BOOK REVIEW: Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole
SYNOPSIS: Magic has come to the world, upsetting the established order. Lieutenant Oscar Britton is a regular soldier, attached to a military group that specializes in hunting and detaining dangerous radicals. Then, inexplicably, Oscar manifests a magical power of his own and soon he is on the run, wanted by the authorities.
PROS: Interesting concept/setting; frenzied action.
CONS: Unlikable protagonist; unlikable secondary characters; repetitive internal/external dialogue; lots of petty complaints that add up.
BOTTOM LINE: A debut novel that does not live up to its potential or the hype surrounding it, yet I still have hopes for the sequel.
Cover blurbs can be a gift and a curse. A gripping quote from a notable author can be just the thing to whet a reader’s appetite and result in a purchase. It can also set expectations unreasonably high. On more than one occasion blurbs have prevented me from passing up amazing books I judged prematurely based on cover art or synopses. On more than one occasion blurbs have led me astray. Blurbs are a double-edged sword and this time around I got cut. Shadow Ops: Control Point has all the makings of a great debut but falls far short of its potential.
That descent into darkness starts with Oscar Britton, our unfortunate protagonist. I cannot remember the last time I hated a character in fiction the way I hate Oscar Britton. The mantra of the novel seems to be, “Britton you’re not as smart as you think you are.” It’s a phrase muttered four or five times and it’s uncanny in its accuracy. Oscar is irresponsible, self righteous, dim-witted, and obtuse. The one single redeeming quality Oscar exhibits (and it’s still not near redeeming enough to earn him salvation) is that he doesn’t start out as a hardcore killing machine. He’s a helicopter pilot thrown in way over his head. It’s difficult to believe he’s had any experience in the military based on the things he says and does. He completely lacks any semblance of discipline and no matter how many opportunities he’s given he still manages to screw up. He’s the anti-Mary Sue, and I wasn’t even aware that such a thing was possible before Shadow Ops: Control Point.
Writing all that I had to pause and consider whether or not the protagonist of a novel has to be likable. Surely not everyone you encounter in life is likable, and the same could be said for fiction. San dan Glokta of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy is hardly a likable protagonist. But he is interesting and that’s a critical distinction to make. Oscar Britton is as compelling as a wet paper towel. I found myself desperately wishing a messy death upon him for the majority of the novel.
None of the other characters are near as frustratingly thick as Oscar but they are still a long trek off from being interesting. Marty the goblin is helpful but not particularly intelligent. He reminded me of Dobby from Harry Potter. Therese is pretty and nice and so she automatically gets relegated to the role of romantic interest. It’s difficult to have sympathy for Sarah Downer who is introduced in a rampage at the beginning of the book, burning school kids to death. It doesn’t help that when she does acknowledge the awful things she has done Oscar goes full on massacre-apologist trying to excuse her actions as “young and dumb” essentially. Then there is Harlequin who comes into conflict with Oscar. He’s the type of soldier that responds with the ever-dangerous “just following orders” rhetoric. And yet because of butts heads with Oscar I consider him the true hero of Shadow Ops: Control Point.
The dialogue, both internal and external, is tiring. I should have kept tally how many times Oscar debates how evil the Supernatural Operations Corps is. It’s seems to be the only conversation that is ever worth having. It doesn’t help that Oscar waffles back and forth, displaying righteous indignation for whichever side he is currently supporting. It’s comedic when he jumps aboard the SOC bandwagon and bashes someone with a legitimate complaint against the SOC, despite 200+ pages of railing against their authority himself.
It’s a shame because there is an opportunity here for Cole to discuss the implications of magical manifestation in a “free” country and how the government might handle such an event. There are a lot of themes that could be explored with Shadow Ops: Control Point, regarding personal freedoms and public safety, government control and unjust wars. The setting of the novel is a strange new world where US Armed Forces operate on home soil against latent American citizens. There are so many possible consequences of the Great Reawakening on a local and global scale, so much moral ambiguity, and very little of it is explored.
Again, the setting is the novel’s strongest asset. Unlike the characters, it is interesting. What if, instead of going to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, the X-Men were shipped off to boot camp on a hostile alien planet? It’s a cool concept and it kept me reading despite my mounting frustration. Forward Operating Base Frontier is part army base, part internment camp, and part frontier town. It is the foothold of the United States on an alien world where magic flows freely. Too much time is spent on Oscar’s whining and not enough is spent exploring the locale.
My read of Shadow Ops: Control Point was filled with petty complaints. Usually I try to make accommodations for such minor qualms and rack it up to personal preference, but when they continue to accumulate they become impossible to ignore. From Marty’s disjointed English (annoying in all books where the author tries to write the dialogue of a non-native speaking the language) to extremely stupid decisions, from a laughably melodramatic and unexpected betrayal to all the military personnel being bullies, Shadow Ops: Control Point is just riddled with problems.
I will concede that the action is decent enough. Cole integrates the use of magic into the modern military pretty well. Portamancy, the magic of portals, is extremely cool and appropriately useful in combat situations. It would be hard to write Oscar into situations where his portal magic can’t save him every time, or face boring readers. So props to Cole for that. If he wants to write truly dynamic, layered action sequences involving multiple magical powers and firearms he should read Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles: Hard Magic for inspiration.
There’s no easy way of putting it – Shadow Ops: Control Point was a struggle. What bothers me most is that it didn’t have to be that way. Myke Cole can write, there’s plenty evidence confirming that. The prose is lean and efficient. Cole has good-verging-on-great ideas. He needs to work on how to make his characters interesting and how not to bludgeon readers with tiresome dialogue. From what I hear Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier is an improvement over Shadow Ops: Control Point and as a result I bought a copy. This is, after all, a debut novel and there were bound to be some mistakes. I do have hope.
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