The magic returns (or comes into being) to our technological modern day world is not a new idea in fantasy. Rachel Pollack’s Unquestionable Fire. The novels of Alyx Dellamonica. The roleplaying games Shadowrun and GURPS: Technomancer hypothesize what would happen if magic erupted into the modern world. Other novels and stories ponder a return of magic, once lost. Larry Niven and his compatriots wrote stories in a “The Magic May Return” anthology as a counterpoint to his “The Magic Goes Away” stories. Operation: Chaos by Poul Anderson shows what would happen if magic, lost for centuries thanks to the industrial revolution, is regained and fused with technology.
Given that fantasy is often a genre of restoration, of regaining what was lost or has diminished, its a powerful and recurring theme that many writers find themselves attracted to. And yet, for all of that, the expressions of that theme have for the most part (Poul Anderson perhaps excepted) ignored an 800 lb gorilla of an organization that would have very definite and strong ideas on what they would do if confronted with a change in the rules of reality.
The greatest fighting force on the history of the planet, the modern U.S. Army. With hundreds of thousands of members from all strata of society, and a bureaucratic nightmare on top of it, the Army is itself a foreign land to most civilians, and one whose members, structure and outlook would definitely shape and be shaped by the return or appearance of magic.
So, then, what do you get if you combine the theme of “The Magic Returns” with the messy bureaucratic complexity of the U.S. Army, throw in lots of 4th generation warfare tactics, and take this all from the perspective of a soldier, and have the writer be someone intimately familiar with that perspective and the nature of the army? You have a new and very different take on the theme.
And that is what Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole really is. A hard-military modern fantasy novel. An ecological niche that has been sitting, waiting all this time, waiting for someone to take full advantage of it. And the author makes a strong claim at first rights to this niche.
Shadow Ops: Control Point is the story of Lt. Oscar Britton. Oscar is a member of the U.S. military, and we open the novel with him and his team acting in support to an Supernatural Operations Corps,SOC, operation, to stop some rogue magicians with out of control powers. Rogue magicians who happen to be teenagers. The author puts us, and his protagonist in a moral quandary right from the get-go.
In the course of this tragic encounter and its aftermath, Oscar himself erupts previously unsuspected magical abilities, and worse, as a type of magic, Portamancy, that is expressly forbidden. Opening gates into a hostile world full of magical creatures is not an approved school. Oscar’s attempts to go on the run eventually have him land at a very secret and very unofficial SOC training facility, and it seems that the government has a use for forbidden talents like his. And ones very unlike his…
Worldbuilding is the other strength of this novel. The U.S. Army is a foreign country to most of us who have never served, even if we have relatives who have. The experience of being in the army is just like going any other gigantic bureaucratic institution, except this is one where armed conflict is their business. The author brings that to vivid and very real life, rather than a cartoonish version of that reality that you find in most genre novels. I found his extrapolations of what the U.S. Army would do and how they would adapt to the return of magic to be highly plausible. This is how it would happen.
The strongest part of this novel is the action. The author has been in combat situations, knows how they work, and knows how to describe them in an exciting and realistic way. The novel opens up on an action scene as mentioned above, and it seems that every time the novel threatens to flag, the action returns, ranging from hand to hand combat training to some truly harrowing situation for Britton and his team.
And on the other side of the coin, I loved the expression and development of the magical abilities as shown in the novel. Its not an overly complex magic system the likes of Brandon Sanderson might do, and the powers do appear to be extremely influenced by, say, Marvel mutant powers, but even then, there are subtleties and nuances to the magic explored. I also highly enjoyed the bits of
From clues in the text, the novel takes place in the near future, and the eruption of magic has been relatively recent. Certainly the point of divergence is no earlier than the Iraq War, since Fallujah is mentioned (and not mentioned that there are magicians about). The book is replete with little cutaways and references that illuminate that the world is indeed not taking the return of magic entirely peacefully. I did find one of these that confused me and seemed to break the pattern of the timeframe and history of the world otherwise set in the novel.
The plotting is not spectacular, but is a serviceable clothesline that keeps the beats of the action as outlined above going. I do admit that my expectations for the resolution of the plot did not match up with the denouement, but I don’t think this quite is a case where a promise to the reader was broken. (I can see, however, that if the author wanted this to be a one-book world, just how it would have been resolved instead).
Themes of duty and sacrifice and honor run through the book, no surprise given the military perspective. The situation around the facility is explicitly as well as implicitly compared to the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so the practice and effectiveness of things like COIN (Counterinsurgency) tactics and methods are debated. The author’s politics are not so much on display in this so much as a general criticism of the stupidity of actions, ideas and methods. Readers fearing a political message at odds with their political beliefs (whatever those political beliefs are) should relax–they aren’t going to find one. I can’t even recall the use of the word Democrat or Republican in the entire novel.
Where the novel doesn’t work for me so well is the characterization, especially the main character. While I can and do expect vacillation from Oscar given his situation and status, sometimes I felt more than a little whiplash between extremes in his story. As a result, the character arc is at best extremely fractured, and at worst, the character growth is delayed.
I also fear that this whiplash extremes of personality was the only way the plot would allow for the key escape of a character, the “Magneto” of the setting, who I am dead certain will be returning in future books.
While I suspect that readers looking first and foremost for deep characterization in their genre reading aren’t likely to pick up Shadow Ops: Control Point anyway, it should be noted that this is the major thing I would put on the scales against the numerous positives previously outlined.
Overall, though, despite this, the characterization of this novel as “Black Hawk Down meets the X-men” doesn’t even do it justice. This is a pure hit of exciting and entertaining modern action fantasy from a military perspective. The Baen favoring military SF crowd looking for a good entree into modern fantasy should look no further and try this. Cole knows how to write action, he knows the military and does it right, and he never lets the action flag for long before cranking the wurlitzer again and transporting the reader into another situation for Oscar and his teammates. As far as the Urban and contemporary fantasy loving crowd, this is the book you want to read if you want a jolt of magical action.
As for your humble reviewer, given his proclivities, I kept trying to work out in my head just how you could adapt, say, the Dresden Files Roleplaying game to run a game set in this world. What I would love even better is for Cole to be successful enough with this series that Fred Hicks and his Evil Hat crew, or perhaps Ken Hite, Robin Laws and the folks at Pelgrane instead, will want to do a straight up Shadow Ops RPG. I’d not only buy that, I’d run that.
As a running tagline in the book says, Skill beats Will. Cole as an author clearly has Will, and he is developing and working on those skills. And the author’s skills and experience are likely only to get better from here. I look forward to what he can do with that additional experience and skill-building, be it in the world of Shadow Ops, or elsewhere.
So how DO you think an Apache would do against a bullet-resistant Griffin, Myke?