In Brief: Myke Cole’s first novel in his Shadow Ops series introduces a world where people suddenly begin manifesting magical talents. When Lieutenant Oscar Britton show his wizard’s chops, he soon learns how far the U.S. Government and Military will go to control this new power.
Pros: Excellent and well-conceived scenario building and magic extrapolation blended with the military sci-fi tradition. The author’s military research and experience and familiarity with other similarly-themed stories provide weight, as does the solid characterization.
Cons: Oscar Britton is a sympathetic likable dude, but he spends too long waffling and deciding on an eventual course of action. Not coincidentally, the plot does stall somewhat in the middle of the book. Also – and this is directed at the publisher, Ace – my paperback copy came unglued and fell apart completely in less than two weeks.
Review: The excellent Sci-Fi Signal Podcast pointed me to Control Point, listening to Myke Cole on a panel discussion about the state of Military Sci-Fi. A small plug for his own work and appreciation by other panel members was enough for me to seek out this book. The cover, with its “Blackhawk Down Meets the X-Men’ blurb sealed the deal.
Cole is an Iraq War veteran and an old-school comic book and Dungeons & Dragons fan. This is my guy. Reading Control Point gave me the sense of an author who grew up with the X-Men, read Ender’s Game, Armor, maybe some Starship Troopers. Throw in Guardians of the Flame and the old magic-cyberpunk mashup RPG,Shadowrun for good measure. The author is definitely familiar with the conventions and pitfalls of this particular corner of the speculative fiction world, and I appreciated that from the outset.
The world of Control Point is a contemporary earth in which magic has returned. A few years before the start of the novel, a tiny percentage of the population began expressing the ability to manipulate magic. The author provides the background in small pre-chapter excerpts: interviews with politician, news-media excerpts, Senate testimony, even sections of the new ‘Magic Control’ laws lurking like hungry predators.
We come to understand pretty quickly that the USA has adapted to its fledgling magic-users by attempting to control and conscript them. If a person begins to express magical talents, they must by law call the government immediately. They then join the army and get trained to control and use their magic for the greater good. That’s the philosophy anyway. It turns out that the magic abilities in Control Point fall into basic schools – air magic=aeromancer, fire magic = pyromancer, healing magic, etc. There are also rarer prohibited schools such as controlling the dead = necromancy, rending = the opposite of healing, and controlling teleportation gates = portamancy. If you are a wizard unlucky enough to manifest in a prohibited school the state considers you too dangerous and your very existence is illegal. This gives the military and the police the authority to detain or kill you on site. Period.
Oscar Britton, an army Lieutenant and helicopter pilot, sees this first-hand as the novel opens. His team has been tasked with bringing in a couple of teen-aged wizards who’ve manifested and run away. One of them is from a prohibited school – an elementalist. On this mission is one of the army’s Special Forces Mages, an aeromancer, basically executes the young elementalist after the battle is over. Lt. Britton has real problems with this course of action, though it’s obvious that he and his squad of regular soldiers are very frightened of the magic-users.
Then his own abilities start to manifest. Turns out Oscar Britton is a portamancer – he can summon teleportation disks, instantly opening to any place he can effectively visualize. Then he runs (because he’s manifested in a prohibited school, he’s immediately subject to execution) the army’s after him, and all hell breaks loose.
The X-Men parallels are striking – especially the familiar Sentinels and Mutant Registration Act storylines. Myke Cole certainly knows this, acknowledges it, while allowing his own story to unfold. Like Marvel mutants, inexperienced wizards are dangerous, their abilities subject to emotional states and highly unpredictable.
Oscar lives this as he is soon captured, convicted, pardoned-on-condition of becoming a government contractor, and whisked away to the military’s top secret magic training base. This base is in ‘the Source’, another dimension – Faerie-like – which seems like a conduit to the magic that has re-entered our world. The base is more than a training facility, it’s also the US’s forward station in the Source, the point from which the military has engaged in combat with goblin-like creatures and other monsters with mythic overtones who call this place home.
Here, Oscar, stripped of his basic freedoms, starts to learn to control his magic. He quickly figures out that he’s being trained to fight in a squad of other mages from prohibited schools. He also learns that while the military values him and his rare talents highly, he’s nothing more than a tool or weapon to them. It takes Oscar a little too long to figure this out, as he waffles between accepting this and holding out hope that the military will provide the means for his redemption and doing some good.
Because of the author’s talents and background, Oscar’s inner conflict amidst the military-fantasy setting seems very authentic. Not an easy task with Rocs flying around and soldiers hurling fireballs. Cole also approaches his world with a scientists eye and the mindset of a combat tactician. The magical rules and restrictions are laid out with precision – the many training sequences allow for this – which allows for (what seemed to me) realistic extrapolation and description of what a mixed squad of Special Forces guys with wizards might do in battle. For example, Oscar’s teleportation discs will cut through anything solid contacting their perimeters. He quickly realizes how powerful and dangerous this aspect of his talents are, but it takes him most of the story (and a lot of ass-whippings by his Master Sergeant) to begin to use his discs in a fight.
Cole also effectively conveys how deadly these wizards are to regular humans – how quickly and completely their abilities allow them to kill and destroy. An aspect not often explored in comic book parallels, this element makes the argument (somewhat) for the government’s draconian approach to magic.
But most readers instincts will tell them individual liberty and suppression of basic rights are not going to stand. Oscar can’t be working as a government contract soldier for long, because the story fairly demands him to rebel and seek an X-Men-like renegade existence. So one complaint of the book would be why he seems to go back-and-forth on this course of action. I actually thought it gave the character more depth and reflects the reality of military bonds, getting to the very heart of why you fight for your country. Being grossly simple – you want to believe in the inherent good of your cause and your country. When you learn that it’s not so black and white, that the system treats you as a resource, it’s too late because of the camaraderie and friendships you’ve formed with your fellow soldiers. Then you fight for them. Oscar struggles with this until the final chapters. He ends up as an even more appealing character as result.
There’s lots of action through most of the book. Lots of cool world-building, fleshed out supporting characters, and the kind of conceptual-oh-yeah-I-see-how-that-might-happen moments associated with effective alternative world stories.
Bottom Line: Military Sci-Fi/Fantasy fans and lovers of good speculative alternate reality stories should certainly give Control Point a look. Myke Cole knows what he’s about. The next Shadow Ops novel, Fortress Frontier, is set for release early next year and I am looking forward to it.