Lieutenant Oscar Britton thinks he has things all figured out. A seasoned Army vet, he’s an expert at assessing the situation and getting results. But that’s before he and his team are tasked with assisting the Supernatural Operations Corps in taking down a pair of rogue Sorcerers, teenagers wielding dangerous and prohibited magical abilities. The situation is resolved, but only with the death of the teens involved, much to Oscar’s frustration and disgust. But the rules are simple: Selfers — those who refuse to use their powers for good, under strict supervision — either go to prison or die. Probes — those manifesting the forbidden schools of magic like Necromancy — simply die. It’s the only way to maintain order when anyone, anywhere, might be capable of controlling the elements, of raising the dead, of summoning elementals, of commanding others to do their bidding. It’s the law, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to like it.
With this incident fresh in mind and the first cracks in his loyalty to the government already showing, Oscar’s entire worldview is devastated when he himself manifests one of the rarest schools of magic: the ability to open gates, to summon creatures from afar and to teleport. And just like that, his career is shot, and his life is over.
Oscar’s no fool. He runs. He runs fast and far, attempting to put as much distance as possible between himself and those hunting him. With former friends and colleagues now out to take him in dead or alive, and the SOC hot on his trail, his only hope is to master his new powers in record time. Unfortunately, his attempts to remain free only lead to tragedy and futility. It’s not long before he has nowhere to go, and no way to hide. The SOC takes him into custody, and that’s when he discovers a well-kept dirty little secret: the government has a use for Probes like him.
Kept in line thanks to a bomb implanted in his chest, Oscar is remanded to the custody of Entertech, a private corporation which employs Probes as part of a secret black ops squad. He’s given the choice of life in prison or instant death, or serving with Entertech. He takes the deal, and is assigned to Shadow Coven, where he masters his Portamancy while bonding with the rest of his team. Eventually, they start going on missions, providing support for the SOC and taking out threats as only they can handle. But Oscar will do anything to be free, and one bad decision could very well spell disaster….
The first in a new series, Shadow Ops: Control Point lays the groundwork for a fascinating new setting. Cole mixes supernatural powers with military experience, giving us a world in which magic and technology are used with equal effectiveness and precision. Corpses are raised as shock troops, elementals controlled like smart bombs, teleportation used in hand-to-hand combat, animals employed as recon. Helicopters, guns, and bombs exist alongside goblins, rocs, and fireballs.
Right from the start, as Oscar helps take down the rogue Sorcerers in an incident uncomfortably reminiscent of Columbine, we see that this is a world just like ours, only with added magical volatility, where drastic, even draconian, laws are set in place to handle extraordinary problems. Later, when we’re introduced to Forward Operating Base Frontier (an extra dimensional installation located in what we call The Source, where magic supposedly comes from), comparisons are made to the occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of the “indigs” (Goblins, in this case) want us around, while others don’t. Those not in favor of the human presence make their displeasure known in explosive ways. Take your pick of real world analogues, there’s plenty to choose from throughout history. Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East….
From keen military action to complex moral dilemmas, from interpersonal relationships to brutal fighting, there’s a lot going on in this book. Oscar’s evolution from loyal military man, to desperate fugitive, to reluctant conscript, to loyal operative once again, is an interesting path. Sure, he makes quite a few flip-flops as he struggles with his allegiance and dedication, but he’s not so much indecisive as he is reinventing his worldview from the ground up. His desperate need for an identity, for belonging, for meaning, causes him to make a number of decisions, sometimes contradicting previous choices. His need to be free causes him to make one spectacularly dumb mistake with major consequences, which helps to set up the last part of the book and the status quo for the next installment of the series. As such, he’s an intriguing, flawed, protagonist upon which to hang our attention.
Cole spent some time in the U.S. Coast Guard, and also did three tours in Iraq as a private contractor, so he definitely understands the mindset and mentality. Drawing inspiration from his experiences, he’s created a military urban fantasy for the 21st century, with all of the complexity and murky grey areas that entails. The action is sharp and vivid, and there’s no easy answers available here.
I was drawn into this book right from the start, and had trouble putting it down at any point. If anything, I’d say my only real complaint is that too much happens in one book. After all, Oscar goes from normal guy to rogue on the run to reluctant contractor, and so forth. We meet a cast of dozens, get a pretty good look at how the world is set up, have some lengthy training sessions, go on a few “routine” missions, and then all Hell breaks loose. The status quo changes with alarming regularity, and I can’t help but feel like things could have been slowed down just a little, stretched out over a longer span. Of course, that might just be me wanting more of each stage. And can I just say that I am absolutely thrilled that Oscar is a character of color? Not only is it explicitly mentioned— “…he was out of uniform and would attract no more attention than any black man in Vermont…” —he’s portrayed as such right there on the cover. (Okay, so on the cover he looks like The Rock….) Kudos for all involved.
I think Cole’s definitely got a hit on his hands. He’s found that perfect recipe, incorporating magic, military, and mayhem, maintaining verisimilitude without sacrificing either realism or the sense of wonder. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.