(2012) Myke Cole, Headline, pbk, £7.99, 416pp, ISBN 978-0-755-39397-8
As I opened the cover I was faced with three pages extolling the virtues of this book, in the form of extracts of other reviews and comments from other writers, before I had even reached the title page. Was this some advertising executive's latest idea in excessive advertising – or did the publisher really think I needed psyching-up before I would read it? If it was the latter, would it prove an omen of what was in store for me?
One of these reviews implied it was a cross between Witch World and The Forever War plus a good stirring-in of Black Hawk Down for modern, military realism - so let us start there and see where it takes us. In Witch World, Andre Norton tells the tale of Simon Tregarth and how he finds himself on another world, one where magic really does work; this also happens to Oscar Britton in Control Point. However, Andre wrote with a charm, and sometimes even with a touch of whimsy, that this book certainly does not possess. In The Forever War, Joe Haldeman tells the tale of William Mandella and how he was conscripted into a war he never wanted to be part of and from which it seems he can never escape; the same happens to Oscar Britton (though for other reasons). Both authors have experienced the “joys” of the American military, Joe being a Vietnam veteran and Myke having done three tours in Iraq. Whilst Joe concentrated on the way the army enmeshes its people and follows the course of the war, Myke concentrates on the individual suffering of the ordinary soldier under unfeeling officers. Black Hawk Down (which is based on a real event) made for an exciting movie which features the American military fighting hard in a country where the indigenous population do not want them there, where there is frequent, bloody, and deadly fighting between both sides, and where American military might means that the death toll runs into hundreds, if not thousands, of locals but only a few of themselves. The situation is much the same in Control Point.
The fact is though, that this book is none of the above – it is a separate story in its own right. It is firmly a military adventure story though with magic thrown in to give it an extra spin; some might therefore call it military fantasy. It has a detailed, harsh, 'realistic' approach with none of the gentle niceties of style used in many similar novels.
The story is set in our world and our time, though with the difference that for a while now people have been manifesting magical powers. So far there are only a few such individuals though their numbers are slowly growing, and this manifestation can occur at any age and does so without warning. Each country handles the matter differently but in the States the rules are simple: if you manifest powers you should immediately contact the authorities; you will then be offered the choice of joining the Army and making your abilities available to your country or else entering a civilian scheme of permanent suppression and monitoring - either way, your life as you knew it is over. There are some who reject these choices and go on the run; they are known as Selfers (because they think only of themselves) and are hunted down and (if they survive the process) captured. Now for the bad news; whilst most magical powers are accepted, there are a few prohibited ones and if you have manifested with one of those then you face a mandatory and immediate death sentence.
As the story opens, US Army Lieutenant Oscar Britton is about to depart on a mission to capture a couple of Selfers, two youths who have just manifested and with their inexperience and sheer fear have already caused the deaths of a number of people at their school. As normal on such a mission, he and his men are joined by a member of SOC (the Army’s Supernatural Operations Corps), in this case (call sign) Harlequin, and there is no love lost between the regular army and the Sorcerers. A battle ensues in which the boy, a Pyromancer, is killed, though Oscar manages to wound and 'disarm' the girl, an Elementalist. Although Oscar wants to take her into custody, Elementalism is a prohibited power and Harlequin simply shoots her dead on the spot. Oscar is sickened by this callousness; he joined the army to do good, not to kill kids.
The battle over, Oscar is in the hospital, sitting watch over one of his men who was badly injured in the fight, when suddenly a portal opens to another world. This is seriously bad news for Oscar; it is he that has opened the portal and that means he has just manifested as a Portomancer - and that is a prohibited talent. Being a good soldier he knows he should hand himself in but he has just seen what will happen - a bullet in the brain from Harlequin. So he goes on the run but not successfully and is soon captured. To his surprise he is not executed, he is instead taken to that other world where it turns out that all those conspiracy rumours are true; there really is a secret military base for prohibited magic. The thing is that Portomancy is very rare but it also makes for a very, very powerful weapon so he has been specially pardoned by the President … but only provided he spends the rest of his life serving his country. Prohibited powers are illegal so he cannot, of course, remain in the Army; instead he is a permanent employee of a military contractor (it is that old plausible deniability again!). To ensure his cooperation, they have imbedded a small but sufficiently powerful bomb in the wall of his heart; if he goes on the run a second time it will be the end of him.
They say that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that is certainly true for this one. I have just summarised the beginning so let us move on to the middle. This endlessly describes his training: getting up early every morning, practicing his magic, practicing his fighting, and ending up most evenings drinking in the mess. His training is under the brutal jurisdiction of Chief Warrant Officer Fitzsimmons, a man of whom nothing remotely nice could ever be said. His daily injuries at the vicious hands of “Fitzy” would normally have finished him in just a session or two were it not for his daily visits to the hospital unit and the healing powers of a Physiomancer. All the way through Oscar is horrified at the mounting death toll, especially of the indigenous population who are determined to drive out the hated invaders, and is torn between loyalty to his country and a desire to do things that are actually good. Eventually the story reaches the end part; various characters make their respective decisions and so the story reaches a predictable end.
The beginning and end are quite good but the middle just goes on and on and on. Admittedly it is occasionally enlivened by an exercise here or an exercise there, as well as a couple of actual missions, but there is just not enough story in it to justify all the pages it takes up. I have not counted the pages exactly, but at a rough guess I would say that you could keep the first hundred pages and the last hundred pages, then take the two hundred pages in the middle and discard all but the most interesting events, and then edit and tweak the remainder back together to produce an interesting story where there is always enough happening to keep the reader interested. As it was, once I reached the middle section, I found it all too easy to put the book down. I would pick it up the next day, read another couple of chapters, and happily put down again whilst I found something more interesting to do or to read.
I have a picture in my mind of the author in the offices of the publisher, an editor towering evilly over him: “Look you ‘orrible little man, er, author, the Army, er, reader, needs more pages! Lots more pages! Gawdamitman, keep typing!”. During a panel at Renovation (the 2011 Worldcon), whilst discussing the ever greater page count in recent books, Bob Silverberg reminded us (and the editors on the panel) that every story has its own length – if you write it too long or too short it just will not work properly. And Bob knows how to write very good books! Perhaps one day editors will listen to him – but not, it appears, the editor for this book.
In summary, the story is told fairly brutally (which is not in any way a complaint), it starts interestingly, stalls throughout the very long middle, and reaches a predictable end. I have enjoyed military fantasy in the past but in those cases there was more of note happening and the story remained interesting throughout, but this book just took too long to tell not enough story.
Incidentally, at the end of the book is an extract from Fortress Frontier, described as the next book in the Shadow Ops series. It takes off where Control Point finishes and features a different lead character. It seems to be written in the same tone so clearly it is more of the same stuff. If you enjoy Control Point then doubtless you will enjoy the following books in the series. Personally, I have a lot of other books in my 'unread' pile and I will be getting on with those.
[Up: Fiction Reviews Index | SF Author: Website Links | Home Page: Concatenation]
[One Page Futures Short Stories | Recent Site Additions | Most Recent Seasonal Science Fiction News]
[Updated: 13.1.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]