Review: Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier

Posted: March 14, 2013 by in Books We Like...and Hate (3/5 single_star) Meta: Myke Cole, Military SF, Science Fiction

When Steve read SHADOW OPS: CONTROL POINT (EBR Review) last year he was able to find both the good and the bad in Myke Cole’s debut novel. His review was fair and accurate, and I would have expected no less. When I read it a week ago I couldn’t find as many good things to say of it. I recognized the potential within but I couldn’t get past my intense hate of the protagonist, Oscar Britton. Ordinarily I would have skipped the sequel altogether but there seemed to be general agreement that SHADOW OPS: FORTRESS FRONTIER (Amazon) was an improvement over the debut. I wanted to see Myke succeed so I gave it a shot. For the most part I’m glad I did.

Colonel Alan Bookbinder is a glorified paper-pusher. Every day he faces armies of documents on the battlefield of his desktop. That is, until he unexpectedly and inexplicably manifests a magical power. In no time Alan is torn away from his comfy office, separated from his loving family. He is thrust into a logistics role at Forward Operating Base Frontier, America’s armed presence on a hostile alien planet called the Source. When Oscar Britton escapes from FOB Frontier he causes a massive crisis, leaving the soldiers stationed there without support in the face of increasing assaults. To save the men under his command, Alan will have to become a true soldier and a true leader.

It only took a few chapters before I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. Alan Bookbinder (yes Bookbinder, apparently his occupation was fated at birth) is not the despised Oscar Britton. Despite being a desk jockey, Alan displays more courage in the first few pages than Oscar does in all of SHADOW OPS: CONTROL POINT. As an administrative worker posted on a frontline military base he is a fish out of water. He’s painfully aware of his shortcomings, he doesn’t delude himself as to his position in the scheme of things. He struggles to find his command voice and he’s determined to do his job to the best of his abilities. It’s charming to follow the progression of Alan’s character arc as he learns to assert himself and eventually become a fighter and a commander. It’s also neat to read from the bureaucrat’s POV for once, given all the military fiction where “real” soldiers find themselves battling logistical and political red tape. It’s also great to experience the Supernatural Operations Corps from a less negative perspective than Oscar’s.

SHADOW OPS: FORTRESS FRONTIER doesn’t waste much time getting into the thick of it. Having read the first book in the series I appreciate this greatly, though newcomers may not. Still, I think this book is mostly accessible to the uninitiated.

Things were going very, very well for the first 80 pages – and then Oscar Britton made his return. I knew that Oscar would be featured but I was unaware that he would get his own POV. I was far less enthusiastic about the following 80 pages. Oscar is as hypocritical and grating as ever. Not even the people he broke out of prison like him, and rightly so. At one point the character Swift tells Oscar that he is a “sanctimonious, self-righteous douche bag” so at least I’m not alone in that belief. You might also expect Oscar to be less trusting given the betrayals he has faced. All it takes to earn his approval is a few kind words and since that’s the case I’ve got a bridge I’d love to sell him. “They told me you were dumb, just not how dumb.” Go ahead and pile low IQ on top of that extensive list of flaws and you’re left with a character that is impossible to care about.

I will say this about Oscar Britton, the anti-Mary Sue: he’s no longer indecisive. I can’t call him Lieutenant Waffles anymore.

Therese, the obligatory love interest is nearly as annoyingly smug as Oscar. It doesn’t help that her only interest in Oscar is his status as protagonist. The relationship is heavily contrived. Sarah Downer is pretty well worthless. I started out hating her in SHADOW OPS: CONTROL POINT because she massacred a bunch of school kids with her magic and Oscar spent the rest of the novel making excuses for her behavior. I can’t even hate her anymore. She manages to get horribly injured in almost every battle fought. Both books lack a strong female presence. Therese is a love interest, Sarah is an ineffectual child, and Woon (who is introduced in this book) undergoes no development.

I was excited that Harlequin made an appearance later on in SHADOW OPS: FORTRESS FRONTIER. His conflict with Oscar made him the hero of the first book in my eyes and though his POV is brief, it had me hoping that he might feature more heavily in future entries to the series. None of the other characters get much development. Most are flat and featureless. The villains are not “heroes of their own stories” they are just villains of this one.

SHADOW OPS: FORTRESS FRONTIER introduces the naga, a race of snake-people. The naga are much more regal and intimidating than the goblins. Including the naga and the Indians was a wise move on Myke’s behalf. It expands the setting past the United States (and the US base). One of my biggest complaints with the first book was that it failed to capitalize on the global ramifications of the Great Reawakening. The naga are extremely cool and unique as far as fantasy creatures go. They, like the Indians, also have their own agenda calling to mind the quote, “Defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies.”

In tone and plot SHADOW OPS: FORTRESS FRONTIER feels similar to more traditional military science fiction than fantasy. Better than it's predecessor.

The action is even tighter than before. The fight against the agni danav was a standout scene, and the battle at the finale is a thrilling moment. The combination of magic powers and modern military might against hordes of wicked creatures makes for an exciting read. The diplomacy with the naga can be just as compelling as a good fight scene. Portamancy (the magic of portals) is cool but it’s so useful as both transportation and offense that the only way to prevent it from being overused to solve every problem in the universe is to give it to Oscar Britton, the wildly unimaginative grunt. Assassinating the witch Scylla could have been as easy as opening a portal behind her and shooting her in the back of the head but this is Oscar we’re talking about. It would have been equally as logical for the SOC to send a scout sniper to take out Scylla from half a mile off come to think of it – she’s powerful but not omnipotent. Alan’s magic proves to be just another reason to love him. Alan does not belong to any of the establish schools of magic, instead he is somewhat of a magic thief. He can steal the magic of other sorcerers and bind it to objects. This struck me as a neat wink at the RPG crowd. Instead of the Flaming Sword of Xuzl you get ice-enchanted shotgun slugs.

In tone and plot SHADOW OPS: FORTRESS FRONTIER feels similar to more traditional military science fiction than fantasy. This suits me just fine. The first book was an irritating struggle against authority, revolving around the same argument time and again until the final page. This novel examines the challenges of leadership and duty. The writing is as strong as before, as that’s something Myke already had a solid grasp of. SHADOW OPS: FORTRESS FRONTIER makes massive leaps of improvement over its predecessor, earning my grudging respect and affirming my faith in the potential of this series. Now if only he’d just kill Oscar Britton…

  • Recommended Age: 16+
  • Language: Lots of swearing, these are rough military types after all
  • Violence: Death and destruction, guns and magic
  • Sex: None

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