I hear two main complaints among those who read Myke Cole’s debut novel, Control Point. First, the novel’s protagonist Oscar Britton was an indecisive and unlikable whiner. Second, that the writing and dialogue lacked polish. Personally, I didn’t find either of those items to be true, but I can say without a shadow of doubt that both are improved in Cole’s second novel, Fortress Frontier.
Given the ending of the first novel, I anticipated that the story of Oscar Britton taking on the establishment to bring rights to Latents — a Magneto figure, if you will — would continue. While Oscar does make an appearance, Fortress Frontier isn’t about him. Instead, Cole replaces him with Col. Alan Bookerbinder, an Army bureaucrat who comes up latent, tearing him away from his comfortable suburban life and throwing him to the wolves. . . or goblins as it were. The novel is better off for it.
Likewise, the very nature of the question is more metaphysical than emotional, making it less of a character arc and more a thematic thrust.Taking a page from Peter V. Brett’s playbook, Cole doesn’t do the obvious and continue a linear story. He looks at the events of Oscar Britton’s breakout and rebellion (i.e. Control Point) through an entirely different perspective, showing that Oscar’s interpretation of events is entirely different than Col. Bookbinder’s. Beginning with Bookbinder’s baptism into the Special Operation Corps, Fortress Frontier chronicles his rise as a combat leader. Once the story catches up to the end of Control Point, Bookbinder and his command must deal with the fallout.
In the first novel, the conundrum revolved around the question of duty. Does the government have the right to regulate such a thing as magic? Or more extremely, to persecute or abuse those who don’t fit into the box they allow to exist? Britton struggles with these questions, ultimately coming to a conclusion that’s not neat or tidy. Given the author’s background as a Coast Guard officer and intelligence operator, it felt like a discussion with which he had some of his own unresolved issues. That lack of internal certainty bled through on to the page and gave Britton a lack of agency.
Bookbinder, on the other hand, moves through a character arc based on self belief. He must find within himself the capacity to lead, and to accept the loyalty of those who follow him. It is an easier to understand internal debate, but more importantly, it’s a debate Cole feels more comfortable with. The result of that is a character arc that feels more authentic and less manipulated, impacting everything from the likability of the protagonist to very structures of the dialogue.
On top of that, the nature of the narrative is more proactive and less reactive than the previous. Bookbinder has a problem to solve and he attacks it, both figuratively and literally. While I’m often one to deride the so-called travelogue narrative technique, it provides much better structure for Cole to exhibit the lush world he’s created, and the interesting elements he’s added to our own. Where so much of Control Point was spent in a static location, everything about it’s sequel is dynamic.
If there’s a weakness in the novel it comes when Oscar Britton takes center stage as the point of view character. That’s not because those scenes were poorly done, but it speaks to how exceptional Bookbinder’s are. Every time the story moves away from the paper pushing colonel with an rare and unusual magical talent, I wanted to go back. To some degree that made Cole a victim of his own success, but I would be remiss if I wasn’t critical of their execution. Oscar’s chapters are too brief for the story being told, feeling somewhat tacked on in order to progress the overall arc of the series. By the novel’s conclusion I felt satisfied that Bookbinder’s major arc was complete, but Oscar’s was in an awkward middle ground, neither beginning nor ending. To that degree, the onus will be placed on the series’ final novel, Breach Zone, to pull it all together.
Overall, Fortress Frontier is a polished novel that doesn’t try nearly as hard to be twice as successful. Myke Cole has begun a career that I strongly believe has legs for the long term. For fans of military fiction and fantasy, the Shadow Ops series is the best thing going. Not reading it would be a crime against good fiction.