Unbreakable was published last year by Tor books and is Mr. Bauers’ first book in print. Its sequel was released this year. Mr. Bauers is an American writer who lives in the shadow of Pike's Peak with his wife, three sons, and a rescue dog. He is also a big fan of French press coffee and knitting, and studies Taekwondo. Unbreakable is military science fiction, a genre I’ve found myself having a complicated relationship with ever since I started this review series. In the past I might have read books like Master Sergeant and Shadow Ops and simply forgotten about them, exiling the books to the back of my closet, now I have to actually think about them and really look at their faults and mistakes. There were also the Lost Fleet books, which while better than the other two books I listed, still weren't that great. This is frustrating to me because despite what the critics are going to say I know military fiction can be great. Whether it's the Black Company series, Hammers Slammers, or Lt Leary's adventurers, military fiction has a lot of ground it can cover and characters it can explore (let me also point mutely to Lois Bujold's work); but many writers seem utterly hell bent on focusing on the same couple archetypes. Whether it be a gifted enlisted grunt who rises to officerdom, a senior NCO who has absolutely no life outside of the military (No. Mr. Odom, I'm not letting that go!) or the officer who is about to stamp their name in burning letters upon history itself. Speaking as former enlisted, there are more than 4 or 5 types of people in the military guys... But now I'm just ranting, let's get to the book.
Promise Pean is a Republic of Aligned Worlds Marine from the planet Montana. I could swear this is the 3rd time I've run into a planet called Montana. Although the only one I can really point to is the one from David Weber's “The Shadow of Saganami”. The two planets are fairly similar: a libertarian culture led by a Congress and a President, mostly rural and into ranching. Having read both books, I think the similarities are due to both planets being based on the state of Montana, which has a fairly libertarian culture with elected officials and is really rural and into ranching. There's no real similarities between characters and Mr. Bauer honestly does a better job with his Montana (to be fair, he spends more time on it). Pean was driven to join the Marine Corps when a pirate raid murdered her father and burnt her home to the ground. In doing so she was turning her back on her father's beliefs (he was a pacifist semi-christian of some type, there's a lot of Bible quoting but God is referred to as the Maker and there's no mention of Christ. This annoys me but is too broad a topic to discuss here.), to underscore that she changed her last name to her mother's maiden name when she joined the Marines (her Mother died from disease before the raid). Pean's origin becomes important when she and her company of Marines are called back to the world of her birth when raiders begin hitting it all over again; finding themselves alone at the ass end of the universe against increasingly overwhelming odds, Pean is trying to preserve as much of her birth world as possible and fulfill her duty as a Marine. Before I get into that let me talk about the character.
Pean herself is an example of talented grunt made officer, she enlisted and rose to the rank of Sgt before the various crisis of the book propel her toward the dark fate of becoming a Lt. While that is a common archetype, she managed to be a fairly unique example in some ways, albeit typical in others. Some of the uniqueness I could do without. In the first chapter, I am brought into the book with a scene of Lt. Pean talking to the ghost of her dead mother while playing with a glock pistol (a family heirloom from her mother). I honestly found this incredibly alarming and was left wondering just what are the shrinks in the Republic of Aligned Worlds doing!?! You've just handed command of 40 marines to a woman who spends her free time talking to her dead Mother! The book doesn't really examine this or even try to guess at what's going on (since this is a science fiction I'm guessing Pean is talking to someone who isn't there bluntly) and the character does a good job of hiding this from everyone else. Marines can be a fairly superstitious group and I'm not sure which would be considered worse news: that the CO is crazy and thinks she can talk to her dead mother., or the CO is actually talking to the ghost of her dead mother. Either way I am left thinking that Lt. Pean isn't very stable and wondering just what the hell am I dealing with here. Honestly I if I wasn't reviewing the book I might have simply put it down right there and decided that Mr. Bauer doesn't really grasp what the military is like but I kept reading. That said I can at least say Lt. Pean is a human being and a workable character in her own right, besides her possible instability, she likes to knit, enjoys Bond movies and like 75% of other military fiction characters really likes military history. That last one actually does have a point to it, as military personnel are heavily encouraged to have at least a passing understanding of military history, even if it's just their own organizations and government's military history. Let me touch on those government's real quick.
The Republic of Aligned Worlds is a nation-state that broke away from the Terran Federation a long time ago. As you might guess from the title, it is a Republic. We don't learn a lot about it in this book. The RAW-Marine Corps (RAW-MC) had it’s origins in that revolutionary war, and because of those origins has a very non-standard structure. It’s smallest combat element is an eight Marine platoon, organized into companies of five platoons for a total of 40 men per company. For comparison, a USMC platoon would be three squads of 9-13 people (ideally three fire teams of four men each, but that rarely happens), arranged into companies of four platoons plus the company headquarters with staff officers and senior NCOs. That totals 144 men plus staff officers and senior NCOs, with officers and staff you’re usually a bit higher than 160. So in my eyes, the RAW-MC is very undermanned, with under-strength units.
That said, the book does get bonus points for creating a Marine Corps that isn't a carbon copy of the USMC or RMC (Look I do like me some US Marines in Spaaaccceee, but nations should have their own military traditions rooted in their own histories or it just feels less real). While the units of the RAW-MC are very under manned by my standards, they are massively upgunned. Reading the book, I got the sense that just one 8 man platoon could walk through my company or perhaps even my battalion and not only win but win without any loses. These boys and girls go to war in mechanized suits that are co-piloted by semi-sapient AI's and carry enough weapons to make me feel somewhat embarrassed and under-armed. They have anti-armor missiles, heavy rail guns, grenades and more. Additionally, each suit can deploy sensor drones called whiskers and link in real time to the rest of their fellow Marines creating a full map of the battle field. This is really impressive and while Mr. Bauer's grasp on how much this would change infantry combat is imperfect, I'm not sure anyone could really grasp it until it happens. For that matter we also see the use of robots to carry gear and perform labor for the Marines (I'm not sure I approve of that, Marines should not outsource the cleaning of their own weapons. Of course that's easy for me to say, now that I never have to worry about turning in a weapon to the armory ever again!). This makes the RAW-MC feel really different and like something from the future instead of a modern military wearing different colors.
The RAW is involved in a cold war with the Lusitanian Empire, a British style Constitutional Monarchy that has gone aggressively expansionist. The two powers have run right smack into each other and someone needs to get out of the way. We honestly don't get a lot of information about the two nations, except for some off-hand comments about how the Empire is fairly predatory towards new territorial acquisitions and how they engage in underhanded shadowy tactics to engineer crisis' on their borders so they can move in and take over. Their actions in the book don't paint a pretty picture of them: funding pirates to weaken their enemies; trying to take out inconvenient planetary governments; attempting massive cover-ups, that kind of thing. That said the Empire doesn't come across as some evil that needs to be resisted at all costs. Nor does the Republic come across as a shining beacon of good (if anything we are given a number of complaints from the Montanans which mostly focus on the Republic being a neglectful government that doesn't live up to it's promises).
Honestly that's to the stories credit. Not every conflict is a massive war between good and evil, or an ideological twilight struggle to determine which way of life will continue and which won't. Sometimes it's just power politics or conflicting interests between two imperfect nations with imperfect but basically workable social and political systems. Honestly it's that kind of war that I think could stand to be examined more in military fiction. Don't get me wrong there's nothing wrong with epic wars of good and evil amidst the stars or grand struggles to tear down dysfunctional and predatory systems that need to go so people can live decent lives. Those are also things that happen in real life and in history... but they are relatively rare. After all, not every war is World War II and not every story needs to be World War II in space. If nothing else, looking at the wars that are more gray in moral character driven by things other than national survival or moral imperatives would open up more stories to the genre and I'm pretty sure that would be a good thing.
The story itself is fairly serviceable, while the good guys are on the ball and alert for trouble, the bad guys are also shown to be competent and able to get their hits in. While Lt. Pean's company does suffer heavy casualties to illustrate the cost of war, we don't really spend enough time with the Marines for their deaths to really register as the loss of an individual. Bluntly for that to work, Mr. Bauers really should have taken another 50 or 75 pages to spend time with Marines who weren't Lt. Pean so we would know who it was that died in that epic last stand or was caught out by the clever enemy counter tactic. Mr. Bauers is really good at showing that the bad guys are thinking hard on ways to kill you and won't just stand there waiting for you to complete your master plan and I appreciate that (this is a rarer thing in military fiction then I really like). However, without time spent on expanding your characters and making them people in the eyes of your readers, heavy causalities just become what I call last stand porn where the characters win by the skin of their teeth but all those red shirts died and isn't that just awful. So I have to say Mr. Bauers failed to really bring home the terror of war. That said it's not an awful book. I definitely prefer it to a couple of the books I mentioned earlier. Lt. Paen is a lot easier to deal with than certain other military characters I could go into, despite my lingering dread that she might in fact be insane and we have a mentally unstable person leading enough firepower to reduce a good sized city to burning rubble. Because of that I am giving Unbreakable by W.C. Bauers a C+, it's better than average but not great. That said this was Mr. Bauers first book, on the very slim chance he reads this review, I want to encourage him to keep writing because I honestly thought there was heart and thought in this book. It just needs work.
Next week, I’m showing y’all something good. Folks we’re going to meet Fell’s Five.