"Hollywood doesn't always get it right. Authors don't always get it right. "Civvies" like me don't always get it right either." - W.C. Bauers, from his blog
While I was reading Unbreakable, I had to question the author's background and I found this quote from his blog. It really struck me because he's absolutely right. I am notorious to people who know me for picking apart badly done military costumes in media. As an ex-Army veteran, I know all too well the modern uniform standards, and seeing those standards done poorly in TV and movies really grinds my gears. It's not hard to get right, so I don't understand why it is done wrong so often. It's arguably harder to get the military right in other aspects, particularly when you don't have the visual crutch. Bauers didn't get it right.
After her father is killed in a raid on their farm on planet Montana, Promise Paen enlists in the Republic of Aligned Worlds Marine Corp. After a mercifully brief stop through training (the 'basic training' chapters of mil sci-fi are something I find painfully overdone), Promise ends up back on Montana, now as a marine, in support of the RAW as they attempt to protect Montana from pirate raids, and prevent the Lusitanian Empire from taking the mineral-rich planet.
What Bauers gets right is the mechanics of the book. It moves at a steady pace, and it competently weaves its tale. He also gets the mechanics of the military right. Each faction has the right branches and departments and roles. There's no lack for acronyms, ranks, hierarchy, or cool military weapons.
But Bauers' military is a cartoon. Worse, it's doesn't feel authentic. Nevermind that Promise rockets to the top of her local command chain through field promotion. Every mil sci-fi does that. But the whole of the book is very cookie cutter. Promise is a young leader put in a tough position, much like every other protagonist in mil sci-fi. Her forces are always outnumbered but never defeated. She's the President's buddy, because she's apparently the only marine from Montana. The colonists on planet Montana are all rugged individualists with their own antiquated firearms. Even the names of these fictional locations, governments, and people define who they are. It's no coincidence that the planet of rugged individualists is Montana. Does the name 'Lusitanians' evoke an image for you?
The book doesn't make a convincing argument for why I shouldn't be rooting for the Lusitanians. With the exception of a couple of villainous Lusitanians, who are operating outside of command, they're not really even evil. It is implied that they pay mercenaries to attack RAW planets disguised as pirates, but the RAW wants Montana as much as they do. If the tables were turned, I'm not convinced that the RAW wouldn't do the same things the Lusitanians do.
Despite some gruesomely described deaths, I don't feel like I'm down on Montana with Promise. I feel like I'm watching her on TV. None of the characters come off as human, least of all Promise. She's nearly omniscient in her foresight. This is troublesome, because I never felt like something bad was going to happen in a story where the protagonists are desperately outnumbered. We're told early on that Montana's citizens have been burned by the RAW before and not likely to be receptive, but they are absolutely helpful, receptive, docile even. They don't show an inkling of resistance to the RAW occupation, nevermind turning against them and aligning with the Lusitanians. Their only detractor is an old man, whom the rest of Montana tells to stuff it.
There are also some little things that might be classified as mere pet peeves. Characters in the book refer to platoons as 'toons'. I have never ever ever ever heard anyone refer to their platoon as a toon. I've also never cared about where anyone's helmet was but mine and my soldiers', but I'm well aware of where Promise put hers because she racks it on her hip frequently. Yeah, sure, knowing where your stuff is is absolutely important. But have you ever walked around with a helmet attached to your hip? I'd rather wear mine. Of course, the Lusitanians, the so-called bad guys, are duplicitous, cheats, liars, and their uniforms are black and red.
But the worst, the absolute worst, is that Promise is haunted by her long-dead mother. Her mother, whose death is either not explained or poorly explained to the point that I glossed over it, frequently converses with Promise to give her life advice. Her mother's a tough woman, like all Montana women, but I'm particularly bothered that Promise might be insane and in a command position. We see enough of the other side's perspective that perhaps we're not dealing with an unreliable narrator, but this is the first part of The Chronicles of Promise Paen, and presumably her command won't be taken from her, despite being a person who's guided by the ghost of her mother.
Color me disappointed or annoyed more than anything. I feel like it would take more than a little bit of work to make me interested in another story about Promise. Maybe I'd be interested if Promise actually were insane, and we were to see what a broken person in a position of authority does. It would at least make for a more interesting story. Unbreakable is YA mil sci-fi. It's G.I. Joe. I don't dislike G.I. Joe, but I'm too old for it. I want more than what G.I. Joe has to offer. Likewise, Unbreakable could stand to be more adult.
Baseline Assessment: 5/10
Bonuses: +1 Well paced
-2 Entirely cartoonish in almost every way, nevermind military conflict
Nerd Coefficient: 4/10 (Not very good)
POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014
Reference: Bauers, W.C.. Unbreakable [Tor, 2015]