Shadowhawk reviews the tenth Area 51 novel by Bob Mayer.
“A nice mix of dimensional science-fantasy and contemporary military fiction.” ~The Founding Fields
Normally, I don’t read special forces fiction, as it’s not something that I enjoy so much. But Myke Cole’s two Shadow Ops urban fantasy novels, Control Point and Fortress Frontier, have made an impression on me, and I’m keen to read more. Can’t recall if I’ve ever read other special forces fiction before however. Dan Brown’s Deception Point is the only one that comes to mind at the moment. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I requested this title off NetGalley, mostly for the reason that the blurb looked all interesting and all.
Given that I did not expect there to be much in the way of the “wow” factor, the book did not disappoint me all that much, and nor did it impress me. It was a decent enough read, but nothing special. The premise is quite good and the entire narrative had a lot of potential, but it did come across as a wasted opportunity to me at times.
The biggest plus factor for the novel is that it is a great introduction to the series. Not having read any of the other books that have preceded it in the series, I never had a problem in understanding what was happening, who the characters were, and so on. But, Mayer took it to an extreme. There were too many infodumps in the novel, and that hampered the pacing quite a lot. Infodumps aren’t a problem when they happen naturally, but that wasn’t the case here. It’s understandable that Sergeant Winthrop, aka Kirk, would need to be shown on the ropes and made to understand what goes on at Area 51. After all, he’s the new guy. Still, I think it could have been dealt with a lot better. I found many of these infodump scenes to be boring because they seemed to drag on and on, often across three full pages of long dialogue sequences or just narrative prose.
Another plus is that Mayer succeeded in giving most of the characters a distinct personality and made them stand out from the others. Moms, Roland, Kirk and the Doc were some of my favourite characters while reading, with a special mention to Ms. Jones, the Nighstalker team’s missions controller and handler. Her backstory, a Russian scientist who was at Chernobyl when the nuclear meltdown happened there and now works for the American government, is immediately gripping. We don’t see much of her during the novel, but that’s for the best, since it keeps her mystique and secrecy firmly in place. And, it also maintains the reader’s interest. With the team members, they are a good mixed bunch of personalities and quirks and attitudes, with each team member getting his or her own time to shine on the pages.
If I have one negative comment about the characterisation, it would be that I had almost no basis for why Burns turns rogue and becomes the villain here. Perhaps this is explained better, to a degree, in the previous novels, but since Mayer has taken great pains to make this a stand-alone book, this is jarring. For me, it boiled down to this: Burns gets wounded big time on a mission, which results in his operational status being essentially revoked and he is kicked off the entire Nighstalkers programme. So he turns traitor and essentially sides with the enemy. It was confusing at the best of times.
The “main” enemies there, the extra-dimensional “fireflies” who can inhabit any living being or inanimate object, are theoretically very good in concept, and there are some good scenes involving them, but I kind of lost interest when it was revealed that they cannot possess humans. That would have made for a really interesting plot. Seeing the fireflies inhabit a cactus, a dog, swimming pool water, a pressing iron, and other objects/creatures became ridiculous towards the end. There was some humour value in it yeah, but that contrasted against the mostly serious tone being set in the rest of the narrative. That didn’t help at all.
I will say however, that this novel is a very good study in military jargon. The Nightstalkers are almost always on call and a lot of their dialogue is military-speak, which helps create a good setting-appropriate atmosphere and tone for the narrative. A big, big plus.
Overall, this is quite a decent novel, but I didn’t find it to be all that interesting. I would have preferred the team to get stuck in some really dire situations, in an “all-out-against-all-odds” type of scenario and that never happened. Satisfactorily that is. So I’m not sure I’d recommend it really, but if you are interested in the genre, then by all means, go ahead!