Monday, October 21, 2013

Control Point by Myke Cole

Control Point by Myke Cole is the first novel in the Shadow Ops series published by Ace. A synopsis can be found here. I found Control Point’s worldbuilding to be uneven but its thematic elements and Cole’s keen eye for action elevate the novel. The thematic elements in particular are arresting given the political importance of late (2013) to ‘whistleblowers’ and ‘traitors’. While this may simply serendipitous, it does highlight a central tension to the life of a soldier.

Control Point’s worldbuilding is an up and down affair. The structure and organization of of the Supernatural Operations Corps is fascinating and demonstrates Cole’s first hand knowledge. There is an inherent logic to the organization that forces a high level of rationalism onto the weak magic system. Thematically critical to the SoC’s structure (and novel) is the intelligence community’s need to control those who manifest. It makes sense. Without it, Oscar Britton’s character would lack agency.

The magic system is a lackluster affair at first glance. Cole creates a magic system that rests on a traditional earth, wind, fire, and water foundation. It is spiced up a bit with ‘prohibited schools’ of magic that are more purposed oriented; Oscar Britton’s claim to fame is that he is a Portamancer. All of the various schools are immediately familiar to even casual fans of fantasy of any variety: comic, movie, TV, or book. Taken at face value, the magic is mundane.

Cole’s professional background and skills as a writer elevate these mundane theoretical underpinnings to something much more interesting. How so? By tightly integrating magic into a functional military unit in a rational manner. Cole’s flair for the tactical aspects of supernatural abilities turns an otherwise flat magic system into something exciting. Visualizing ‘Portal-Fu’ is still a thrill.

Another weak point in the worldbuilding is the Source; the alien world where FOB Frontier is located. FOB Frontier can only be reached via portal which is what makes Portomancers, e.g. Oscar Britton, so valuable. The Source is simply not that exciting in Control Point. Part of the issue is that most of the action occurs at FOB Frontier. There is not much excitement to be had in describing a temporary military encampment.

When the action does showcase the Source and its denizens, it does little to break or improve existing tropes. The native goblinoids are a shamanistic, medieval-level race. Thrown in are a few examples of scary, magical fauna. Neither of these things will grab your attention much, especially against the creativity of the action scenes. Again, its hard to knock the Source too much because so much of the action occurs at FOB Frontier. As the series progresses, I expect more time to be devoted to the Source. Given Cole’s ability to elevate the magic system, I expect similar with the Source.

Somewhat surprising to me, especially given Oscar Britton’s character development, was the underdevelopment of the many supporting characters. Fitzy, Sarah, Harlequin, etc. are all one-dimensional characters. They seem to exist primarily to fill a plot role and to push Oscar’s development. This issue unfortunately weakens the book's conclusion as impact is robbed from what should have been satisfying resolutions to various plot threads.

The element that really elevates the book is the thematic push by Myke Cole. It is an issue I found especially resonates with me as a veteran. It is a theme that crops up in Myke Cole’s social media fingerprint as well.
Does the end justify the means? Is the SoC a friend or enemy? Am I doing the honorable thing? All of these questions are what drives Oscar Britton. Oscar’s struggles to answer them is what elevates the book. Whether via Oscar’s encounter with his father, to his rivalry with Harlequin, Control Point is about answering these questions. Scene by scene, Cole fashions encounters meant to force resolution to these questions.

Every time Oscar seems content to let things go, Cole applies the screws via another plot twist. Oscar often does the ‘wrong’ thing in these situations, sometimes to spectacular effect. Other reviews have called Oscar the anti-Mary Sue. It’s hard to argue that point given the competence that Myke Cole’s public persona exudes. Yet, failure is often the best teacher. Oscar’s failures allow Cole to more completely engage the reader by showing them exactly why Oscar failed. If Oscar had simply made the right choice every time, I doubt the book would be as interesting or tense.

I enjoyed Control Point a lot. The book had a number of weaknesses. It also had many strengths. Critically, its strengths relate to Cole’s writing ability. This gives me hope that as the Shadow Ops series progresses, the books will get stronger and stronger as Cole’s experience grows. I can only hope that Cole keeps the thematic elements in place as well. Why? Because when I set the book down, I not only enjoyed it, but it made me think and question. That is valuable and rare and to me, encapsulates the real power of fiction. I would recommend Control Point to any reader.

Ace: Control Point by Myke Cole
Image Source: Myke Cole
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781101554395

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