Shadow Ops: Control Point (2012) is the first book in contemporary military fantasy series from Myke Cole. It is, in short, explodey.
The world has been shaken (but not stirred) but a new Awakening - a wave of magicallness that has transformed a minority of the population into powerful sorcerers. The authorities have very quickly clamped down on these new powers. In the US, if someone manifests a power from one of the acceptable schools (Terramancy, Hydromancy, Aeromancy, Pyromancy or Physiomancy), they're immediate drafted into the military's Supernatural Operations Corps (SOC). There, they learn how to use their powers in the defense of their country.
If someone starts coughing up fireballs and doesn't immediately ring the hotline, they're branded a "Selfer" (they use their magic for selfish reasons). The SOC spends a lot of time tracking down Selfers and neutralising them, either by indoctrinating them or shooting them in the head. Latents that manifest a magical power from a banned school (say, Necromancy) are called "Probes". They're hunted down with extra glee and ruthlessness.
Our hero, Oscar Britton, is an Army lieutenant that's doing a little support work for the SOC. The book opens with his involvement in an SOC operation to neutralise a teenage Elementalist, a type of "Probe". Much to his horror, the young girl is executed before his eyes. Britton is just beginning his paperwork on the incident when he manifests a banned power of his own.
The danger his magic presents becomes morbidly clear when Britton's uncontrollable dimensional gates start spewing demonic emu everywhere. Worse yet, one of Britton's rogue magical spurts sends his own father spinning off into a dimensional vortex. Britton flees into the countryside but is swiftly captured by the highly-trained SOC agents.
By rights, Britton should be immediately executed, but the government turns him into a covert military contractor instead. A bomb is planted in his chest and he's put into institutional slavery (still better than death, right?). Finally, he's transported into a crazy alternate dimension, "The Source", where a US task force is leading the invasion of a magical kingdom.
There, Britton is united with a small team of other "Probes" (including the teenage elementalist) and taught to use his powers. As Britton trains, he learns more about The Source, its natives, his role in the SOC and the real post-Awakening world. Eventually, he has some tough decisions to make...
Myke Cole is a debut novelist and, right off the bat, he has some clear and notable strengths as a writer. His action sequences, for example, are absolutely superb. Control Point begins with an assault on a legion of sentient elementals and the set-piece fights get even more impressive from there. These include (but are not limited to): zombie brawls, tactical squads versus sewer monsters, helicopters versus rocs, night infiltration and siege combat. Plus there are a thousand brawls and fist-fights, many of which are augmented by some form of magic. Mr. Cole knows his stuff but doesn't drown the reader in it - a wise approach to both military jargon and the intricacies of combat. I can imagine that there's a temptation to dump vast quantities of detail onto the page, and I'm glad Mr. Cole resists it. He keeps things fast-moving and ices the action cake with tangible expertise.
Where I struggled with was the character of Oscar Britton. The book seems part of the Sandersonian school of writing where the magic itself is the book's true protagonist. Clarke's Third Law states that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", but its inversion is also true: "Any sufficiently detailed magic system is indistinguishable from science". Fans of this particular world-building philosophy will be delighted - people like to know how it works, and Mr. Cole lingers over a lot of the valuable minutiae. For me, however, once magic comes out of its mysterious black box and is forced into some sort of logical consistency, it loses its, well... magic. (And I start pondering things like, "If Britton can only make portals to places he's seen, how'd he open all those gates to The Source before he ever went there?" I'm sure there's an explanation, but should there need to be an explanation? Probably not. This is, of course, a matter of stylistic preference and... end of aside.)
Meanwhile, Britton spends the bulk of the book wrestling with his role. Does he embrace the SOC or does he try to escape? It is worth noting that, with the bomb in his chest, this is almost entirely a moot point - and Britton knows it. In every chapter, Britton spots something that he approves of or that he disapproves of. This then triggers the same mental dialogue - What side am I on? Do I want to be on this side? Should I be on that side? Oh hell, it doesn't matter 'cause I'll blow up. Curtain. He's not inactive - if anything, he overcompensates. Britton oscillates wildly between one faction and the other, plunging himself recklessly towards whichever moral whim has the most gravity for that particular moment.
It certainly isn't that Britton's overarching allegiance isn't a major issue. Mr. Cole provides an endless series of scenarios on both sides of the debate, so Britton's confusion is justified (if repetitive). My major challenge is that this wibbling became the defining aspect of Britton's character - to the exclusion of everything else. His romantic inclinations, his shattered relationship with his old team in the Army, his whole rejection by a military that now rejects him - these are interesting motivations that get short shrift. Harkening back to the early pages, Britton kills his dad, a major moment that's then swept under the rug. I would have preferred a protagonist that thought more about the consequences of his actions than the significance of his allegiances.
Still, despite my reservations about the lead character, Control Point's action scenes alone are already worth the price of admission. Britton may be prone to dithering, but the reader only notices during the downtime - and there's not much of that. Mr. Cole keeps the pace brisk and both his worlds are enticing, energetic places filled with all the best whoopass that contemporary combat technology and old school magic can provide. Control Point builds a solid foundation for further adventures and is a heartening (if not perfect) beginning to what promises to be a long series.
By Jared (@pornokitsch) who is now slightly nostalgic for his old Shadowrun character.