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Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier
Myke Cole
Ace, 352 pages

Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier
Myke Cole
As a secu­rity con­tractor, gov­ern­ment civilian and mil­i­tary officer, Myke Cole's career has run the gamut from Counter-terrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He has done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deep­water Horizon oil spill.

Myke Cole Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Michael M Jones

Colonel Alan Bookbinder. Married, with kids. Career soldier. Professional paper pusher. His life is sedate, his military service is undistinguished, and he's only good if you want to follow the money trail.

And then his Latent magical abilities surface. The Supernatural Operation Corps may not know what Bookbinder's special gifts are yet, but it doesn't matter: he's still theirs. He is promptly reassigned to Forward Operating Base Frontier, an outpost in another dimension, where the military sticks all of its dirty secrets and embarrassing problems, where it trains the magically gifted so they'll serve their country…or makes them vanish for good. His rank and time in service make him perfect for an important position on base... as the resident J1, or paper. Once again, he gets to approve budget requests and sign leave forms, but with the added bonus of being far from home and family, in possession of as-yet-unidentified abilities.

Things take a turn for the worse when one of the SOC's "assets," a soldier named Oscar Britton, makes a dramatic break from custody, destroying many of their defenses and their way home in the process. Now Bookbinder is in charge of a base in the middle of nowhere, running low on supplies, surrounded by hostiles, and pushed to his limits. His only hope: make contact with rumored allies hundreds of miles away. The bureaucrat has to man up, take command, and learn how to kick some ass.

Meanwhile, Britton and his allies are on the run, engaged in open rebellion against the system that exploits and endangers them at every step. They'll make the hard choices of who to trust and where to go, but it may not be enough. With Britton standing as one of the only hopes Bookbinder and FOB Frontier have left, can the two forces ever come together and work as one? Or are the enemies arrayed against them too much to withstand?

Fortress Frontier is the second in Myke Cole's Shadow Ops series, which combines intense military action with superhuman abilities and science fiction/fantasy elements. It's only partly a sequel, with Bookbinder's introduction and early participation overlapping with the events seen in Control Point.

It's interesting to see the setup approached from a different angle than in the first book. Oscar Britton was an unwilling conscript, unfairly painted as a criminal and forced into service when his powers manifested, and he was thrust into the deep end of a dark pool. Alan Bookbinder is a good, if unremarkable, soldier, who plays by the rules and goes willingly (well, with much reluctance when separated from his family). Where Oscar's a rebel, Alan's the establishment, and though they don't actually meet for much of the book, they represent two different sides of the same deal. Oscar worries about his small group of friends and allies; Alan worries about an entire battalion, about supplying and maintaining and defending them. In this, we see the good and bad of the SOC, and its limitations and vulnerabilities as well as its strengths.

Fortress Frontier expands our knowledge of the world(s) upon which it's set, by sending some of our heroes on a desperate journey across the alternate dimension known as the Source, populated by beings and creatures reminiscent of myth and legend. Interestingly, we get a good look at creatures drawn from Indian myth, like the snake-affiliated Naga Raja and the fiery agni danav. It makes for a richer, weirder world, to see that we're dealing with a variety of cultures and influences.

As with the first book, there's a lot of action. Standard military warfare is enhanced by an assortment of magical superpowers involving the creative control of various elements, teleportation, animals, and so on. It's been described as X-Men meets Blackhawk Down, and that's as good an example as any. After all, the people manifesting powers often do so unhappily, unexpectedly, and without any say in the matter. They're promptly snapped up by forces beyond their control, and forced to train and use them for someone else's benefit. The mutants of the Marvel universe have often experienced similar treatment. One of the primary themes running throughout these books is the desire to be granted a choice, to find an alternative that allows those with powers to return to normal life should they desire. Here, we see that plotline driven forward aggressively by a number of characters and factions.

It's tricky to pull off a good blend of military sf and fantasy elements. The Shadow Ops series balances carefully on that edge, and Cole delivers a thoroughly satisfying product as a result. It's grounded in a world we recognize, but the extended journey through the Source, and the development of Bookbinder's abilities, proves that we have lots of room to grow and learn more. It's fast-paced, intense, and a lot of fun. It's a marked improvement on Control Point, which had some pacing and character development issues; Fortress Frontier actually addresses some of those problems and injects a greater measure of common sense into its protagonists.

Cole's definitely getting better with each book, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Copyright © 2013 Michael M Jones

Michael M Jones enjoys an addiction to books, for which he's glad there is no cure. He lives with his very patient wife (who doesn't complain about books taking over the house... much), eight cats, and a large plaster penguin that once tasted blood and enjoyed it. A prophecy states that when Michael finishes reading everything on his list, he'll finally die. He aims to be immortal.

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