BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Following the events of Control Point, Col. Alan Bookbinder finds himself reassigned to FOB Frontier after finding that he’s a Latent. Once there, the base comes under attack, and he must lead the entire base to safety, aided by the man who put the base in danger in the first place.
PROS: A solid improvement from Control Point, with a fantastic set of new characters.
Myke Cole’s debut novel was a fun story, a blend of magic in the real world, and the military’s response to a justifiably complicated problem. Where Control Point took on the coming of age / learning to control one’s powers style of story (See Harry Potter, The Magicians, Name of the Wind, Circle of Magic, etc), the second novel in the Shadow Ops series takes on the Quest story that’s so popular in fantasy, and completely succeeds. Fortress Frontier is a second novel, and shows that Cole hasn’t experienced a sophomore slump.
Fortress Frontier opens as Col. Alan Bookbinder comes up with magical powers, and is shortly thereafter sent off to the Source, a parallel magical world where the United States operates a Forward Operating Base called Frontier. While he’s not exhibiting powers, the potential is there, and given his expertise, he’s assigned to the base’s command staff. Even in a magical world, there’s still paperwork and bureaucracy to do. Shortly after his arrival, Oscar Britton escapes, and the base finds itself under siege by hostile forces, cut off from the real world. Bookbinder, suddenly in charge, leads a mission across hostile territory to an Indian FOB, their only way home, before it’s too late.
I had some reservations with Control Point. Fortress Frontier not only avoids these issues, but is overwhelmingly a better book, and a superb sequel. As I was reading the opening pages, I was reminded of the quiet urgency that started off Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows (one of the best starts to a SF/F film, IMO) that launched the story into high gear. Overlapping the first book by a couple of days, we follow Bookbinder along as he adjusts to his new life before all hell breaks loose. We’re treated to two long sections of Britton’s actions right after the first book, before Bookbinder’s narrative takes over.
Overall, Bookbinder’s character arc was far more interesting to me; a career military officer who’s never experienced combat finds himself in command of a besieged military base, before leading a special operations team across the Source, where there’s quite a bit of danger. As they cover the miles, it’s clear we’re on a sort of quest, and it might be just me, but I’ve always found that a character growing up through their experiences works far better than those experiences that they might get through an education. There’s no magical amulet, no prize at the end, save for the next steps in a plan to save his men. The mission across the source is the best part of the book. Cole has the opportunity to really show off the Source (previously seen in smaller glimpses), where the team comes up against a whole host of danger. It’s clearly an adventure for the soldiers, but the costs are never far behind them.
This novel feels more like a war novel. The stakes are much higher, and there’s less of a specific focus on contractors than there are about leadership. If there’s any major theme to this story, it’s about the responsibilities of a commanding officer towards the people they lead, and how they go about ensuring that they’re able to carry out their duties.
If there’s any fault to this story, it’s Oscar Britton, but it’s essential to the novel and its place in the series. Britton appears infrequently here, but in doing so, Bookbinder’s narrative is disrupted. It’s more jarring in the beginning, where Britton’s positioned with some needed exposition and story placement, but the rest of the book is devoted to Bookbinder and his work, until the end, when everything comes together. The result here is more on an execution level, rather than a conceptual one, but it feels like Britton’s passages were cut from Control Point and inserted here. While reading them, I thought that they would have worked better as a standalone novella, or something else that’s feasible in the digital age.
It’s clear that from these first two books that Cole has some major stakes planned. A couple of major conflicts are foreshadowed here, and ultimately, this series isn’t one to be missed. With four additional books on the way, there’s quite a bit set up for future stories, both on Earth and on The Source. Personally, if they’re all going to be the quality of Fortress Frontier, I’m already impatient for the next one.