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The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her 'troops' is her gunnery sergeant father. Who is dead. And that's just the beginning as Gavin Smith throws in a sequence of twists that shift the ground under the reader's feet.

The result is a really impressive page turner. Smith does a great job of keeping the tension of the action going, whether in the real or virtual world, and makes a lot of an interesting canvas of characters. Of course we get plenty of stereotypes of the genre, from asteroid miners to heavily cyber-modified heavies - but it all feels surprisingly fresh.

I have to give this book five stars for its superb subversion of the genre. There are still a couple of issues, I admit, but they're not significant problems. 

A minor moan is that this is something like the eighth SF or fantasy book in a row I've read where the main character has been a feisty young woman with superb fighting skills. (Yes, it's Buffy all over again, without the fantasy bit.) It's great to have female main characters in SF, but it would nice for a change if we had one who wasn't a clone of all the others. The bigger issue, morally speaking, is that the the main character is guilty of both mass murder and slavery. This is pointed out in the text, but it's hard to accept the justifications given for this. She really ought to be locked up. Really.

This book, the first of a series, has a lot going for it and I'll find it hard to resist the temptation to continue reading as new titles emerge.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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