So here’s the short version of the review for you TL;DR folks: If you like Military Space Opera, you’ll like this book. It is immersive and a page turner. I’d consider it a good heir to Starship Troopers but it lacks the humanism.
Now for the slightly longer review. First the good stuff.
Terms of Enlistment does a good job of dropping you into the future and getting you to care about the main character, Andrew Grayson. The author’s military background shows so it has that nice ring of verisimilitude I look for in Miltary Sci Fi. It’s written in first person, present tense (ala Hunger Games) which is a good decision for creating sympathy. The worldbuilding is slight, which also works well, we knew just enough to build the story around. There’s no discussion of ‘how things ended up this way’, technology isn’t too terribly advanced so it’s not a post-singularity novel, which makes it easier to understand the world. People remain people, with real and understandable motivations. It’s fairly PG (or PG-13) as for sex, violence and language. It’s about soldiers, not plaster saints but it’s not a Joe Abercombie or Mark Lawrence novel. It also has enough tips of the hat to the PC police to please those who want to see female soldiers as well. On the whole, I enjoyed it, I burned through the first book and bought the second immediately (Thank you, Amazon One Click) and devoured it. Only then did I start to digest the story and that’s made me pause in buying any more books in the series, but I do want to read more of what Marko Kloos has written. So, now onto the bad stuff, don’t worry it’s not really a damning list, at least for the first book.
What was strange is the trajectory of the first novel. Andrew Grayson is set up as a pretty straightforward infantryman, he shows aptitude for small unit tactics and doesn’t pitch too much of a fit when he’s assigned to the Territorial Army rather than the more glamourous (and space-based) Marines. So far, we’re following the Starship Troopers playbook, even down to the romance with the pretty pilot girl…though unlike Rico, Grayson actually gets the girl. But then things go awry. Grayson ends up causing some serious civilian casualties, collateral damage from a rocket round. The character looks to be set up for a fall but ends up transferring to a different MOS and a different branch of the service, the Navy. This is a bizarre plot twist and though I followed it, in retrospect, it really bumps me. We’re set up for one story but then it goes off in a different direction for reasons I’m not clear on. So we basically have two ‘fish out of water’ stories here, one going into the Army and one going into the Navy. And then the aliens show up. Which tosses us in yet another plot trajectory.
So we have two stories going on here, maybe three. One, the ‘US’ vs the Chinese and Russians, then we have the humans vs the aliens. (We also have a civilian vs military plot but that emerges more in the second book) There’s no sign anywhere early in the book that we’re going to be dealing with aliens. Remember, with Starship Troopers, we start off in combat with aliens, so we know what to expect even if we backtrack to follow Rico’s boyhood and enlistment/training. Now, the whiplash almost works, the main character of course doesn’t know anything about the aliens until they show up. But that’s one of the weaknesses of first person present tense, we the reader don’t know anything that the main character doesn’t know. But we the readers should know what kind of story we’re getting into. The author makes promises in their first chapters (and pages, really) that they need to keep. Surprise aliens sorta breaks that. Not enough to ruin the novel but…it bumped me.
The main character doesn’t really drive this plot in the first book. He just sort of…watches things happen. That almost makes sense for a military novel, there’s always someone up higher in the chain of command telling you what to do, but the main character doesn’t solve any problems…unless we count the problem of a sniper in one fight and the problem of some heavy machine guns in the second. Now that almost works, as this first novel is almost more of a travelogue to the future, but it’s imperfect storytelling, I think. It’s realistic but not satisfying but that’s just me, I prefer heroic stories with active characters.
The next is a bit of a nit pick but it’s worth talking about for the longer review here. There’s a lot of ‘telling’ here, Grayson tells us a lot of what he feels…but we don’t actually feel it. We don’t actually see it. We don’t see fear, we don’t see remorse. That latter is a big problem with the theme of the second book. We don’t see love, lust, affection or camaraderie. Grayson is an empty man, a gray man. The closest we get to real emotion is early in the first book when we see how he feels about his father and mother and where’s he’s grown up. It’s not quite a fatal flaw and I probably will pick up later books to see if he ‘fixes’ that in his later novels but it’s a bit of a problem. But not as much as the last one is for me.
But the big one is the lack of humanity. This is much more of an issue in the second book, which is why I paused before buying book three. But Grayson repeatedly says that he doesn’t think humanity deserves to live. The plot, at least for the first two books, shows the inability of humans to co-operate or solve problems (until the main character is there…which is a bump I’ll get to in the second book). It’s an almost George Romero level of nihilism. It’s like the author or the main character is saying you can’t trust anyone above your squad. And the novel plot seems to reflect this, even in the face of unstoppable aliens, humanity can’t put its differences aside to co-operate to save their own lives. Scientists can’t work with military types to save humanity. Society can’t feed itself, can’t police itself, can’t be trusted with nice things. We’re basically confronted with a Welfarepocalypse where the state rations everything but can’t manage to feed everyone or provide sufficient basic services (which I think works as a cautionary tale about the welfare state and state control in general but I’m not sure that’s intended) We also have an over-population problem, which is almost optimistic in a sense, in the light of declining birth rates in China, Russia, Europe and most of the world outside of Africa and the Islamic nations.
So since we’re basically talking about the second novel’s themes, let’s go right into Lines of Departure.
First the TL;DR summary. We continue to follow the adventures of Andrew Grayson as he struggles to survive against unstoppable aliens. Grayson struggles not just with his military duties but ultimately his own conscience.
So we start out after a 5 year time skip. Once again, Grayson has changed specialty. Now he’s an air-weapon command and control specialist inserting with Spec Ops squads to call in air/space support. Now what he was doing in the first book, which is a bit jarring. But he’s still sweet on his girlfriend and that emotional connection is one of the best parts of the character’s inner life. He also cares about his mother, and the scenes with her are well worth reading as well. More good stuff, the main character makes real decisions and manages to affect the plot in a real way. Unkillable aliens get killed.
But we also start seeing the breakdown of society back on earth. Food rations keep being cut, riots are constant, the welfare class is in open revolt and the news censored to cover it up. The military/civilian break is almost total. The aliens are gassing and destroying millions of people and then….Grayson says to himself that he doesn’t care if the aliens kill everyone on earth. And that’s where the book lost me.
Because if your main character doesn’t care about something, it makes it hard to care about him. All Grayson cares about in this book is his family, his girlfriend and his squad. It’s an almost tribal existence. And that’s a rich vein to mine for a writer but I don’t think that’s what the author was going for. I’m a humanist. I think humans are awesome. We are the top of the food chain and we fought our way there. Humans might be half devil as well as half angel, we are also capable of terrible things. But to write off the entire species like Grayson does, it really made me dislike him. To me, he became a traitor. Which is ironic because he becomes that again later in the book.
So let’s talk about the rebellion and the treason and lawful and unlawful orders. Since the Nazi’s made it clear that we can’t have nice things, there has been in the Western world, the idea of unlawful orders. Orders that an officer gives you that can be disobeyed. In this case, Grayson and a bunch of other people are given orders to seize the food supplies of the colony that they’ve arrived at. Note, all we and the character knows is that the order was given to take them. There was no joking and laughing about starving civilians (and if you ARE starving and have a gun and there are folks who have food and don’t have guns….um…they guys with guns will not starve), the main character and his buddy assume that, but they don’t know it. All they’re given is an order to secure the food supplies. This is not an unlawful order. Shooting unarmed civilians is an unlawful order, something Grayson did in the first novel. But securing the food supplies is not. But based on that and their assumptions about their officers, Grayson and his buddies rebel. They mutiny. They shoot and kill their fellow soldiers.
To me, there was insufficient justification for this act. If the main character had taken the commanding officer into custody, which is also mutiny, I’d have gone along with it. But they just hunker down, declare the local civilians to be their new chain of command and begin a shooting war with their former comrades. This is heavy stuff. And to be honest, I don’t think its handled well. “Luckily” the invincible aliens arrive and the other officers flee so that rebellion is never really satisfactorily resolved (in this book) but it just doesn’t work for me. Let me explain why.
A big deal is made about how the military is deploying more and more against the civilians, who are fighting back and basically turning the welfare zones into ‘No go’ zones. Grayson SAYS he is haunted by killing civilians in the first book. He says he’s troubled by the decision to fight his fellow soldiers. But I don’t believe any of it. Now, I read these two books back to back over two days, so the first book was very fresh in my mind. At no time in the first book do we see Grayson feeling regret over killing the civilians in his previous life in the Territorial Army. At the time, all he cares about is getting in trouble for it. Now the circumstances were very clearly life or death, he killed to protect himself and his squad. And he ended up killing some non-combatants. It sucks but war sucks. It was not a war crime in my opinion and in the opinion of his squad leader. But at no time did he say what he did was wrong. And we never see him bothered by it. And yet this event is the justification for him that his military commanders no longer adhered to their vows to protect the lives and rights of the citizens.
It’s too thin. And that’s part of the problem I touched on earlier, there’s too much going on too quickly. If the novel was just about the dystopia back on Earth and if the author had spent a bit more time showing Grayson’s feelings, then yeah, I could buy that plotline a little more. But the story is divided into Grayson vs Aliens, Grayson vs China/Russia, Grayson vs civilians is just a tertiary plot line at best.
In the end, they find a way to kill the unkillable alien ships, which is a solution that seems so simple that I’m confused why any spacefaring culture didn’t come up with it in five years previously.
So…what do I do here? Do I keep reading? Is the third novel back on track? Or will we verge more into this Romero-esque anti-humanism? I did enjoy the first two books, at least until Grayson said humans don’t deserve to live. The books are pretty fast-paced, they have great verisimilitude, it’s good military sci-fi, I like his relationship with his girlfriend. The people and dialog felt real, mostly.
If you can ignore the things that bumped me, then you’ll love this book. If you need a bit more…I’m a bit hesitant. The first book is highly recommended but maybe not the second.
Ok, now as a bonus, for myself mostly, some more nit pick questions that came up as I was reading.
Nit picks: Why no advanced infantry training? Grayson goes from basic into combat with almost no additional training. I’ll buy that to a point, weirder things have happened in history even as recently as Vietnam and I don’t mind Grayson doing well in his deployments. I like heroic characters. But it seems odd and unnecessary and dangerous. I can’t think of a bigger recipe for disaster as tossing new people into gunfights with only a few months training.
Why are the military units so small? The US has pretty much gone to a small unit/heavy support model. You have companies and platoons doing jobs today that would have a Battalion or a Brigade doing thirty years ago. And air support and body armor are great force multipliers (Go Air Force, go CAS! A-10’s forever, baby.) but they aren’t the only models and for a population-chocked world, it makes even less sense. Modern Chinese military units are much larger than any we are fielding. They use their manpower advantage. I’d love to have seen a simulation of how the US model works vs the Chinese, I think about that a lot, actually. But everyone fights ‘light’, seems odd, especially when total war breaks out.
Why so few kinetic weapon usages? We have one usage of a kinetic weapon used late in the second book and they even mention how it does nuclear damage without radiation or fallout. This is one of the big reasons you need space supremacy, if you have the high ground you can throw rocks (literal or figurative) on the enemy’s heads. But they’re using nukes against the alien structures. Why not more kinetic weapons if we’re so concerned about ecological damage to our former colonies?
Why no new weapon development? Seriously, in 5 years of fighting against the aliens we have one new gun (a double barreled shotgun basically) and that’s it. No nuke-pumped X-ray lasers, no mass drivers (which exist as cargo orbiters so we know they have the tech), no particle beams, no petawatt lasers, no robotic soldiers. Nothing. We fill a ship full of water, accelerate it to 10% light speed and that kills the enemy ship. Our sensor tech doesn’t improve either. In wartime, human ingenuity hits its peak. Which is why some people (prior to WW I mostly) though war was both good and useful to society. But we don’t see that here, look at what the wars in Iraq and AfPak have done for armor development, drone usage, communication, etc.
Why no full-scale militarization of society? We’re facing an existential threat to our race, yet despite having an all-powerful state that’s been rationing food for decades, we don’t see any attempt to organize society. Look at the US, Japan, German and Russia in WWII, they were hitting peak production after 5 years, cranking out tanks faster than crews could be trained.
Why no communication with the Sino-Rus? There’s no attempt made at the end of the book to communicate with the SinoRussian ships. We never hear of any peace talks or negations with them, even the failure of them. There’s no attempt to communicate with the aliens either.
Where are the welfare rats getting military weapons and training? In the big dust up in Detroit and later, we see welfare rats (who are poor indeed) showing up with military hardware. And I don’t mean AR-15 or civilian clones of military arms, in the US at least, that’s easy to believe. But they have heavy machine guns. Those beasts are hungry and maintenance intensive. Where did they come from? And where did all the advanced tactics they showed come from? Maybe this is discussed in later books but so far, feels like a plot hole.
Where is Europe? South America? Africa? No mention is made of any of them, apart from some country in the Balkans declaring independence and attacking the ‘US’ embassy. Seems like a miss.
The relations between the sexes was also pretty PG in the first book. Only the main character and his girl are getting it on in his squad? Don’t believe it. No other girls hitting on other girls (or guy on guy, now that DADT has been pulled) either. Teenagers have sex. As much as they can, ingeniously. Hell most of my ROTC detachment paired up, as far as we could with the relatively few female cadets. And there was some…trouble around that, too. Maybe they’re putting saltpeter back in the rations again :)