News Ticker

Linda Nagata’s THE RED and THE TRIALS: Action-Packed Military SF with a Healthy Dose of Cyberpunk

REVIEW SUMMARY: A hard hitting near-future Military SF with a healthy veneer of cyberpunk thrown in for good measure.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Lieutenant James Shelley finds himself at the center of global conspiracy involving rogue defense contractors and an emergent Artificial Intelligence.

PROS: Lightning fast action; well-rounded characters; excellent plotting
CONS:  Definite ideological slant
BOTTOM LINE: Whether dealing with the minutiae of day-to-day life as a soldier, the stress of battle, or the high level war threatening life on the planet, The Red consistently hits all the right notes.

The Red: First Light is near future Military SF with a healthy veneer of Cyberpunk thrown in for good measure. Nagata deftly handles the use of innovative futuristic technologies to craft an absurdly robust world filled with a cast of ancillary characters each seeing themselves as the hero of their own story.

We follow through the eyes of Lieutenant James Shelley, a Linked Combat Unit soldier, who is the veritable pawn in a game being played so far over his head he can’t even see the board (yes, that’s a weird analogy, just go with it). Nagata takes this one step further to consider what it means to adhere to an oath of service when the chain of command has been corrupted.

At what point must the individual’s moral compass override their obligation to obey orders?

The Red: First Light is certainly an action packed adventure (which makes for an enjoyable read all on its own) but at its core, it’s asking some deep, important questions that any person serving in the military must at some point confront.

I mentioned it briefly already, but one of the true joys of The Red are its ancillary characters. It’s so easy, especially within Military SF, to fall into the trope’ish mindset that the main character is the end all, be all of the story. Nagata takes this trope head on, toying with it at times by drawing attention to the fact that Lieutenant Shelley is (literally) the star of his own docu-drama (←-is that a thing? Hm… well, it is now.)

A lesser author might have rested here and ignored developing secondary characters, but not Nagata. She fills out a cast of characters who, without exception, thinks and acts as the hero of their own story. Whether we’re talking about the strong willed female love interest who is busy saving the world with her brain while Shelley’s out punching people, or the evil billionaire who thinks blowing up the world with nukes is a good idea, everybody is doing something important and for reasons they find justifiable.

Okay, before we get too carried away, let’s address that crazy billionaire with nukes plot. Let’s face it: that’s a hard storyline to handle. When you start dealing with insane people willing to use nukes to achieve their agenda, you start running into believability issues. But not here.

Nagata creates a higher threat in the form of an emergent AI called The Red, which adds a layer of justification to an otherwise act of off-the-wall crazy. The interesting thing about Nagata’s AI is that she never really shows it full on. It’s always lurking in the shadows, doing vaguely comprehensible things for reasons nobody really understands. Which is good, because no matter what an AI looks like, it’ll probably seem pretty damn strange to us human-types.

This adds a layer of complexity and tension to a story filled with a fair amount of whizz-bang-boom type action.

Overall, Nagata has created a truly astounding work of fiction in The Red: First Light. Whether she’s dealing with the minutiae of day-to-day life as a soldier, the stress of battle, or the higher level war threatening life on the planet, she consistently hits all the right notes. Let this be a lesson to the fellas out there, Military SF isn’t just a boy’s club anymore.


REVIEW SUMMARY: Part political thriller mixed with courtroom drama and near-future military SF.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Following a nuclear attack on U.S. soil, a squad of elite soldiers must combat an artificial intelligence, rogue defense contractors, and their own government.

PROS: Strong conflict between main characters; engaging action across a diverse setting; steady climactic build
CONS:  Seemingly forced romantic relationship; plotline of last 1/3rd not terribly relevant
BOTTOM LINE: The interplay between strong willed characters makes The Trials more than just action/adventure eye-candy.

The Trials picks up where The Red: First Light leaves off. Our rag-tag squadron of former-Linked Combat Unit soldiers have delivered the psychotic-mass-murdering-billionaire to an international court to await trial: Mission Accomplished. Except, now our main-beau Lieutenant James Shelley (along with the rest of his team) are also on trial. You know, for that whole pesky kidnapping a billionaire thing.

The first third of The Trials reads like a legal thriller, which Nagata uses to explore her character’s motivations (along with a healthy amount of introspection). At the conclusion of The Red: First Light, Shelley is left with a lot of information/life altering events to digest. Instead of simply rushing headlong into the next adventure, Nagata slows the pace and allows herself the time and space to fully process all that has happened up to this point.

Which is a good thing. It adds a layer of depth to our characters, a thing that can easily be overshadowed in a book with so many gunfights and explosions.

Just when you think the entire book is going to be a full-fledged character exploration, Nagata hits the accelerator. From about the 1/3 mark on, The Trials is a tireless sprint towards a climactic finish.

This type of non-stop action can start to feel stale or repetitive if not handled properly. Thankfully, Nagata avoids this most common pitfall by moving Shelley and his crew through a wide range of interesting environments and novel scenarios. At one point they infiltrate a boat in the middle of a storm, then Shelley is in space doing space-things. Whoa.

In terms of scale, The Trials goes big. Nagata holds nothing back (which begs the question of how she’ll top things in the next book, Going Dark).

Okay, so far we’ve got introspection, check. Legal thriller, check. Pulse hammering action, check check. So that’s it, right?

Nah, this ain’t amateur hour. Nagata ratchets up the interpersonal drama. One of the things that stands out about The Red: First Light is the way Nagata creates secondary characters who each believe they are the hero of their story. This wasn’t a fluke or a one time deal. The Trials runs with this idea, creating all sorts of delicious conflict in the process.

Our main character, James Shelley has, up to this point, been the figurative (and literal) hero of docu-drama compiled by a rogue AI affectionately dubbed The Red. So to see power (and limelight) slowly wrestled away from him by his plucky, hard-nosed Seargent, Jayne Vasquez, adds a certain amount of tension that can be downright frustrating at times. The interplay between strong willed characters each acting according to their own list of wants, needs, and beliefs makes The Trials more than just action/adventure eye-candy.

All things considered, The Trials is a strong sequel to The Red: First Light, hitting the high-watermark established by its predecessor. Where other books might have been overshadowed by a book as good as The Red: First Light, The Trials manages to shine.

About Anthony Vicino (12 Articles)
Anthony Vicino has erected a word-fortress in the cyber-slum over at where he writes about anything and everything SFF related. Stop over and see what he's scribbling on the wall.

4 Comments on Linda Nagata’s THE RED and THE TRIALS: Action-Packed Military SF with a Healthy Dose of Cyberpunk

  1. A brilliant series. Can’t wait for the next one in November!

  2. Nice reivew. I might have to check these out.

  3. “CONS: Definite ideological slant” If that’s going to be the major “con”, perhaps that should have been expanded in the review itself?

    • You’re absolutely right, Fred! It just so happened that the ideological slant was in sync with my own, so it didn’t resonate as a particularly bad thing. With that said, I should have expounded on it a bit.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: