BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Looking backward and forward, Cole gives an antagonist of the series, Harlequin, screen time as we learn his story and his place in the Shadow Ops history and universe.
PROS: Excellent delving into the character and motivations of a previous antagonist of the series; solid world building; action sequences alone are worth the price of admission.
CONS: A couple of beats could have been more clearly hit; a couple of intimations, if they are, are too softly invoked.
BOTTOM LINE: The final book of the Shadow Ops trilogy is the strongest.
[WARNING: Plot spoilers and general trilogy discussion ahead…]
Black Hawk Down meets the X-men. That’s the one-line high-concept that introduced me to Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series.
Cole is a military guy with real-life experience who takes that misunderstood world and infuses it with fantasy. I was on board with the concept from the get-go and despite first novel jitters in Control Point, it did more than satisfy. It felt authentic, competently written, and, most importantly, fresh and new. There have been ex-military guys writing SF and Fantasy before, but not like this.
Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier, the second book in the series, introduced me to a new character, one I liked even more than Control Point’s Oscar Britton. Colonel Alan Bookbinder, a paper pusher in the Pentagon, is a character with whom I strongly identified. In some alternate universe where I joined the military (as I once considered doing), Bookbinder could have been me. His plight, as a man needing to lead and to travel across hostile, unknown terrain, had the “Worst Road Trip Ever” appeal that caught my attention. This also made the second book feel distinctly different from the first, which is also a “coming to terms with power” story.
Through the first two Shadow Ops novels, Lt. Jan Thorsson, “Harlequin” has been a foil and antagonist for both Oscar Britton and Colonel Bookbinder. Harlequin has been the “natural” member of the Supernatural Operations Corps, which has intersected with both the prohibited school of Oscar Britton, and the oddball powers and unused to command Alan Bookbinder. While not exactly an enemy, he has been in opposition to Oscar and Alan, even as he has learned and gotten to know the protagonists. Thus, he has been an antagonist.
In Breach Zone, Harlequin becomes the primary protagonist and we see him deal with the consequences of the events of the first two novels. The title is apt, as Scylla, the amoral former prisoner at Fortress Frontier, has decided to retaliate with an invasion of New York City. Harlequin is on the front lines for Scylla’s attack. The kicker is, Harlequin has a personal history with Scylla, one that goes back to the dawn of the modern era of the Supernatural Operations Corps. Back to when Scylla was called Grace.
Breach Zone takes place in two time frames. In the present, Harlequin (and Bookbinder) face the threat of Scylla’s invasion of Lower Manhattan. Although a couple of conceits here needed a little work, having the guts to have an alien force invade Manhattan and make it work and be believable shows how much Cole has developed as a writer. He even gets a bit of a plug for his own day job, as a Coast Guard unit winds up getting swept up into the action as well. The action sequences here, as Harlequin tries desperately to face off Scylla’s hordes with a frankly outgunned force feels realistic and the narrative tension hits all the right beats.
The other time frame is set six years ago, and tells the story of how Jan and Grace first met. Cole cleverly hooks the events and consequences of this meeting into the present day events and scenario. While the beats of this meeting are obvious to begin with, the overall execution is excellent. Although comparisons between Scylla and Marvel’s Magneto are obvious, she is hardly a gender-flipped copy of the latter.
In fact, one could argue, that, taken together as a whole, since he was there from the beginning, that Jan Thorsson, Harlequin, is the protagonist of the entire series. Shadow Ops is Jan’s story; his growth from a by-the-book officer in the SOC who is changed by the antagonists of the series (Scylla, Oscar and Alan). They challenge his beliefs, his nature, and force him to grow and change. The Harlequin in the epilogue of the novel — the chronologically last scene in the trilogy — is a very different person than the first scene in the “6 years ago” flashback. And, the character arc, laid out that way, is as clear as day.
The Shadow Ops trilogy has much to offer readers of contemporary world fantasy, and I heartily recommend it to any readers interested in the genre.