Breach Zone (Shadow Ops #3)
by Myke Cole
Note: although I don’t think this review has spoilers for this book, it is the third in a series, and there are unavoidable spoilers for previous books. If you're interested and don't want spoilers, I reviewed the first two books here and here.
When thousands of soldiers in America’s SOC (Supernatural Operations Corps) suddenly appeared on the lawn outside of the White House, the American public discovered three things: first, there is an alternate world called the Source that that is teeming with magical creatures; second, the American government had invaded it and set up a military base; third, many of the military’s employees at the base were Probes; that is, members of magical schools prohibited by U.S. law.
The indigenous inhabitants would have massacred the human invaders if Jan Thorssen, codename Harlequin, hadn’t disobeyed orders from the President himself and saved the base. Americans have just discovered the existence of an alternate world that is home to whole civilizations of magical creatures. Now, led by an escaped Probe witch, an army of magical creatures has decided to turn the tables and visit NYC, and they’re not going to stop with postcards. Thorssen suddenly finds himself in charge of defending a rapidly devolving city from an invasion force of sorcerers, goblins, demons, and every other magical creature that can scuttle out of the Source.
If you’ve read the other books in the series, you’ve probably spent a good portion of time wanting to throttle Harlequin. This book attempts to humanize him, and that’s not exactly an easy task. Other than being a jerk whenever possible, Harlequin has acted as Britton’s foil, law-abiding, obsessive, angry cop who goes out of his way to punish anyone who breaks the arbitrary rules of society. As he puts it:
My job isn’t to interpret policy. My job isn’t even to have an opinion. My job is to carry out the will of my civilian masters, who are ultimately elected by you.
This book explores how an idealistic Jan Thorssen was transformed into the vengeful Harlequin. It becomes clear that Harlequin is suffering from compassion fatigue, and this drives him to separate the world into wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. The only thing that separates the wolves from the sheepdogs, Harlequin believes, is the law, and no matter how broken the law might be, his is not to question why. And some of his other experiences, detailed as flashbacks throughout the story, explain why he now has a whole Ikea shelving system’s worth of screws loose. No matter how hard Cole tries, I’m never going to find Harlequin a sympathetic character, but I did enjoy his ironic commentary on the situation:
“Lighten up,” Harlequin said. “We’re leading a mixed force of police and military, who have almost no experience fighting together and who lack the power to harm half the enemy. We’re outnumbered and outgunned. [...] Our goal is to secure a rent in the fabric of reality that we have no idea how to close. What could possibly go wrong?”
Another exciting change is that Oscar Britton, a.k.a. “the pompous dick,” is no longer a perspective character. In fact, Cole seems to have picked up on his readers’ universal detestation and rechristened him “Oscar Fucking Britton”-- unless that was actually his middle name all along, of course. Even better news, Bookbinder is back, and as terrifyingly optimistic as ever:
“We’ve got a problem,” Rodriguez said.
“Another problem,” Bonhomme added.
“Let’s call it a challenge,” Bookbinder said.
Through Thorssen’s flashbacks, we even get Scylla’s backstory. Given her previous actions and the fact that she’s leading the invasion in this book, I was rather incredulous at this attempt to humanize her.(show spoiler)
Awkwardly enough, however, I found myself mostly on her side, even if I didn’t approve of her methods. She has two demands: first, that the US treat the Source as an inhabited land with its own indigenous culture, and second, that the Latents be treated as citizens. After seeing America’s proud history of breaking promises to indigenous peoples, I can understand why the goblins would think that extermination was the only way.
As with the rest of the series, much of the book is an exploration of the “freedom versus safety” paradox. I admit to a certain amount of evil pleasure in finally seeing the SOC reap what they sowed, and I appreciate the ways in which Cole presented the (human) invaders’ perspectives:
“They see you for what you are, and they know you will never stop until you control every action of everyone and everything that frightens you. They want the same thing I do. To be able to go to bed at night and never have to wake up worrying that you’re out there, plotting to put us in chains again. We can’t get that by negotiating with you. We can only get that by teaching you what those chains feel like.”
I love the ways that the SOC tactics echo reality. For example, the SOC’s replacement of Big Bear is not dissimilar to the FBI infiltration of the Panthers. I’m still deeply disturbed by the way the government enslaves the “legally dead” Selfers. I have a terrible suspicion that this “repurposing” of legally dead citizens is not just a fantasy.
While I was delighted that the US’s brazen colonialism finally backfires, I was disappointed in the portrayal of the creatures from the Source. The goblins are divided with a depressing simplicity into “good” (i.e. subservient to humans) goblins and the “bad” (i.e. defensive) goblins. The Gahe are apparently inherently nasty, as are all the other invaders. Cole spends a tremendous amount of time thoughtfully deconstructing the complexities of the human conflict. It’s a pity he spent so little time extending this to the other creatures of the Source. Even the issue of imperialism is mostly pushed aside in favour of Latent/normal politics. Sadly, somewhere in the novel, right versus wrong devolves into xenophobia, with the invading Sourcers painted as soulless monsters.(show spoiler)
Even though I wish that Cole had done more to--ahem-- humanize his Source characters, I love the perspectives that he provides on the conflict between Latents and non-Latents. In this book, the reader is finally placed on the side of the U.S. government against an external invader, but even though the Selfer tactics are savage, Cole continues to question the government’s role in driving them to violence. As one character puts it:
“The only Selfer threat is the one you made for yourself. America is a nation choking on its own hypocrisy.”
Cole has experienced war, and his experiences enrich his book. Even when the SOC are defenders in an invasion, nothing is black and white, and nothing is simple. There is no straightforward victory or glorious defeat.
That was the thing about war, wasn’t it? In the end, someone has to be willing to overlook past wrongs, inequalities. In the end, war had to serve peace, to drive forward toward an end state that worked better for everyone. Otherwise, what were they fighting for?