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Friendly Fire (SF) - Gavin Smith ****

Way back in the hoary old days of pulp science fiction, militaristic stories were common, culminating in the truly unpleasant Starship Troopers (1959). From the second half of the 60s, though, when I first got seriously into SF, far more thoughtful and interesting books began to dominate. The military SF space operas never went away, but were relegated to the backwaters. Space opera as a sub-genre became far more sophisticated with Iain M. Banks' superb Culture series. 

However, first person shooter video games such as Doom, plus movies such as Star Wars plus its successors, and the rise of superhero films, brought the militaristic aspect front and centre to the cinema and now it's relatively common again to find novels that glorify big guns and combat. With The Bastard Legion, Gavin Smith showed how to do it with style, combining a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style subversion of the genre, featuring one woman in charge of 6,000 enslaved hard criminals, with a superb example of 'if you're going to do it, go large.'

In this sequel we get some interesting development of a number of characters who appeared in the first book (I would recommend reading that before this). Even Miska Corbin, the woman who stole the prison ship, has some development of personality in that she now seems to accept that she is a psychopath. As before, the basic premise of training up criminals as mercenaries under the duress that they are fitted with collars that will blow their heads off at a thought from Miska is genuinely effective, though the morality of the whole enterprise remains troubling. The fact that Miska is effectively running a black ops unit for a government agency is, I suspect, meant to make her indulgence in mass murder and slavery acceptable, but it really doesn't.

That all sounds a bit negative, but it is without doubt a rip-roaring read. Smith makes almost the entire second half of the book a single continuous piece of action, where it's very difficult to put the the book down because the writing has immense inertia - it just carries the reader along on an explosive shockwave. Apart from the character development, there is also the added promise of a big picture behind the storyline. Although the book does come to a successful end, some major unknowns are introduced, clearly lining up the next title in the series. Thankfully, though, this doesn't involve the disconcerting sudden stop in the narrative that makes some series books infuriating to read. 

My only technical issue was that it did sometimes feel as if it had been written a little too quickly. Several times there were word repetitions that felt like a first draft - and though the main task towards the end of the book gets full coverage, there is a secondary task where it feels as if Smith hadn't the time to write it, so let what amounted to a deus ex machina sort things out.

Although there's always a pleasure in revisiting familiar characters, I wasn't quite as struck by this book as the first in the series - I think because that dramatic main premise is no longer a novelty - but it's a worthy successor and I look forward to reading the next one.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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