Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.
“I needed to pound my head against a wall where nobody could see me. The stench around Mallot’s disappearance was getting stronger. A high councilor’s kid had disappeared into nowhere, and somebody wanted it covered up.”
Colonel Carl Butler is working a semi-retirement post at Student Command, only a year from finishing his service, when his old friend General Serata calls in a favour. The son of a High Councilor is Missing in Action on Cappa, one of the highest conflict zones in the universe. But Lieutenant Mallot isn’t just missing; he disappeared off a medical transport enroute back to Cappa Base, and hasn’t been seen since. Worse, no one on Cappa Base seems to want to cooperate with the investigation into his disappearance. Butler arrives on Cappa Base to find tensions running high. Medical Command doesn’t want him in the hospital questioning their personnel. The Spec Ops colonel who has been stationed on Cappa for over two years never leaves the planet, and won’t return Butler’s calls. Something is seriously wrong, but figuring out what may come at price Butler isn’t prepared to pay.
Planetside is narrated in the first person by Butler, who has the kind of narrative voice you might expect in a hard-boiled mystery or military sci-fi. So I was understandably expecting a hard-drinking, womanizing, fairly unlikeable narrator who would probably cheat on the wife he left behind on their home planet. I was therefore pleasantly surprised that while Butler is indeed hard-drinking—he flouts military rules to transport a case of his favourite whiskey to Cappa Base—none of the women we encounter are set up as flimsy love interests or sex objects. I was particularly worried on first meeting Alenda, who is assigned to assist Butler when he arrives on Cappa. Alenda, however, is a thoroughly competent aide, though it takes her a while to earn Butler’s trust. She also has a wife and kids back home. Butler is a bit protective of her in a way that is kind of annoying, but which makes sense for his character. Mammay’s space is also not pasty white, with characters from Alenda to Xiang, Patel, and Chu.
The planet Cappa has strong parallels to the Middle East. It is a desert planet, and Spec Ops intel says that while most of the locals are friendly, there is small but powerful insurgency that continues to fight occupation. Cappa is one of the few planets humans have discovered inhabited by sentient, humanoid life forms, but the desire to mine the silver that is key to many of their technologies overrides any better intentions that might have argued against occupying the planet. Space Command has been fighting there for more than eighteen years, with no end in sight. Mammay doesn’t do a lot of world-building outside of the situation on Cappa, and we don’t know a lot about how humans expanded across the universe. But we do know that it has been a ruthless and imperialist resource-driven expansion that has wiped out lifeforms on planets not habitable by humans in order to facilitate mining. While the lack of sexism and homophobia is refreshing, the military and political structure of this universe is rife with its own issues, mirroring on a universal level the problems that are currently destroying our planet.
Butler spends much of the book trying to get a meeting with Spec Ops chief Colonel Karikov, who has a distinct Kurtz/Heart of Darkness thing going. He hasn’t been up to Cappa Base in over two years, and when Butler digs deeper into the situation, he can’t find anyone who has spoken directly to the Colonel anytime recently. The early part of the book has a vibe that is more mystery than military, but when Butler heads down to the surface, things get more tactical, as obstacles are thrown in the way of his getting to Karikov’s base. These parts were a bit slower going for me, but I was engaged enough in the mystery to push through the descriptive military engagements which I found less interesting, but which would no doubt appeal to the military sc-fi fans who are the more likely audience for this book.
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