PROS: Vibrant setting and good world building details; cool tech; engaging action sequences; cool aliens.
CONS: Difficult to connect with protagonist; rushed ending.
BOTTOM LINE: Mel Odom’s Master Sergeant has me enlisting for The Makaum War series.
Master Sergeant by Mel Odom came at a fortuitous time as I’ve been on a huge military science fiction kick recently, ever since Grunt Life by Weston Ochse. It’s a sub-genre that has always captured my imagination and though I’ve primarily read fantasy for the past couple years military sci-fi will always be my favorite. Master Sergeant is the first book in The Makaum War, a new series by Mel Odom that will hold appeal to fans of the William C. Dietz, David Sherman, Robert Buettner, Steve Perry, Timothy Zahn, and more.
Master Sergeant is the story of Master Sergeant Frank Sage. Sage is a battle hardened soldier in the Terran Army that has spent the last several years training up raw recruits for the meat grinder war against the ferocious alien Phrenorians. Sage is eager to get back into the good fight but instead of being sent to fight in the conflict he is shipped off to Makaum. The jungle world of Makaum, also known as the Green Hell, is an ultra-hostile environment, deadly to all but the most resilient lifeforms. Before even setting foot on Makaum Sage becomes involved in complex local politics that embroil the planet and threaten to deteriorate into all out war over its rich resources. Sage must navigate treacherous allies, devious enemies, and an ecosystem out for blood if he is to protect Terran interests.
Master Sergeant Frank Sage is one of the few weak links of the novel. I found myself supporting Sage’s crusade against the corrupt corporations exploiting Makaum and the natives but I was never quite able to empathize with him. Sage is a no-nonsense veteran. He is a model soldier and a highly capable killer. Sage is largely without faults except, perhaps, for his impetuousness. Several times Sage does something foolhardy without considering the implications of his actions. Apart from this I was unable to connect with Sage. He’s not necessarily two dimensional, but he lacks in the personality department, and even after 360+ pages he felt like a bit of a stranger or an impetuous robot. One of my greatest hopes for The Makaum War Book 2 is to get a more personal look into what makes Sage tick.
The other characters of Master Sergeant have a good foundation for Odom to build upon as the series continues. I hope to see more development for Lieutenant Murad and sniper Kiwanuka, especially. Surprisingly, I found the Phrenorian Captain, Zhoh GhiCemid, to be the most intriguing character of the book. The Phrenorians (or Sting-Tails as they are derogatorily called) are a terrifying race of aliens that are truly alien, and learning little pieces of their society and culture from Zhoh’s few chapters was a delight. I anticipate a bigger Phrenorian presence in The Makaum War Book 2 and I consider this a very good thing. When the Terran Army and the Phrenorians finally throw down it’s going to be awesome.
The planet of Makaum is a character in its own right and I can understand why Odom would want to base an entire series around the conflict for such a beautifully realized world. Makaum is truly the Green Hell, though it holds a certain majesty once you get past all the layers of deadly flora and fauna. You can’t help but respect the people of Makaum for establishing a way of life against such adversity. I’d never want to visit the Green Hell in real life but I’ll read about it any day.
Master Sergeant starts strong (with a bar brawl aboard a corporate space station) and only continues to raise the stakes as the plot progresses. From hectic ambushes and insidious assassination attempts to daring drug raids, Odom doesn’t skimp on adrenaline pumping action. Any proper military science fiction story needs its share of cool, high-tech toys and Master Sergeant has them in spades. Soldiers are carried into battle in jumpcopters, wearing AKTIV suits or piloting mechs. Handled drones are used to develop better situational awareness and corporate security mercenaries have cybernetic enhancements. Odom engineers some intense skirmishes utilizing all of these and more. The final confrontation of the book feels a little rushed, but it’s still a satisfying mission.
Though there is room for improvement (concerning the protagonist Frank Sage), I found Master Sergeant to be a welcome addition to the military science fiction sub-genre and I expect other fans will agree. Odom writes compelling action and crafts absorbing alien worlds and cultures. I can’t wait to slip back into an AKTIV suit, pick up a coilgun, and join Master Sergeant Frank Sage and the Terran Army back come The Makaum War Book 2.