PROS: Conflicted protagonists with room for personal growth, alien allies that are only slightly better than the enemy, recruits don’t immediately become killing machines, accessible to genre outsiders, homage to the classics.
CONS: Could be improved with some extra padding, the military training doesn’t feel entirely authentic.
BOTTOM LINE: The Darkside War is a a lean, calculated, knife-thrust of a book that provides a stellar entry-point to military science fiction.
My military science fiction reading streak continues with The Darkside War by Zachary Brown (the pseudonym of a New York Times bestselling author as well as Nebula and World Fantasy Award finalist). I was originally drawn to The Darkside War by the traditional military sci-fi style cover that reminded me of the alternate art for John Steakley’s Armor. It wasn’t the only association I made between The Darkside War and other classics of the sub-genre. At times book one of The Icarus Corps brought to mind Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and Robert Buettner’s Orphanage, among others. I breezed through the novel in a day and a half — breaking only for sleep and school.
The Darkside War begins with a premise that has been visited before: Earth has been conquered by an alliance of aliens called the Accordance. They dropped rocks on our greatest cities from orbit and then proceeded to pacify the population through force where necessary. They’re bad guys but mankind has greater worries. The Accordance is losing a war against the Conglomeration, a solar system subjugating juggernaut that enslaves and repurposes the alien races it vanquishes. The Accordance needs cannon fodder just to slow down the Conglomeration, let alone beat it. That’s where Earth, and our protagonist Devlin Hart, come into play.
I’ve read a fair amount of military science fiction and Devlin Hart makes for one of the more peculiar protagonists I’ve come across. Soldiers have a variety of motivations for enlisting but Devlin is given little choice in the matter. Devlin and his parents are apprehended by the Accordance for protesting the occupation. There is a war being waged across the stars and dissent, be it peaceful or otherwise, cannot be tolerated. In order to save his parents’ lives Devlin cuts a deal with the Accordance and enlists to fight against the Conglomeration. The Darkside War primarily focuses on Devlin’s training period and ends with his first encounter with the Conglomeration.
Devlin doesn’t become the ultimate soldier by the end of The Darkside War. In fact, he spends much of the novel actively and inactively resisting against the Accordance’s authority. Obstinate protagonists tend to chafe quickly, making for frustrating reading, but I was able to empathize with Devlin, since he never aspired to be a soldier and even supported his parents’ anti-occupation movement. For all Devlin knows the Conglomeration could be a piece of propaganda invented by the Accordance to keep humanity in line. Starting from this position Devlin has room to grow as The Icarus Corps series progresses. Devlin does develop to a degree over the course of The Darkside War — nothing too drastic for the limited timeframe of the novel, but enough to assure readers that he won’t be a static character.
I have slightly mixed feelings about Devlin’s training to become a soldier of the Accordance. There are two training periods — bootcamp at the Hampton’s and then Icarus Corps instruction on the dark side of the moon. Bootcamp feels rather brief and uneventful. This short portion of the novel does introduce Amira and Ken, the two most important characters of The Darkside War after Devlin. Amira, like Devlin, was involved in the anti-occupation movement before being press-ganged into the Accordance’s war. Ken, on the other hand, comes from a family that has been collaborating with the Accordance since the very beginning. From the Hampton’s Devlin, Amira, and Ken travel to the moon as inductees of the Icarus Corps: the Accordance’s first all-human infantry unit.
This second training period is much longer and more fulfilling than the first. Here, Devlin and the other humans are given power armor and begin learning how to function as a unit. The combat training occurs in a dome that’s environment can be altered on the fly in order to prepare soldiers for the unknown and unexpected. It is also here that we encounter Commander Zeus, an Accordance alien charged with turning the Icarus Corps into a cohesive fighting force…or at least a decent meat-shield. Zeus pushes the recruits to their limits and generally acts in an antagonistic fashion, as to be expected of a drill instructor and alien conqueror. Several times while reading this part of the book I was reminded of Ender’s Game, though the training isn’t quite so structured.
The Icarus Corps’ first contact with the enemy Conglomeration is disastrous. I found this to be the most distinct portion of The Darkside War. Devlin and the others are still early into their training when caught in a surprise attack, and as a result, relatively raw recruits are forced to adapt what little they’ve learned in order to survive and even take the fight to the Conglomeration. For once it was good to read military science fiction from the perspective of those unprepared for battle. The Icarus Corps does mount a resistance against the Conglomeration but is vastly outclassed and outgunned. Survival takes precedence over winning.
The description of The Darkside War declares that it will appeal to fans of Bungie’s hit video game Halo and I agree. I believe that this novel could more easily be adapted into a game than some of the still great but more technical military science fiction I’ve read. The different races that comprise the Conglomeration would result in a variety of complex encounters. They’re even classified in the manner of video game enemy types: Drivers (capable of turning allies into meat-puppets), Trolls (rhino-like shock troops), Raptors (fast, smart, and outfitted with laser rifles), Crickets (swarming insectile robots), and Ghosts (covered in advanced active camouflage and capable of sending surrounding Conglomeration troops into a suicide frenzy). The “ally” Accordance aliens are just as varied, from the ostrich-like struthiforms to the power armored squids known as the Arvani.
The Darkside War proved to be a short but fun read, and managed to stand on its own merits while serving as homage to many of my favorite military science fiction novels. I would also recommend it as a good entry-point to a reader looking to get into the sub-genre. The Darkside War is light enough to be accessible to the uninitiated but still manages to offer the things that people love so dearly about military sci-fi.