A few weeks ago, I stumbled onto Myke Cole's blog post on the portrayal of violence in fantasy. Cole's writing had the solidity that comes from personal experience, and that's something I've rarely encountered on the subject. Cole talked about his own experiences during his three tours in Iraq and his contracting work with a frankness and perceptiveness that deeply impressed me. After reading his post on PTSD, I made a rare impulse decision and picked up his book. I've rarely been more grateful for giving into a whim.
All the same, I think I want to emigrate to Canada now.*
In a mysterious event called the "Great Reawakening," magic has returned to the world. Every so often, a Latent will suddenly manifest rare a supernatural talent. Some can call up thunderstorms via Aeromancy or cast fire with Pyromancy while others can mutate the human body via Physiomancy. In the United States, though, magic doesn't necessarily grant power: if you are Latent, you belong to the military, courtesy of the newly-instated McGauer-Linden Act. If you're a Probe-- someone who manifests in one of the prohibited schools of magic-- then the military is going to make you disappear. And if you run, you're a Selfer--someone who puts yourself above others-- and that's a capital crime.
And while you may run, you can't hide.
The story begins when Lieutenant Oscar Britton is summoned to provide backup for the SOC (Supernatural Operations Corps) takedown of two Selfers, one of whom is a Probe and able to summon elementals. Britton is conflicted: while the Probe has caused the deaths of civilians, she's just a kid, and her crimes call for the death penalty or worse. No one really knows what happens to the Probes, but there are whispers of everything from nasty deaths to laboratory vivisections to a hidden camp where the Probes are enslaved and brainwashed and beaten into soldiers. When the mission goes awry, Oscar suddenly finds himself facing prohibited magic and discovering the government's secrets firsthand. Welcome to a brave new world.
If you're looking for a gritty urban fantasy with a nice bit of worldbuilding, or some seriously pulse-racing battle magic scenes, then I think this book will definitely deliver. I'm a sucker for elemental magic, and when you throw in other twists like Elementalists or Portomancy, which gives the wielder not only the ability to open gates into other dimensions but also a mean chopping technique with the gate boundaries, the battles are pretty intense. There's also quite a bit of military/bureaucratic humour, such as the pamphlets promoting precautions against AMDs (accidental magical discharges.) But the book's heart is far more powerful. Given that the author openly mentions his military experiences, I wasn't sure what to expect. I think I predicted something a bit in line with his blog post on PTSD: a carefully apolitical, thoughtful explanation of the effects of battle. Instead, the book confronts a far more unsettling issue: what justifies a war? What justifies military power? How can we find the balance between safety and freedom?
I loved the structure: each chapter starts with a quote from a political leader or a military official or a social commentator, with everything from simple regulations to a touch of the profound:
When you relegate a class of people to pariah status, you are creating a ready-made insurgency. The problem here is that this particular one has the power to bring about a change in the regime.
Character-building is not the strong suit of the book, but (and I can't believe I'm saying this) it really doesn't matter. The main character combines a tendency towards vacillation with an absolutely impressive degree of self-righteous callousness, but weirdly enough, I think this actually accentuated the themes of the book. Initially, I thought the character problems were most obvious with the kindly, gentle, ever-patient token minority/indigenous character, but when I started comparing him to the rest of the cast, I quickly realised they were mostly equally one-dimensional. The portrayal of females was also somewhat problematic: other than a briefly-mentioned terramancer, the female cast consists of a femme fatale, a noble, beautiful, and sexy female healer, and an idiot ingénue with a schoolgirl crush and a bad case of self-righteousness. The plot felt a little slow at times--not because there wasn't plenty of action, but because it lacks a single driving arc. I think this was intentional; the sheer unpredictability of the plot also accentuates the struggle over submission or rebellion. Cole does a great job in portraying a militarily bureaucracy:
"But then you actually come face-to-face with magic, and it—”
“It’s deadly,” she finished for him.
“More than that,” he added. “It’s boring. It’s hyperregulated and bound up in red tape."
In this fusion of magic and military action, it would be easy to drift into jingoism, to focus on the fighting and leave the government's motivations unquestioned. Instead, Cole makes the world far more complex. In the years since the magic appeared, some things haven't changed. The military still has a strong focus on fighting terrorism, but now that any Selfer can be considered a domestic terrorist, this means that the military spends quite a lot of time subduing its own citizens. Some of the Apache tribes have embraced magic as a way to regain their land and autonomy, and, according to the government, this, too, is terrorism. And then there are the wars that are so secret that they do not need to be justified. The military gives its soldiers validation, a sense of righteousness; as one soldier explains to a Selfer:
“I sleep at night because, unlike you, every life I take is authorized.”
The argument is always national security, the cost of safety, the price of freedom. But when these homilies are drenched in blood, it becomes less clear-cut:
"You know how many lives you saved by what you did?”
“No...I only know how many lives I took."
I spent the whole book off-balance, not sure where Cole was going to take the story. I love the way he explored everything from imperialism to xenophobia, exposing the nastiest practices of the military in ways that didn't quite confront reality. All the same, I'm now anxious to determine how many of these practices our military actually uses. Some of them really made me want to emigrate to Canada-- or shoot myself for supporting the system via my taxes.(show spoiler)
And then there are the recruiting tactics. From the draft to the press gangs, the military hasn't been known for a tendency towards passive recruiting, but the Linden Act has opened a whole new realm of possibilities: according to the law, a Latent must call up the SOC as soon as their powers manifest, then given the choice between the military or lifelong painful Suppression. If the Latent runs, he's automatically a Selfer at the top of the Most Wanted list and, when captured, is given the choice between the military and imprisonment or death. As one SOC member explains,
"We had to track you down. We had to bring you to justice. You are publicly dead. You belong to us. You may not be grateful for the gift of your lives, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a gift your government has graciously given you."
The government has absolute power, and more than that, it holds power over information. It's only too easy to be brainwashed, to submit, fall in, to cooperate solely for the sake of becoming part of something. When asked what happens to the nonconformists, one soldier explains,
“It won’t come to that. They always cooperate in the end."
The book's message is all the more powerful for its elements of conflict and contradiction. Cole's own experiences elevate the book to something greater; his questioning of the military comes from experience, not ignorance. His struggles over justice and freedom are deeper and more profound, weighted by the years he has given to his country. Backed by this weight, his questions are far more haunting. When I finished the book, I was left troubled and anxious, torn between a desire to open Pandora's box, to try to delve into the underside of the military, and an urge to stick my head back in the sand. I did take one decisive action: I went and bought the next book, which, for me, is the highest form of praise. As always, I can't help but feel inadequate when I try to capture what makes a novel unique, so I'll leave you with a quote:
Magic is the death of social structure. It has taken the completed puzzle, broken the pieces apart, and tossed them in the air. It’s up to us to put them back together again. The new picture they form will be very different from the old one.
* If you're not American, this is a repeated semi-joke in partisan American politics. I have no idea how long it goes back, but I do remember a bunch of Democrats swearing they'd emigrate to Canada if Bush won a second term. The response was, of course, "Please, please do." When it was Obama's turn, we had a whole new group of newly proclaimed wannabe-Canadians, despite the already extant universal heathcare there. Funnily enough, no one seems to consider emigrating to Mexico.