There must be more to life than mere survival. Authors who neglect to provide a deeper meaning to the day-to-day struggle to survive in a hostile universe set themselves up to create the literary equivalent of a Michael Bey film: a lot of sound and thunder and flashing lights that signify nothing. The journey might be exciting, but it won’t make a lasting impression on the reader.
Enter Recruit: Iron Legion Book One, by David Ryker and Daniel Morgan. As military science-fiction novels go, it isn’t bad. The story of James Maddox, a vat grown wage slave shanghaied into the Federation army and challenged by nature, man, and his own conscience, clips along at a solid pace. It provides all of the daring escapes and front line action and hard tech combat jargon to satisfy any fan of the mil-sf genre. It’s a good looking roller coaster ride filled with fully realized characters and a timeless central conflict that provides a suitable backdrop to the adventure.
But it has no soul.
Like the Galaxy’s Edge books, the character drama takes place within a morally ambiguous universe where the good guys and bad guys wear matching gray hats. We’re meant to sympathize with our hero, who must make his way through the morass of the uncaring conflict as best he can, doing what he must to survive, while clinging to his last few vestiges of integrity. The problem with this set-up arises when the principal means by which our hero interacts with the universe consists of other characters within that universe. The twin messages that “no one cares” and “noting matters” get hammered home by the wide supporting cast within Recruit, which consists almost entirely of despicable people.
From the first page, James Maddox is surrounded by selfish and gross characters. His fellow workers at the slime-farm, then his fellow recruits, then his fellow trainees, and finally the ragtag group of survivors who coalesce around him, don’t like James, don’t like what he manipulates them into doing, and don’t like doing the obviously right thing. They are an ugly cast set in an ugly universe, and even when they do the right thing, they do it with a vulgar, foot dragging, resentment leaves the reader with nothing to anticipate and nothing to look forward to. No one expresses happiness, or joy, or even satisfaction in this novel. No one smiles. Everyone smirks.
The decision to paint everyone in the novel but James as a selfish jerk even undercuts the authenticity of the military aspects of the piece. When the bullets and blasters start to fly, soldiers who won’t fight to protect a nation’s economic advantage will still fight to protect the buddy in the foxhole next to him. The Federation in the Iron Legion ignores that principle. It eschews a training regimen meant to build up esprit de corps and effective teamwork for one with a “devil take the hindmost” attitude where recruits backstab and betray each other at the drop of a hat. It’s hard to believe a military with such a blasé attitude towards its personnel could manage to field an effective force for the hundreds of years stated in Recruit. Naturally, this same spirit of selfishness arises among the warriors once the real combat begins as well, and we are told repeatedly that saving one’s own skin regardless of the cost is the only means of advancing in the Federation armed forces. It’s also the driving force behind the Federation’s adversary – an amorphous mishmash of rebels and malcontents who live, fight, and behave no better than the Federation.
It is entirely possible that I’m judging this book too harshly. Everyone has to start somewhere, and it is entirely possible that James Maddox and the universe that he wallows in will show signs of character growth and development in the follow on books. There are a few all too brief glimmers of a better life possible in this universe in the first book, and James does have some ability to encourage others to do the right thing. If they have to. I guess. But he’ll have to do it without me. There are just too many other works featuring likable protagonists serving people worth saving and making the universe a better place to spend more time in this one.
Recruit is not a bad book. It’s just an ugly book. And not the kind of book that’s ugly as a means to showcase man at his worst in order to contrast man at its best. It’s just ugly for the sake of ugliness. If all you want is combat and action, this book fits the bill. If you don’t need any context for the shooting and the struggle, you can enjoy this work from cover to cover. But if you prefer your heroes to act heroic – to fight for something greater than just one more day of drawing breath in a gloomy universe built for empty strife – give Recruit a pass.