(2018) Gavin Smith, Gollancz, £10.99 / Can$17.99 / US$15.55, pbk, 364pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21729-4
Ah, The Bastard Legion. For my money, you won’t find military science fiction better than this.
A Marine Recon hacker named Miska has stolen a prison ship and is controlling the inmates via explosive devices in their heads. That gives her access to the ‘talents’ of professional criminals, wise guys and serial killers. She uses them as her own mercenary force, the Bastard Legion, to fight wars for dodgy corporations in deep space. At the same time, she is looking for the murderer of her father, who she suspects is one of the prisoners. And, of course, every single person on the ship is looking for a chance to kill her horribly the second she loses control... The latest part of the series ( War Criminals continues the story.
The contract on Epsilon Eridani is exactly suited to the gritty, no holds barred approach to war the Legion likes. The down side, of course, is that when a series of war crimes get committed, it’s all too easy to believe that they are the ones responsible. And its also fair to say that by the end – yeah, they have to hold up their hands to a few unspeakable acts. But Gavin Smith handles the story telling beautifully and although they are a bunch of mass-murdering convicts, they never seem quite as bad as the opposition. Soulless corporate shills and slimy middle men.
So far, this is pretty much what we expect of a Bastard Legion book – lots of violence and great descriptions of up close and dirty military action. For one thing, I love the idea that the Bastards are street fighters. Give them a giant exo-skeleton and they just street-fight in it, which is not what a trained operator expects. There is no shortage of that kind of action. In fact, the only negative comment I really have about the book is that sometimes I got a bit lost with the different names of fighting machines. Assault shuttles, Harpies, Sirens - occasionally I lost track of which was which, even though I've loved this kind of fiction since reading Hammer's Slammers. But this is really a minor complaint because about halfway through the book we get to see the worst of Miska's worst in action - her Nightmare Squad. This is basically Freddie Krueger and Michael Myers being lead into battle by Hannibal Lector. You get the idea.
War Criminals really starts to open up the world's background previously covered in The Bastard Legion (2017) and The Bastard Legion: Friendly Fire (2018). We learn more about the Small Gods, the AI's who have grown themselves bodies and are superior in every way to human kind. And - well - basically there is a hell of a lot going on in this story, which rattles along at a pace that would make Raymond Chandler dizzy. With the slight exception of some character elements which seem a little stretched (kind of - we have so much going on, do we really need a romance as well?), the book is crammed with satisfying action. Its intelligently written and - maybe it's just me - I have a soft spot for the old time Mafia dudes in space.
If you are not a fan of serious military SF and you prefer your main characters to have some kind of moral centre, then this book is probably one to avoid. But if you enjoy fast-paced, kill or be killed fiction and are prepared to engage with a few highly ornate and confusing sections (the Small Gods can just get - weird) - then there is a lot here to enjoy.
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