going to do after finishing high school. If he doesn’t stand in for the reader, he’s certainly the sort of everyday wholesome teen hero that populated family films of the eighties, and it feels like this has been done deliberately. Zack is also apparently one of the top ten players in the world of a particular online game, flying Starfighters against a malevolent alien race with his friends.
Speaking of friends, there’s a supporting cast here as well; Zack’s two best friends, with whom he plays constant rounds of the aforesaid game; Zack’s long suffering, quietly competent, and, perhaps, lonely mother; his high school bully nemesis; the cheerfully obnoxious mentor who serves as his boss. A little way into the narrative, he even picks up a love interest. That said, in some ways they feel a bit thin, increasingly so as they’re joined by other individuals as the plot progresses. They make perfectly good foils for Zack’s own internal journey, and each individual does seem to have a distinct voice, but it would have been nice to see them get more time on the page, to be something more than a collection of traits. Zack’s love interest does manage this to some degree, but even here, the character doesn’t feel like they get enough room to manoeuvre.
The largest relationship hovering over the page is one defined by absence – Zack feels linked to his father, and seems defined by his desire to understand and emulate a man who died when he was an infant. There’s a sense of loss, a sense of pain and a feeling of movement toward closure, which gives Zack a depth that he sorely needs; it also provides the stimulus for some of the most wonderfully fraught emotional moments in the text. To Cline’s credit, he always manages to wrap his characters in emotional envelopes which feel real, feel human. There’s some wonderful moments when Zack and his ensemble crew face off against threats – existential and physical – and the roar of camaraderie off the page is impossible to drown out. And there are quieter, harder moments as well, which may well wring a tear from even the cynical amongst us.
It’s that optimism which makes Cline’s story so compelling, that and a sharp eye for humanity at its best, and what makes people the way that they are. There’s a lot of great stuff here - the action plot rattles along nicely, and there’s enough robotic gunfights to satiate even the greatest scrap metal enthusiast. But the core of the tale is the relationship that Zack has with those around him, and if Cline struggles to make the supporting cast feel deep, he does succeed in making them feel human in their interactions with Zack.