BOOK REVIEW: The Red (First Light), by Linda Nagata

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Publisher: Saga Press

Series: The Red (#1)

Genre: Military SF

Pages: 405

Publication Date: 26/06/2015

Verdict: 4/5

 

In the near future, war is controlled by the corporations. James Shelley is just another soldier, but sometimes it feels like there’s someone looking out for him . . .

I can’t resist a good slice of Military SF, even if it is usually wrapped up in the same tropes and clichés. Even if it is an overwhelmingly Americanized genre. The Red is as engaging as they come though, and has some of the most brutal scenes of ground combat I’ve come across in recent years. From the boots-on-the-ground in the African Sahel to the covert ops on American soil, this book is a thriller in every sense of the word, while never forgetting the emotional strain soldiers suffer in their line of work.

One of the first things you notice about The Red is that it forgoes usual chapters in favour of dividing the book into episodes. In this first book, there are three. This may seem an unusual choice for the given medium, but the reasoning behind this becomes clear very quickly. Since that’s probably given the game away, I’ll spoil it fully. Lieutenant Shelly is unwittingly and at first unknowingly, the star of a documentary. It’s a clever, Truman Show-esque twist that brings a cutting edge of social commentary to the novel. And that’s something that was not in any short supply anyway.

The portrayal of the megacorporations here is not a pleasant one. Like most Military SF, Nagata has a favourable view of soldiers themselves, but thinly veiled contempt towards officers and anyone higher in the command structure. With the corporations literally running wars simply to fuel their own existence, it’s easy to know where your sympathies should lie. Even the human faces we have for those companies are far from the nicest of people. it’s not quite a matter of black and white, but there are few shades of grey to be found here.

Shelley himself is a likeable enough protagonist, if a little lacking in personality. in a way he reminds me of the hundreds of Playstation 3 era heroes, a look not helped by his depiction on the book’s cover. He’s not remarkable in any way, but he gets the job done. Both as a character and as a narrative tool. The other characters too are a little thin on the personality side. The religious one, the girlfriend, the abrasive mechanic. They all have their place and don’t stray far from it. So if it’s deep characterisation you’re looking for, you may want to look elsewhere.

Where Nagata shines is in her action scenes. The cybernetically-enhanced soldiers tear through their enemies with a tangible spray of blood. You can feel each explosion – and there are a lot of explosions. More than that, there’s a very real sense of danger. Heroes get injured in wars, and some of them even die. It’s this willingness to maim, cripple and even kill her characters theat puts Nagata a level above many of her contemporaries. This is a very violent book, and protagonists and antagonists alike pay the price for it.

One of the threads that will likely be picked up on in the sequels is the role of AI in warfare. Without spoiling too much, the threat of a digital entity weighs heavy over Shelley and his squad. It’s a realistic expansion of how cyber attacks will liekly threaten robotic and enhanced soldiers in the world’s future wars, and i hope to see more of it in future books.

You won’t find anything shockingly original in The Red. But you will find new explorations of old ideas, and where there are tropes, they are done to perfection.

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