Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Fantastic Firsts: Control Point by Myke Cole

I'm going to start this review off talking about an elephant. I know that doesn't track well, but bear with me. I found out about Control Point on Facebook. I like, many of my readers(I hope) have been following the career of Peter V. Brett, author of the Demon Cycle. Like those fans, I was intrigued by the idea that one of Brett's closest friends was debuting his own genre novel. I'll admit, my first thought was something along these lines; "Wow, it would be nice to have an a connection like that". We all know about nepotism, especially in this economy, where it seems that you almost have to know someone to get a job. This was the elephant in the room for me. So, with my cynical point of view, I didn't expect Control Point to be very good. In fact, I was expecting to find some joy in criticizing it. Imagine my surprise, when Cole strode up to that elephant, rolled his shoulders back and put a stream of high caliber bullets through its skull. Myke Cole is an rising star of genre fiction because he deserves to be, and Control Point is a fantastic beginning to what promises to be a long and noteworthy career.


Before I go any further, I'd like to point out the cover blurb from, you guessed it, Peter V. Brett. More nepotistic shilling you say? Black Hawk Down and the X-men? Really? But, once again, Brett pitches and Cole hits it out of the park. The folks who promised me Lost and The Italian Job on the front of Parker's The Company should take note. This is 'blurbing' done right. 

With that sort of promise on the cover, Cole wisely gets right to it. We are thrown into the middle of military assault on a bunch of terrorists at a public school. Except these terrorists aren't teenagers with guns and an axe to grind. These kids are slinging magic not bullets. Our protagonist, Oscar Britton, is attached to a military unit responsible for bringing in rogue magic users. These kids are 'Selfers', who are breaking the law by not turning themselves in for mandatory conscription or suppression by the government's Supernatural Operations Corps the moment their magical abilities manifest. Official governmental policy is that 'selfers' are to captured if possible but any resistance is to be met with lethal force. Understandably, Britton questions his orders when faced with gunning down teenagers. In the heat of battle with his men in danger, he makes the call to follow his orders. Cole wisely keeps the moral agonizing to a minimum during the battle, that practically explode off the page with its mix of falling helicopters, whizzing bullets, and a magical firestorm just in case you were getting bored.

While Britton absorbs and reflects on the implications and consequences of the nearly failed operation at the school he is faced with an even more pressing and thorny problem. He manifests a supernatural ability of his own. This seems fairly simple on its face, with Britton already being a soldier. He will just become a member of the SOC, a soldier of the more magical sort. But rather than manifesting a approved ability, Oscar manifests a prohibited one. As a 'probe' he faces swift and certain execution, so he abandons his post and runs. But in the chaos of dealing with his wildly out of control powers, Britton is captured by the SOC and conscripted into the world of Shadow Ops. Swiftly, transferred to the extra-dimensional world of the Source, Britton is made a member of Shadow Coven a group of 'probes' who are serving as black ops unit. The Source is full of indigenous creatures that seem to be the basis for many of the myths of Earth. Some are friendly, some are decidedly not. This conflict leads to plenty of action and dazzling use of magic follow allowing Cole the opportunity to show off his magic system. Brett's name dropping of the X-men is absolutely spot on here, but Cole's layering of military tactics and superstructure give Control Point a much more unique spin. 

Cole's world building is top notch drawing heavily on his first hand knowledge of the world of military service. Having been both a member of the armed forces and a civilian contractor Cole handles the military jargon and bureaucracy deftly, lending an authenticity that doesn't never bogs down the narrative. The relationship between the invading humans and the people of the Source, seems to speak to his experiences in Iraq in some ways and the handling of the Native Americans by the United States in the colonial period in others. Sure this isn't new ground, but Cole handles the conflict in an interesting if not completely novel fashion. 

Control Point really showcases Cole's love for comic books slammed against his experience of real world combat. Every action sequence is full of inventive and sometimes disturbing use of magic, frenetic pacing, and  generous helping of chaos. It practically begs for a big screen adaptation based on the set pieces alone. Cole wisely dips into this seemingly bottomless well just enough that readers are left wanting more, while balancing it nicely with character moments. The action sequences serve the plot without much in the way of gratuitous action disease. 

If you are looking for action without consequences and characters who know and accept their place in the world, this is not the book for you. Oscar Britton questions everything, from the motives of his government to his own choices. While many have listed Cole's choice of protagonist as a flaw in the novel, I disagree. Oscar Britton is flawed, and while I often wished Oscar would just make a decision about his moral trajectory and be done with it at times, watching him struggle with his decisions and fail spectacularly because of some of them was a nice counterpoint to the plentiful action.

Sadly, the sharp focus on Britton's first person narrative at times causes the secondary characters to become a little more two-dimensional than I would have expected. But they are by no means dull, in fact the majority of the cast are painted in vibrant colors and never feel like mere window dressing. It's just that Oscar seems so much more real, that they suffer by proximity. Confirmation that the sequel, Fortress Frontier will feature a new POV character in addition to Britton, fills me with joy.  

The best thing I can say about Myke Cole as an author is that he has something to say. Britton's conflicts between his duty to his country and his personal values, and the bigger question of what is his responsibility when he feels the government he swore to serve is no longer worthy of that service are the heart of this novel. Oscar's examination of these questions is never one sided and never certain. Oscar's attempts to choose a path vary and are all laden with consequences both great and small. Like the real world, there are no easy answers in Control Point, and I commend Cole's choice not to take the easy way out by giving them. This combination of style and substance will keep me coming back for more. That and I secretly hope we can have at least one "Aquamancers" joke. 

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