This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Next in line for the Edpool treatment for SPSFC2 was Bragg For Hire, by John B. Cheek.
You know, every time I launch into a sci-fi action novel it’s a coin toss. Is this tough, grizzled noir-y living weapon with the haunted past and the mercs on his six actually a good character and the author knows what they’re doing? Or is the author absolutely sincere about this tough, grizzled noir-y living weapon with the haunted past and the mercs on his six being the one that will work, if they just commit to the trope extra hard?
Usually, it can be up to halfway through the book before I know for sure. Sometimes, even when it’s clear the author really means it, it’s okay because they’ve written it really well. Sometimes – and I have to say this is more an issue with traditionally published books than indie – the result is tiresome as fuck.
This time, as dubious as I was at the outset, I knew within a few pages. This character, this archetype is being handled cleverly, with good humour and strong knowledge of the terrain.
It’s funny though, isn’t it? I didn’t like the name Bragg. But Atticus Bragg? That I like. Walt was also likeable. I love his poetry and their banter is top-notch.
I should start at the start. Atticus Bragg is a career soldier turned mercenary after a series of events related to his refusal to leave comrades behind even if it means defying orders forced him out of the Imperial armed forces. This has left him something of an overblown folk hero among the grunts, much to his own bemusement, and simultaneously admired-but-not-publicly-acknowledged by the good brass, and loathed and looked down upon by the bad brass. We open on an amusing mercenary job as he attempts to get a diplomat to safety in one piece and manages to do one of those things. There is amusing action banter and quips and we get an excellent view of what this character is like.
From there, the main plot unfolds. Bragg is sent back to the planet he just evacuated the 85% of a diplomat from, this time to babysit a nobleman doing his mandatory armed service for political reasons. The planet is hostile and populated by an assortment of bugs and other critters, talks have broken down and the Empire is giving the place a bit of a stomping, and the babysitting job is supposed to be well away from the front lines and safe.
Lord Rail (see, this is how you name characters! Are our protagonists Atticus and Walt about to be railroaded into some kind of peril?) is not happy at being given such a clearly condescending command and he definitely doesn’t like the rough-and-ready mercenary attached to his unit against his wishes. It’s a simple and excellent setup, and I was relishing the idea of Bragg having to work his way into the good graces of this wealthy dingleberry and earn his role as advisor. Lord Rail gave me strong Arnold Rimmer vibes, and I loved it.
Of course, things go bad and the platoon ends up deep behind enemy lines in an alien-monster-infested wilderness. Getting into position as Rail’s trusted advisor becomes something of a ticking clock challenge as food begins to run out and soldiers begin dropping like flies. Or, more accurately, like humans being attacked by an assortment of horrifying alien insects. Thanks in very large part to Rail being a bit of a fuckwit.
What happens next is one part Platoon, one part Heart of Darkness, one part Predator, one part Saving Private Ryan, one part David Attenborough nature documentary and two parts Starship Troopers, and it was a lot of fun to read. Cool bugs, a thoughtful eye to xenobiology, good stuff all round. The ending was solid and the closure – and setup for further adventures – was good without being a total cliffhanger. Satisfying without being a complete vindication of the unfairness with which Bragg was treated. I was entertained.
There wasn’t much. No time for sex really, and (not that this is necessarily a prerequisite but I’m just saying) there was really only one named female character who was set up as something of a potential sex-interest, but all in all it was handled sensibly. They weren’t going to fuck down there on the planet, were they? No. Too many bugs. It was fine. Bragg for Hire gets a regular-to-insect-intensive picnic out of a possible fun sexy porno picnic on the sex-o-meter.
We got quite a bit of gore. Whenever you get humans on a giant bug planet (or bring the bug planet to them) you’re going to get a fair amount of humans ripped to pieces by horrible gleaming chitinous mandibles, and this book did not disappoint. The afflicted were kind of gross too, the whole food chain and life cycle was really well handled although I have to say the characters were all a bit slow on the uptake about those guys when they started itching from the inside … yes, after a certain point they played the “we all know exactly what’s about to happen” card, but it still felt like a realisation that came too late. What else could they have done though? Who knows. Anyway, three and a half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
Not much WTF, this is a classic sci-fi action story and the world makes as much sense as any horrible alien bug world where everything is trying to kill you. The unanswered questions about the wider world-building, the Empire, and what sort of mining operation was going on before things went bad … well, it’s all mild WTF, but basically is an alien bug analogue of an advanced military culture stripping a third world nation of its resources, then getting all snooty about how savage the place is when the locals ask them to leave. No big mystery there. I give it a Klendathu out of a possible Spheron I.
My Final Verdict
I mean … the mutinous soldiers were kind of right, weren’t they? When an officer goes nuts and starts shooting people, they need to take him out? Isn’t that a bit of an exception to the insubordination rule? Or at least a medical case that the doctor could claim? Oh well. Anyway, this was a good read. Rail’s turnaround was inevitable, but still seemed to come a bit abruptly. Nevertheless, it was well earned. As was the four stars I will give this book on Amazon and Goodreads.