Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review: Myke Cole's Javelin Rain

Myke Cole's military fantasy novel Javelin Rain follows Gemini Cell, and continues its tale of the dead-but-not-gone Navy SEAL Jim Schweitzer, a product of America's secret government program that uses contractors to animate super-operatives.  Schweitzer's story takes place prior to Control Point, which opened the Shadow Ops series Cole concluded in Breach Zone.  Readers of Gemini Cell will want to read Javelin Rain: it zooms out on Schweitzer's escape from his government masters and its aftermath, shows readers the off-screen bogeymen pulling the strings in Gemini Cell, and details the next segment of Schweitzer's doomed quest to fulfill his roles as a husband and father following his untimely death.

Background

In Cole's prior Shadow Ops novels, each volume followed a different protagonist, so prior knowledge wasn't terribly important to seeing the world through the protagonist's eyes: the protagonist's individual outlook was built from the ground up in each book.  Javelin Rain is different: it continues Gemini Cell's story of Jim Schweitzer, and opens promptly following that volume's final scene on the predicament readers understood would naturally follow the Gemini Cell's conclusion.  Prior knowledge of the protagonist's predicament, and the background of the actors, is important to understanding the characters and relationships and sacrifices Cole's new work presents.  That background will help give perspective to the choices characters make – especially non-POV characters developed primarily through prior action in Gemini Cell. Gemini Cell is well worth reading even if you aren't holding a copy of Javelin Rain – but if you're looking at Javelin Rain, consider picking up Gemini Cell first.

By the time of Control Point, magic powers manifest by U.S. citizens are subject to government regulation – and public service campaigns admonishing individuals with powers to register.  However, the action in Gemini Cell and Javelin Rain occurs at a time the U.S. hasn't got such regulation.  Gemini Cell and Javelin Rain take place in a U.S. whose public is not yet unaware magic has begun to manifest.  But elements of the government know, and are willing to kill to keep the secret.  By the end of Gemini Cell, the protagonist's family learns what's become of him – and are thereby marked for death.  Schweitzer, a SEAL in life and well-educated in government application of force, is unwilling to stand by while those he loves are murdered.

Open Javelin Rain.

Complexity

As in Gemini Cell, the story's major players are complex humans rather than paper-cut-out actors in a budget Western shoot-em-up.  Schweitzer's antagonists are depicted not as a unified front of faceless villains (e.g., storm troopers from Star Wars) but as an internally diverse group of individuals with motives and values that place them in conflict as much with their fellows as with their nominal enemy, and who have the power to decide for themselves not to perform heinous acts on command (e.g., storm troopers from The Force Awakens).  Individuals' capacity to learn and make decisions and change course – a major factor in humanizing the actors in Gemini Cell – remains on show in Javelin Rain.  Readers familiar with the Shadow Ops world in the time of Control Point will understand how different government's relationship with the arcane is from that on display in Gemini Cell – and Myke Cole shows through Schweitzer's story why prior regulatory relationships were discarded in favor of the schemes that won out by the time of the first Shadow Ops series.

Evolution

It's tempting to view the prequel trilogy – Schweitzer's story – as another step in the transition of powered individuals from nonpersons to full citizens.  In Gemini Cell and Javelin Rain, agencies treat supers as government property, classified assets that cannot be disclosed upon pain of death, never allowed to retire while they can be made to function.  By contrast, Control Point opens on a world in which supers are publicly known but whose rights are curtailed by government regulations that include mandatory registration and compulsory military service.  By the end of Breach Zone, supers   achieve some support for supers' rights and stand ready to participate in the formation of regulations to protect the public from uncontrolled powers (just like citizens theoretically can participate now in how we want government to regulate dangerously uncontrolled citizens).  Between the two stories, somethins must happen to expose supers to the world. Will that be Schweitzer? Some successor to the Gemini Cell organization?  Cole has another volume to show how the government registration program is instituted and set up the events in Control point.  Even knowing where the world goes, one can't help wondering about the fate of the individuals caught up in the action:  Control Point doesn't spoil Javelin Rain at all.

The conflict in Gemini Cell between Schweitzer and the djinn that re-animated his corpse is replaced in Javelin Rain by the conflict between Schweitzer's need to employ his professional, calculated, mission-directed outlook to resolve problems, and his distraction by his emotional responses to the successive hazards directed into the path of those he loves.  The conflict between Schweitzer and the government not only continues, but broadens: his old unit makes new enemies even as it risks more personnel hunting Schweitzer and expanding its secret program to build and improve its undead strike force.  Fans of military fantasy will enjoy the technical details: how mortal soldiers arm for battle with an undead killing machine, how technology impacts Schweitzer's supernatural efforts, and how enemies and allies alike track a zombie on the run from the government.  If you enjoy watching high-tech equipment and magic collide you'll love the fights – fun and fast – and the escalating stakes that include immediate and mounting consequences that follow the protagonist. 

And about those consequences.  In Gemini Cell we learned the animated dead could perform some limited battle shapeshifting to add bone spikes to their bodies at will. It wasn't hard to imagine that such shapeshifting might, with practice, be employed to repair damage that in Gemini Cell was depicted as a one-way street because zombies didn't heal (at least while entirely governed by hungry djinn bent on killing).  But, no.  Schweitzer doesn't learn to use the spike-extending power to regenerate or re-grow a damaged body.  Every time he slips up and allows himself to be injured, he becomes less capable and more helpless before an enemy that is only getting better and better at fighting him, and never runs out of fresh uninjured bodies to move into position for the next attack.  It just gets grimmer and grimmer.

Schweitzer's internal evolution in Javelin Rain differs from that in Gemini Cell; he doesn't go from living to dead, he doesn't gamble his immortal soul on a bid to take control of his body to save his family, he doesn't lose his self-defining career.  However, he does move from a loner fighting to discover the truth to a teammate cooperating to accomplish something too big for him to do alone.  The decisions Schweitzer made in Gemini Cell – not to allow the government to use him as an indiscriminate killing machine, to seek out and protect his family – carry him forward from the first pages of Javelin Rain.  He learns about non-soldier allies making sacrifices for him and the risks others will accept to further a mission bigger than himself.  Javelin Rain presents Schweitzer a chaotic conflict, and he's not in charge.  Even as his unhealing body is ground down in capability, Schweitzer is forced to adapt to a world that's growing darker and more dangerous.

It's a story of sacrifice and suffering that looks pretty grim as it progresses.  Schweitzer will have to change the quality of his confrontations at some point if he's to get ahead – and we don't see exactly how that will happen.  It's a good reason to see the next installment of the story, which presumably will be released next year.  It's a fun story, full of excitement and action and a decent handful of characters to worry about.  Cole uses close-third-person point of view to show readers not only his main protagonist in action, but the actions of major players still in action from Gemini Cell – and their own opponents.  We get a much better idea what's behind Gemini Cell, and a clearer idea who the enemy is.  Well, enemies;  readers can have their choice prioritizing who's most to worry about as the tale advances.

Process

As described in the Gemini Cell review and in an interview with Myke Cole, Cole's work is not a seat-of-the-pants lark but a work that results from deliberate and process-driven craftsmanship.  Readers can rest assured that the Schweitzer story has a known destination, and won't be derailed by some midway misstep that paints the author into a corner, and causes an improvised, unsatisfying tack-on ending.  Myke Cole is laying out all the elements he requires to get the story where it needs to go.  Readers leery of series must rejoice to see authors like Cole and Butcher who know where they're going and methodically drive the boat where it needs to go.

Conclusion

Javelin Rain is a must-read for anyone who's seen Gemini Cell and wants to know how an undead super-soldier is going to make good on his mission to protect his family when the government paints a target on their heads.  Javelin Rain exposes some of the machinery that Myke Cole left hidden behind the wizard's curtain in Gemini Cell, and it reveals the kinds of schisms within the government that allowed the events in Gemini Cell – and what levers may be pulled to effect change.  Worldbuilding questions raised by Gemini Cell are answered as the second phase of Schweitzer's escape unfolds – and he sets up his counterattack.  Like The Empire Strikes Back, this installment isn't intended to offer a feeling that the series has closed, but to reveal key backstory while showing the characters' limitations that will require they change their strategy before they can finally prevail (in the next volume).  At least, we can hope they prevail.  Half the fun is imagining what that will look like: you've seen stories that get grim before they get better, but Javelin Rain gets pretty doggone grim.

If you like a Tom Clancy/Zombie mashup, this book is for you.  If you like craft-driven storytelling that's going someplace, pick up a copy.  If you want to know what the government is REALLY doing with your tax dollars, Javelin Rain is the documentary you've been waiting for.

While you're waiting for your copy of Myke Cole's latest work to arrive, consider reading what the FBI is doing about the paranormal threat in the Emma Bull production Shadow Unit, which you should read in this order.  (Nowhere else will you see Steven Brust write about a hero in the FBI, as he does in the series finale "Something's Gotta Eat T-Rexes.")

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