Books: Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier

In Brief:  Myke Cole’s second book in his Shadow Ops series continues the story of a contemporary Earth in which magic has suddenly reappeared, to be wielded by a small, seemingly random number of people.  In the US, the military has consolidated power and influence over these new mages, training them as elite soldiers and sending them into the parallel world called the Source, to establish a base.  Fortress Frontier follows the renegade Oscar Britton and a new character, Colonel Alan Bookbinder, as they deal with the consequences of this base being cut off from Earth.

Pros:  Cole brings the knowledge and sense of realism of military and special forces veteran (which he is).  His writing is descriptive and effective, and his sense of the various genres – sci-fi, fantasy, military thrillers, comic books – meld together well.  Col. Bookbinder as a lead character will grow on you.

Cons:  The initial decision to move away from Oscar (lead character in the first book) was a little frustrating, and the first few chapters with Bookbinder could have moved quicker.

Review:  The second book in the Shadow Ops series, Fortress Frontier, picks up in the immediate aftermath of Control Point (reviewed here) and actually moves back in time slightly to introduce Colonel Alan Bookbinder.  Bookbinder is a career officer and logistics expert in the Pentagon.  He’s no ground-pounder, as we quickly realize, but one of those competent professionals who keep the tanks fueled, the laptops charged, and the ammo tallied.  But Bookbinder’s life changes rapidly when he comes up latent as a potential magic-user.

Cole weaves in the background and sets up the magic system established previously, with less than 1% of humanity (in a very X-Men mutant-like scenario) discovering they can manipulate other-worldly forces:  magic.  These abilities are organized along basic schools, like elemental (fire, water, earth, air), animal control, shape-shifting, and *other.  Bookbinder doesn’t seem to have a school; he only exhibits an ability to tap and channel magical energy, but because of this the military quickly reads him into its Top Secret magical program and sets him up for training.

 The training occurs in the Source, a kind of parallel dimension from which the magical energy seems to flow.  The US and other allies have established a Forward Operational Base (the Fortress Frontier) there, using the base to conduct experiments on the strange magical creatures, the nature of magic, and strengthen their strategic advantage.  All of this is familiar from the first book.  The real benefit of the into is how it establishes Bookbinder’s character and makes him seem realistic.  He’s not an oo-rah soldier by any means – lacking confidence in his new role, and commiserating over the sudden change to his world, and generally seeming overwhelmed.  Mostly he’s a middle-aged guy who’s just learned he can’t see his family or home again for months, and oh yeah, his body is channeling magical energy that he must learn to control or risk burning himself up.

Now Cole does a fine job with the initial setup here, but I was fairly impatient to jump back into Oscar Britton’s narrative.  Oscar, the renegade mage from the first book, does make a brief cameo in the beginning as he is introduced to Bookbinder.  The reader also figures out that the events in the beginning of this book take place about a month prior to the events in the end of the prior book.  And while Oscar does figure prominently, he’s only devoted to about a third of the book.

The narrative moves more quickly when Oscar escapes and destroys the military’s access point between the Source and our world.  As a mage whose abilities involve opening portals between worlds, Oscar’s power makes him very important and very powerful.  We follow his attempts to get his band of rebels involved with the magical resistance movement before cycling back to Bookbinder.

It takes some time for the Colonel to discover that the entire base has been cut off from Earth and its line of supply.  As second-in-command to an overbearing leader, he’s not considered ‘need-to-know’.  In fact, very few of the soldiers know how dire their predicament is, even though they can guess, due to the rationing, lack of resupply, and lack of comms.  To make matters worse, the indigenous goblins of the Source have stepped up their attacks.

Here again the author expertly builds a plausible narrative of contemporary military forces trapped in an extremely hostile foreign environment, exploring not only the logistical and tactical elements, but the psychological aspects as well.  The more Bookbinder learns, the more alarmed he becomes, and soon he finds himself battle-field promoted and in charge of the whole situation.  At that point, he comes clean with the entire remaining force, letting them know they’ve been cut off and their options are few.  He wins their support and learns of a possible solution:  the Indian military who’ve allied themselves with creatures calling themselves Naga (who seem very similar to the legends) have a portal to Earth.  So Bookbinder forms a small team and they set out for the Naga realm, thousands of miles away.

It’s a worthy quest, interwoven with Oscar’s narrative, setting a fine page-turning pace to the end of the book.  Despite the fantastic setting and situation, characters like Oscar and Col. Bookbinder come off as down-to-earth, very human, and quite approachable.  Even though Oscar is fast becoming a legend and anti-hero and Bookbinder’s burgeoning powers make him a unique and fearsome mage.   The mix of characterization, speculative setting and situation, and tight plotting made this a worthy next book in the series.  And Cole definitely ends the book on high note that will make you eager for his next offering.

Bottom Line:  If you’re a fan of military sci-fi or contemporary fantasy with a strong realistic (and military) bent, you should certainly give this series a try.  Go give Control Point a read and you’ll be moving quickly to Fortress Frontier.

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