Be more than you can be
With a gentle evening at the end of Spring and some farewell gifts for our bookstore “minder”, the Beamers gathered to ponder the morality of war, particularly when fought by and with magical soldiers, as detailed in Myke Cole’s military fantasy, Shadow Ops #1: Control Point. While the book gave off some of the signals of a first novel, the synergy of its military and fantasy elements kept most of us involved and reading.
I Don’t Know, But I’ve Been Told
Set in an alternate US that is facing sudden emergence of magical ability, seemingly randomly, the Supernatural Operations Corps (SOC) is a new branch of the US military tasked with capturing and harnessing the newly Manifesting magicians. Oscar Britton, a lieutenant with the Vermont Air National Guard, involved in a mission to capture a pair of teenage “Selfers” (unreported magicians – cf. unregistered mutants), finds that he, too, is a Latent with the ability to open gates between locations and, not trusting the SOC, runs. He does not get far and is conscripted into a shadow war taking place on the world from which the magic seems to flow (the Source). Added to a Coven of prohibited (Probe) magicians, he struggles to master his talent and to figure out whether he should “raise the flag” (commit to the military) or escape. Once he gets the bomb out of his chest, that is.
Hey-ey Ar-my, Back-Packin’ Ar-my!
As a military veteran who has served three tours in Iraq, Mr. Cole delivers a book that demonstrates a close familiarity with military life and procedures. Which is one reason that the book features a glossary of acronyms and terms (a feature that Nick did not discover till much later in his reading). The attitudes and outlooks of most of the uniformed characters are very “gung ho” and their speak, peppered with military slang and profanity, rings true for those of us who have acquaintance with military folks. (“Outstanding” is a very common term of approval in both the book and in military life.)
Mr. Cole hits most of the tropes of military fiction, with frequent scenes of combat action, strenuous training under the guidance of instructors who could moonlight as sadists, a steady stream of descriptions of hardware and operational procedures, and the conflicted morality of being a part of a cohesive unit while still keeping an individual conscience. Chris thought the book was a very dense read, due to its many details and many shifting battle scenes. I was a bit more used to military fiction and mil-speak, meaning I could recognize or puzzle out the acronyms quickly, but even I would have liked to have some numbered diagrams to help track Oscar’s missions, particularly when he starts “gating” himself and his opponents and colleagues in, around, back, and forth.
Your Baby Was Home When You Left! You’re Right!
Oscar is the protagonist and the single, steady viewpoint character for the book. We tended to like him, even if, as Liz noted, we spent perhaps more time in his head than we needed to. Donna admired his integrity, his willingness to follow orders when those orders led to preserving and protecting life, even for his opponents. The opening scene, which features a firefight (literally) against two teenagers who are unleashing pyrotechnic magic, puts Oscar into conflict with an experienced military mage, Harlequin, over the issue of capturing a helpless Probe rather than killing her.
Later, in the Source, where the US has established a military occupation, Oscar sticks up for the indigenes (nicknamed “Goblins”) who help the military, as other, hostile Goblins raid and firebomb the camp. It is probably not a coincidence, as Fran noted, that Oscar is African-American, which makes him better able to see and react against the friendly Goblins being abused and treated as second-class members of the unit. Several of us were amused at how Mr. Cole slipped in Oscar’s heritage when, during his fugitive phase, he reflects on raising “no more attention than any black man in Vermont”.
How Did You Earn Your Living? How Did You Earn Your Pay?
Oscar’s integrity and his natural bent for the disciplined military life lead him into a number of moral dilemmas, which form the core of the book, as Chris observed. While military operations depend on rapid adherence to and execution of orders, those orders need to be “lawful”. We all know that “just following orders” is no excuse, and Oscar constantly struggles with that need to find the lawful basis for authority before he will willingly commit himself. Nick was reminded of Cool Hand Luke, with Oscar as the Paul Newman character, an outsider who cannot simply conform to an unjust system but must rebel. The problem we tended to find, though, was the amount of such introspection and the rapid changes of direction that Oscar undergoes, often within the same scene, just sitting around a table with his Coven colleagues. Since the book is centered on Oscar, we need to understand him and his reasons in order to really get a grasp on where the moral center truly lies.
The trouble is that many of Oscar’s moral quandaries come piled atop each other. A raid on rebel Apache sorcerers winds up including a lot of non-combatant Native Americans among the targets, but before we can fully digest their fate, Oscar is exposed to the torture of the Apache leader, whose capture was the objective of the mission. Enough disquieting details leak through, like the scene with a drooling gate-maker and the medical files that Oscar finds explaining how he was lobotomized and that others (like Oscar) could receive the same treatment, so that ultimately we distrust the military. And most of us agreed with Chris that we could see Oscar needing to escape, as he does at the conclusion.
Again, we are hit with a pair of decisions, one to spare the pursuing Harlequin and one to kill Billy, the drooling gate magician, a quick combination of scenes that suggested to Liz that the author was trying to focus attention on Oscar’s moral judgement. Was he being naive or honorable in freeing an enemy likely to return? Was he being merciful in ending Billy’s captivity or pragmatic in eliminating the biggest magical threat to his continued freedom? We argued both sides but decided to postpone making a call. Maybe Book #2 would provide more evidence.
So Make Sure You Get it Right, Or You’ll End Up in His Sights
And the existence of a series, as well as this being a first novel, also brought up some of our questions. Donna enjoyed the way that background information was woven into the header paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter, something that she often skips but found very valuable in this work. At the same time, she also thought that the book could have benefitted from a stronger editorial influence, such as pruning out and condensing some of Oscar’s many internal monologues to help us follow the development of his moral judgement. I thought that the plethora of moral questions was a reflection of the author struggling to include everything that he could imagine would concern his characters, in every conceivable circumstance, which is again a trait often seen in first novels and which could be ameliorated by some deft editing.
Along the same lines, there was a general agreement that the combat scenes could have been shortened to greater effect, with some of the more graphic violence skipped or seen after the fact. One aspect that could have been expanded was a bit more of the internal lives of the other characters, admittedly not easy given that it is Oscar’s book. I would have enjoyed learning more about Therese, the healer who was forced to resort to “Rending” (offensive body warping) and who resented Oscar for making her go back to her bad ways. And we all seemed to recognize Scylla, the “witch” (Negramancer, the black magic of decay) who Oscar frees, as a classic nemesis who will haunt later books.
Sound Off! One, Two. Sound Off! Three, Four.
In the end, we did enjoy the book, tossing a number of 6’s and 7’s at it, with particular Beamers offering to recommend it to readers who like military fiction. We split on the question of whether we would continue to read other volumes in the series (the first trilogy is complete and a second trilogy of prequels is now being published). Chris, who has met Myke Cole, called the work intense, a lot like its author, and he would prefer a bit of a breather in between books. On that point, we could all nod in agreement.