by W.C. Bauers
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765375421
Date: 13 January 2015 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Republic of Aligned Worlds Marine Corp (RAW-MC) Sergeant Promise Paen, call sign, Slipstich, may be the most telegraphically-named character since Hiro Protagonist lept from the pages of Snowcrash, samurai sword in hand. Like Hiro, Promise delivers in abundance, and she does it for both her given and adopted names(1). In the grand tradition of the military, the RAW-MC is sending her to the last place in the verse she wants to go...home.
Promise grew up in a fundamentalist household in the backwaters of a frontier planet named Montana out on the edge of mankind's colonization of the galaxy. Her parents were as different as night and day; her mother's most treasured possession was a centuries-old handgun, a Glock 27, and her father's was a Bible. Before the story opens, Promise lost her mother to an unspecified illness, something painful and lingering that she fought against, and before the first chapter is over, her father is dead as well, but his death was sudden, at the end of raiders' guns, and true to his beliefs, he didn't fight at all.
So Promise, in the way of other proto-heroes on the cusp of adulthood with the ashes of their past still smoking, takes herself down to the Marine recruiter's office and joins up, partly to get away from the planet, and partly to find someplace to belong. Fragment forward over the boot camp experience. The hard lessons from the gunnery sergeant. The rapid rise to Sergeant.
Flash forward to the deployment that makes up the story. Flashback to Montana.
Promise doesn't have any good memories of Montana, so when she finds that her 'toon is being sent there, and knows they drew the straw because of her origins, and maybe even because it's the last place in the verse she wants to go.
Montana is an attractive world from a strategic standpoint, and though it has joined up with the Republic, it is a planet full of fiercely independent types that haven't gotten any benefit from their membership. Now, with raiders moving in on the system, they're feeling hard done by. Hence a bridge-building mission, with one ship and a platoon of forty RAW-MC Marines to clear out pirates…a mission Promise won't even get to lead, as she's been tapped for diplomatic duty--a meeting with the President.
Fortunately for Promise, if not for anyone else, the shuttle she's taking down is hit by missile fire from the surprisingly well-equipped pirates and she gets to join the fight in a party-crashing blaze of glory. Not so fortunate for anyone else on the shuttle, but she does get to meet the President, who has to come up with a medal big enough for Promise's single-handed heroics. What was supposed to be a simple pirate-suppression operation turned messy, and Promise finds herself promoted to Lieutenant and put in charge of the Marine contingent tasked with rooting out the remaining pirates and mending fences with the not-entirely-welcoming populace.
And then the Lussie fleet shows up. The Lussies are the Imperial adversaries of the Republic, and it's not the first time the two have tussled over Montana, but the last time they fought, it was clear that the planet was the loser, and Montanans can still see the scars of combat. They've chosen a side, but not without misgivings, but with no desire to be anybody's chew-toy again.
The Lussies are surprised (dismayed) to find the RAW-MC have the pirate threat well in hand, as they were hoping to offer their protection in return for a switch of sides. Still, things could be worse. The RAW forces are heavily outnumbered, and history books are written by the victors--so as long as they don't make a takeover look too obvious, things should work out OK.
Except, of course, that they've overlooked our plucky Lieutenant, her 'toon, and a planetful of gun-toting libertarian types that don't much fancy swearing allegiance to anybody's Queen.
Much mil-SF ensues, and the action guarantees Promise a place up there with the best of the soldiers that have put on powered armor and slugged it out toe to toe with overwhelming odds.
Unbreakable is W.C. Bauer's first novel, and it's well able to hold its head up among current mil-SF offerings. By and large, it trades on the standard formula, including the hero's journey and the chosen one, which will cause her to rise in the military until she runs out of ranks by the third book.
So what sets this book apart? That Promise is female isn't a surprise; in the current literary climate, it's nearly a requirement--if action-oriented fiction isn't going to be dismissed as a boy's adventure story...which is actually fine by boys, as far as I can tell, and if it makes girls more willing to read the book, great. But it's no longer a significant differentiator. The science in the book isn't terrible, but it isn't especially good, as it treads on ground bulldozed flat by space epics for the past fifty years. I'm happy to grant authors wormholes--or in this case jump drives, because without them, you're pretty much stuck in our solar system. Artificial gravity, however, is a trope I'd rather do without, a sensitivity I picked up at a panel at a recent con (Capclave in DC). There's almost no world-building here, Montana having Earth-normal weather for the most part.
So what's new? The new part is subtle and around the edges. It's the hint of libertarian and Christian perspectives that the author brings to the story, which separates it from every other mil-SF coming-of-age novel out there. Unbreakable isn't the best piece of military SF ever written, but it's pretty good. The bad guys suffer a bit from the storm trooper's curse, being taken down by a smaller force with worse weapons offset by the help of the locals, though in this case it's the well-armed militia rather than rock-throwing Ewoks, but the effect is much the same.
And then there's the ghost.
Promise's mother makes regular, if spectral, appearances at critical moments, which provides the opportunity for Promise to expose her emotional conflicts without having to actually talk to anyone around her, which as a true-blue marine, wouldn't happen, except for the occasional avuncular chat with the Gunnery Sergeant. The question of whether the vision of Sandra Paen is spirit or psychosis is left hanging, though we're nudged towards the former by timely appearances just before bad things happen.
Though there's no shortage of military mayhem, that's not where the story's strength comes from. Rather, it stems from Promise's struggle to resolve the pain she carried from her homeworld as she discovers that it is not the place she thought it was, but it is still a place--and a people--worth not just dying for, which comes with the job, but living for, which is tougher for a Marine to accept.
(1) "I'll have you know that a slipstitch is sometimes called a 'blind stitch' because it's formed by slipping thread under a fold of fabric, like this." The staff sergeant's hands began talking for him. "It can be used to join two folded edges too, or ... or ... ah ... would you help me out, Private?"