Master Sergeant by Mel Odom
Let me talk about Mr. Odom a bit, born in California and having lived most of his live in my own Oklahoma where he teaches college courses in writing. Mr. Odom has written about 150 novels, most of them tie in books (Preying for Keeps for example was a pretty decent Shadowrun book) which run the gauntlet from Sabrina the Teen Age Witch novels to Mack Bolan novels. He sold his first book in 1988 (when I would have been all of 7 years old). Basically this guy has been writing books almost as long as I've been capable of reading. My introduction to him was the 2001 book “The Rover” which to date I believe is his best work. It's an original fantasy work with the main character of a libertarian hobbit * COUGH* I mean huh... Halfing of course! Who gets mistaken for a great warrior and pressed ganged into a pirate crew and manages to have thrilling adventures by virtue of being one of the few people on his world who can read a single language, let alone dozens of languages. I'm not gonna lie I found The Rover pretty awesome along with it's sequels... Which I do recommend. It was on the strength of that series that I picked up Master Sergeant, I was expecting something original, quirky and engaging...
I didn't get it.
I instead got Starship Troopers (the movie), Halo, and a dozen other bits thrown into a blender and reduced to a generic feeling consistent honestly bland mil-sci fi story. We have Frank Sage, the half Argentinian/something else to make him ethnically ambiguous Master Sergeant and God Of Death who for the sin of being awesome has spent the last 6 years training soldiers to fight the Phrenorians (I'll get to them). Master Sergeant Sage doesn't want to be trainer of course, he wants to be the front lines killing aliens. Because that's what all these guys want. He finally gets transferred out of his training billet and send to... Makaum a hot, humid jungle death world full of rapidly changing plant, bug and reptile life that is scheming and fighting for the chance to kill humans. Because that's what all these worlds are like. Seriously it's always desert death worlds or jungle death worlds. I mean Warhammer 40k and the Starfist series have a greater range of planets then half of these books/movies/comics, what is with that? The planet's “government” made up of human colonists who survived a crash landing and lived a primitive lifestyle until recontact, is neutral in the war between humanity and the Phrenorians, so the aliens have a presence on the planet to. As do a legion of corrupt, scheming mega corps that would have the guys from Shadowrun and Cyberpunk calling them to dial it down. I mean if nothing else if your corporate security force has a rep for killing government soldiers in bars... It's time to ask some questions. Like if we're locked in a war of survival against alien bug monsters who can build starships... Why are we letting corporations fuck about doing whatever they want?
The General in charge of the planet doesn't want to rock the boat... Of course. And say it with me, doesn't understand or appreciate the awesome talents and morality of our hero Master Sergeant Sage. Our hero must of course whip his troops into shape, confront monstrous corporate security goons, win over the natives and carry out attacks on drug labs hidden in the dangerous scary jungle while not dying and not getting discharged. Lucky for him the guy in charge of the base a rather easy going Colonel honestly is willing to let him do... Pretty much whatever he wants and cover for him later. I mean there's a Major with a Senator daddy who is supposed to be a threat... But frankly you could have cut the character entirely from the novel without impacting the story in any meaningful way. The troops kinda of resent him for being a hard ass and making them train (which is honestly realistic, if you've settled into a routine and then some new jackass comes in and upsets everything by making you do even more work... You're not going to like him) but a small crew of NCOs and Officers (because fuck those junior enlisted guys amirite?) rally to his side to be bad-ass in the jungle waging a War on Drugs.
I'm going to be blunt. Sage is fucking boring. We've seen him before. The guy who father was in army, and his grandfather was likely in the army, who lives and breaths the army and fighting the war. Who has no friends or relationships outside of the army. No interests or hobbies outside of the army. The Army and being the living model of a cutout soldier is all Frank Sage has. Which is boring. Look, I didn't meet a single dude like that in the 4 years I served, you know why? Because such a person would burn out and end up in jail or a mental institution. Even the most Hard Charging, High Speed, Low Drag Moto Motherfucker had interests outside of the military, because that's how you stay sane. Otherwise you lose your edge and burn out.
Meanwhile the Phrenorians who are scropin like lurk in the background. Sometimes supporting Master Sergeant Sage because he's totally awesome and will create chaos that we being the true master race will take advantage of or mostly just not doing much past their actually kinda of cool intro. Zho GhiCemid is honestly a more interesting character then Sage, mainly due to his savagery. We meet him when he's molting and to hurry along the process? Dude literally rips off his own skin. The Phrenorians start off interesting but that changes as we learn more about them. They see themselves as super predators with a right to control the galaxy, they have an eugenics style program to breed stronger and better Phrenorians and birth defects and such are not tolerated. You can advance up the hierarchy by killing your superiors in certain situations and strength is honored and weakness is something to prey on. They are bug like in a lot of ways, but they don't depend on over whelming numbers, with the average Phrenorian being stronger and faster then the average human, in addition to have a stinger tail that will of course kill you dead. They are also just as smart and advanced as we are. So at least Mr. Odom manages to avoid the bug cliches. That said he trips right in other ones. I mean oh look Nazi Aliens intend on conquering the galaxy because it's their right. We have never seen that before have we?
That said, there is next to nothing that is new or interesting in this book. We've all seen the characters in here a dozen times before, we've seen the setting, the bad guys, the plot... Yeah. None of this is badly written mind you. Mr. Odom turns in a workmen like job of a novel that is nothing to be embarrassed about. The prose is solid, the world building consistent if at times questionable, the characterization okay... But... I saw every plot twist coming, knew how the conversations were going to end and what roles each character was going to play by the time of their second appearance. From a first time writer or someone still a bit new and raw like say Myke Cole I would accept that. Mel Odom isn't just that guy, he's a practiced veteran and worse, he's a veteran I know can do better. So I find myself disappointed. I expected more then something that could be a Halo DLC or short story in a book about the Imperial Guard. In a lot of ways this book feels like Odom just hitting points he believes his audience expects. Bar Brawl, check. Attack in market place, check. Jungle ambush, check. Scheming officers, check. So on and so forth.
Additionally Mel Odom doesn't really understand the military. That's nothing to be ashamed of, there is no reason for a man who never served to really get it. Nor is it a requirement to write popular or even good military science fiction, or more importantly good science fiction. Let me stress this, you don't have to grasp the modern military or it's cultures to do either there. But Mr. Odom relentlessly models his Terran Army on the United States Army. Now if you have to have an army, the US Army is certainly a good one to have for all it's flaws (insert snobbish Marine comment here). If you are going to model your fiction military on the US, get a feel for the culture of service, how it works how it's members think and feel. If someone who never served wanted to get a feel for the Marines for example, I would point them towards works like Terminal Lance and other things written by men and women who served. Because some things are timeless. I fully believe that in the misty past there were Roman junior enlisted bitching about how clueless and stupid their officers were and how their senior NCOs were inhuman assholes. I also believed that those same senior NCOs were constantly aggravated by their enlisted men's ability to come up with new and interesting ways to do stupid shit and create giant fuck ups. I also believe those officers were as clueless as I believed mine were. Now I think a United World Military would feel much differently then a US institution. That said this is science fiction we don't have to be slaves to reality here but we should try to make the work feel as real and alive as possible. To put it bluntly I didn't feel that Mr. Odom put the work in to make a believable military unit. Of course when you get to it there were only about 4 and ½ characters actually in the unit anyways as Odom didn't like writing about anyone who wasn't at least a Sgt. Seriously the Terran Army feels overstuffed with officers and NCOs. With Pvts and PFCs and such only mentioned in passing and Cpls only shown doing the work that no one else will do (well there's some realism at least). This leaves the military feeling like something manufactured by Hollywood who has at best a really mixed record when it comes to displaying what the military is like. This could have been done a lot better. I mean I took Myke Cole to town over Shadow Ops Control Point and he deserved it, but at least he convinced he knew what military life was like.
Despite it's predictability and flaws the book is well written. Which is what saves it from being awful. But also that well written prose serves to highlight just how mundane and generic this story is. I'm not saying every fantasy and science fiction has to be original, but they all have to be interesting and this isn't.
Master Sergeant by Mel Odom rates and gets a flat C. Hopefully Mr. Odom lives up to his talent in the next book I pick up.
So next up I take on a book that I know will be awesome and leave me in need of a hug and some booze. My good friend Julian has patiently awaited this day, I'm currently reading and will be soon reviewing R. Scott Bakker's The Judging Eye. After that I finally get to one of Alamo's recommendations, I'd like to thank him for his patience as well. That book will be George Washington's Military Genius by Dave R Palmer.