I bought Myke Cole’s debut novel the day it came out, on the strength of the reading I saw him do at last summer’s Readercon. Shadow Ops: Control Point is the first in a series, and it’s a quick read. I started it on the train ride from Trenton to Philadelphia, read a bit before class, more while waiting for the train home, and finished it just as we pulled into my station. Now? I’m disappointed that that next book won’t be available until 2013.
Control Point falls into the category of military fantasy, in that it’s a military story with magic in it. It’s a tale set in the modern US armed forces, following the life of Oscar Britton: a dedicated soldier who bristles at the introduction of magic into the chain of command, but finds himself suddenly developing magical (called “Latent”) powers. Convinced that his particular brand of sorcery will get him killed by his own government, he runs. But the government is large and it is everywhere, and it has plans for Oscar.
While there are some issues that I hope Cole fixes in later books, overall I enjoyed Control Point very much. It’s heavy on the military jargon, which I’m comfortable with because I happen to be a fan of military SF, as well as having grown up around Army folk. It’s a pleasure to read, actually, because instead of a fantasy author making up languages which aren’t linguistically feasible or creating unit structures that would never survive a battle, Cole doesn’t make the mistake of hoping his readers are ignorant on the subject. He writes as if his military unit (he is still a reservist with the Coast Guard) will be critiquing his work, and that gives a sense of realism and firmly grounds the reader in this world. If you’re not used to it, the first few pages can seem like a wall of unbreakable code, but once Cole’s established himself as an author who knows what he’s talking about, he lets the acronyms and slang slide away. They still exist as part of the setting but as part of a background you’ve become comfortable with.
The magic is well balanced, heavily grounded in traditional European fantasy, with a little bit of D&D thrown in. While most people manifest in one of the major schools (fire, water, earth, air) there are other schools which are more rare and therefore more valuable. Magical surgery, for example, is considered the rarest of the allowed schools. Of course there are those prohibited schools too, like using Elemental magic to control monsters made of stone or flame, or the ability to open a gate in space to anywhere you’ve ever seen. These minor schools are the most interesting, and Cole even introduces a character with a kind of rotting magic which isn’t on the list … leaving the door open for other kinds of sorcery to crop up in later books.
It’s fun to see this kind of magic, long a staple of sword and sorcery novels, get a tactical update. One of the best parts of Control Point is that within the confines of the world Cole’s creating, the world’s reaction to a sudden population of wizards and witches makes perfect sense. There was never a point where I thought, “Really? They’d do that?” because yes, they would. What the government can’t use as a weapon can be sold to private contractors who don’t have the same restrictions on their actions. Why wouldn’t that be the case? It’s already true here.
Another nice touch is the use of “quotes” to head the chapters. These quotes are taken from briefings, manuals, and news outlets, and give tiny snapshots of Cole’s world, showing how people are reacting to magic outside of Oscar Britton’s immediate experience. Because the novel and the narration are so tightly focused on Oscar’s life, thoughts, reactions, we see almost nothing of the rest of society, and these little snippets round out our experience with the novel. As I said, it is Oscar’s world. Here’s where we get into the book’s few problems: race, and sex. Because we’re only seeing the world through Oscar’s eyes, we don’t have a counterpoint to tell us that his views aren’t right, so the narration ends up promoting some harmful ideas, particularly of women.
To begin with, we’re introduced to Oscar as a man with “brown skin”. That’s the extent of our knowledge of his ethnicity. Aside from a band of Native Americans, who’re introduced later in the story and have their own issues, Oscar appears to be the only person of color in the entire book. Even his hair, which might have been an indicator of race, is shaved away, leaving him bald and a little generic.
On the other hand, Native Americans play an interesting role in Control Point, and I think Cole did a great job of showing the problematic way in which we view this culture, especially in the Western world. A portion of one population of American Indians has decided not to comply with the US government’s new rules about magic, and so they’ve taken over their reservation and declared themselves independent. A civil war ensues, pitting federal agents against the native tribe who themselves are fighting with those on the reservation who want to be part of the USA. This has happened in our past, though without the magic, so seeing it play out in Cole’s novel doesn’t ring any alarms. Yeah, that would probably happen. But instead of taking just one view of the situation, Cole manages to show the military’s view (put down the uprising of anarchists) and the media’s view (someone save the poor primitive tribal people) and the internal conflict within the tribe, without take a side. All views of the situation are a little bit wrong, as far as Oscar is concerned, and that’s probably the truest interpretation.
Unfortunately, his broad view of Native Americans doesn’t mean he views woman in a similarly open-minded way. The one major flaw of this novel is that each and every woman in it is a flat stereotype. This could be a problem of Oscar’s perception of women, which he might grow out of in later books, but because we’ve got this tight internal narration, the book is telling us that this is how women are. You have the teenage girl who needs to be saved, and whose view of the world changes literally overnight as she develops a crush on an older man. You have the innocent angel, beautiful healer, who’s manipulated by men who understand her better than she understands herself – changing her mind about her place in the military by introducing her to a situation where she has to help the wounded, and of course she’s too kind to refuse. You have the dark haired witch, overtly sexual but scary in her hunger for destruction. You have the woman who breaks down under battle pressure, the tightly-wound military officer who’s barely a line on the page, the mannish Rugby playing woman who isn’t really seen as a woman at all. And nearly every one of them blushes or smiles at any attention given to them by the handsome Oscar, who’s convinced he needs to save them all.
But what’s important to remember is that Oscar is a complex character, and maybe even an unreliable narrator. He’s not a hero. He does terrible, selfish things in order to get what he wants. He kills people, gets into fights, allows others to be killed. He lets his power go to his head. He also saves the day more than once but he’s not a purely good guy, by any measure. He has the potential to grow into a better person, because he’s starting from a place of imperfection. While he may not be the best version of himself yet, and the way he sees the world could use some improvement, it’s these flaws that give the series a shot at maintaining the reader’s interest over time. We should see him change as the series progresses. I think Cole has a lot of wonderful elements to work with, and I hope he keeps us on our toes.
Did I mention that I can’t wait until the next book comes out?
Mass Market Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Ace (January 31, 2012)