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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Book Review: Breach Zone by Myke Cole

(Note:  There are some minor details about the previous books in this review.  I don't honestly think they're that spoiler-y, but you've been warned.)

I am deeply ashamed that I have not yet written a proper review of Myke Cole's various works.  He's been on my podcast three times, and I have yet to review a single thing.  Today, I am rectifying that mistake by discussing what I'd argue is his strongest novel to date -- Shadow Ops:  Breach Zone (Ace:  January 2014).

Breach Zone opens with an invasion:  Scylla, now free from her prison in FOB Frontier (a now-destroyed illegal military facility in a magical plane known as the Source)[1], has used her negramantic abilities to rip a massive hole between the Source and New York City.  Behind her:  an army of goblins, Gahe, and other monsters.  Her mission:  carve out a place for Latent people (magic wielders) within the United States and end the tyranny of all costs.  In comes down to Harlequin, a veteran member of the Supernatural Operations Corps and an aeromancer, who must keep Scylla's forces at bay while reconciling his past and his conflict with the current state of affairs in the United States, in which magic is heavily restricted and abused.

The third in Cole's Shadow Ops series, Breach Zone concludes the overarching narrative which has guided the previous books, Control Point (2011) and Fortress Frontier (2012):  the rising tension between those who have magic and a government which seeks to control it.  In the previous novels, Cole focused on characters in similar positions:  Oscar Britton's magical awakening in Control Point and Alan Bookbinder's similar awakening in Fortress Frontier.  Both novels revealed varying levels of abuse on the part of the U.S. government in service of (or in illegal contradiction with) the McGauer-Linden Act, which determines how magic may be used within the States.

In Breach Zone, however, Cole takes us into the mind of Harlequin (a.k.a. Jan Thorsson), who has, in the previous books, taken the position of a soft antagonist to Britton and Bookbinder.  Instead of maintaining that antagonism, Cole gives us an in-depth look into his motivations:  notably, his belief in the rule of law and the democratic process for change.  In many respects, Breach Zone is a far more complex work than the previous books because the relationship between "the law" and "what is right" becomes increasingly more divisive, particularly for Harlequin, who struggles with his need to uphold his oaths of office (serving the country), his desire to protect the people, and the very real possibility that he will have to violate (again) some of his core codes in order to save NYC.  Cole teases out this narrative with deliberate slowness, marinating the conflict and tying the various threads together so what occurs in the end is a product of necessity rather than a simple "soldier defies orders and goes rogue" narrative.

This depth is also apparent in the book's structure, which moves back and forth between Harlequin's desperation to save NYC and his former relationship with Scylla, the primary antagonist, who has remained in the sidelines throughout the series.  These chapters are perfectly placed to provide not only the psychological tension necessary to fully empathize with Harlequin and his ethical quandaries, but also to set the groundwork for the conclusion and its horrific qualities.  The interaction between these flashback chapters and the general narrative are perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, not least of all because it tempers the high-intensity action which controls most of the novel's narration.  Without that counterbalance, I think Breach Zone would be a weaker novel, but with them, it becomes a work which turns the landscape gray rather than playing the easy route of good vs. evil.  Everyone in this book has a reason to do what they do, whether it is Harlequin, Scylla, the Selfer street gangs (magic users who have run from the law), and so on.  Rather than give us villains, we're given a sea of people who have to balance what is objectively right against what is ethically sound; they are also people who are complex without being overbearing.  In a novel with this much action, that's quite a feat.

Breach Zone also includes chapters about Bookbinder, though I think these are there primarily as a gateway between Fortress Frontier, in which Bookbinder was the main character, and this final volume.  This is not dissimilar from the shift between Control Point and Fortress Frontier, so I think I'm justified and thinking this is a deliberate inclusion.  Though Bookbinder plays second fiddle to Harlequin here, I think it's worth noting that his chapters demonstrate more fully the sort of man he has become after the events of the previous book; no longer the paper-pushing career military man, Bookbinder is clearly a veteran, capable and determined even in the face of overwhelming odds -- an aspect of his character which had not truly been present when he first appeared in Fortress Frontier.  There are also, for the action-enthusiasts, plenty of Bookbinder vs. goblins moments, which Cole handles with a deft hand.

I also appreciated Cole's attempts to address the political landscape that would undoubtedly arise in a world suddenly beset with magic.  I particularly liked the wrangling Harlequin has to do and the way the novel positions politics and the military as two different worlds with their own rules.  From Harlequin's perspective, the need for support is not a matter of debate; rather, it is an honest, military assessment of a violent situation.  For those in the political sphere, however, the need is one which, if met, comes with additional consequences, particularly given the climate in which this novel is set -- FOB Frontier was an illegal facility, so it's discovery at the end of Fortress Frontier meant huge ramifications for U.S. global policy.  As a military man, Cole certainly understands the frustration this conflict produces; its representation in this novel, as such, gives Breach Zone not only a more realistic feel, but also a closer connection to a world we can understand.

It's usually at this point that I tell you about things that I didn't like about the book.  I could complain that some of the side characters aren't as developed as I'd like, but if I did that and Cole went and rewrote the book to fix it, I'd have to complain about the book's 5,000-page length.  If there's one criticism I could offer, it's that I feel like series as a whole is missing a deeper look into the lives of the mystical creatures from the Source, even if that is mediated mostly through human magic users.  But none of that would fit into Breach Zone, so I won't suggest it has to be involved here.

In the end, Cole gave me what I wanted:  a fun, engaging, and exciting fantasy with characters who are complicated rather than caricatured.  Breach Zone is to good genre fiction as high quality beef is to good hamburgers.  There are times when I sit down and want to read something that is as exciting as it is compelling, deftly written as it is paced and plotted.  Breach Zone is that book.  It's the perfect balance between a world of magic, war, and the unknown, and a world of real characters living in a place that is just a few steps to the side from our own.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get started on the movie script...


[1]:  For those that haven't read the previous books, the Source is basically an alternate "Earth" where goblins and other fantasy critters live.  It is also the root of all magic on Earth; hence it's name.

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