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Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke ColeUK edition3.5 stars

[Disclaimer and advisory: In 2018 and again in 2020, author Myke Cole was revealed to have engaged in sexual harassment behaviors at science fiction conventions over a period of years. This book was read and reviewed by me prior to my becoming aware of the extent of these behaviors. I condemn these behaviors without equivocation, and no opinion I express towards an author’s work should be taken as endorsement of any other aspect of that author’s personal life, nor their actions. As readers, you may want to consider this information before deciding whether you wish to read Cole’s books. I will not be reviewing future works by this author as of 2020.]

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIn the comics medium, superhero stories have largely served as adolescent power fantasies, providing an enjoyable if sometimes thematically shallow, not terribly sophisticated exercise in pure escapism. It wasn’t really until the latter decades of the 20th century that more adventurous comics writers began to pursue darker and more thoughtful ideas about what the ramifications of living in a world full of people who could wield superpowers might be. Military veteran Myke Cole brings his own perspective and experience to the premise of superheroes in Control Point, the first novel in his Shadow Ops trilogy. And he offers one of the very few superhero scenarios I’ve found believable. To wit: if there were superheroes, they would immediately be brought under government jurisdiction and their powers militarized.

Cole’s superheroes don’t fit into the traditional Stan Lee/Jack Kirby template, but the inspiration is evident and proudly felt. An event called the Great Reawakening has caused random people around the world to become “latents,” manifesting specific magical powers without warning. In the United States, some of these powers are declared legal, others illegal, but most people who end up as latents find themselves absorbed into the S.O.C., the Supernatural Operations Corps, that serves all branches of the US military jointly.

Some citizens who become latents, also known as “probes,” attempt to go on the lam, evading government authority. They’re declared “selfers,” and are ruthlessly hunted down as fugitives. Lieutenant Oscar Britton is an S.O.C. officer who unexpectedly turns up latent following a rather ugly mission to round up a couple of teenage selfers at a high school. It’s a scene that’s startlingly evocative of real life violent school tragedies that have occurred far too often. Not having much reason to trust his superiors in the wake of the outcome of this mission, Britton goes on the run, giving Control Point an opening 65 pages or so that lock down Cole’s bona fides as an action writer of the first caliber.

Britton is eventually caught. With an explosive implanted in his chest to keep him in line, he’s conscripted into working for Intertech, a government contractor that has established a base on the world that is the source of this magic, accessed through a kind of wormhole. Cole presents a critical, even cynical portrayal of US military policy. Whereas so much military SF is unabashedly flag-waving and even jingoistic, with black and white moral clarity as to the who the good guys and bad guys are, Control Point can be read as a scathing indictment of how military and corporate interests align through politics. The magic of this alien world is just another natural resource that we have invaded simply to plunder and exploit. Some of the natives have allied with us, if only because the alternative might be “get slaughtered.” They’re naturally subjected to xenophobic bigotry and abuse.

The theme of othering and marginalizing those different from us, forcing them to take on a criminal identity they didn’t choose for themselves, is at the heart of Cole’s story. Throughout Control Point, the action and conflict is never less than riveting, but if the book can be said to have a serious flaw, it’s that the level of violence and mayhem eventually becomes so excessive by the climax that it all overwhelms its ideas. Also, while Oscar Britton is an admirably conflicted character (and also a person of color), he often acts compulsively and irrationally, when you would think his military training would allow a cooler head to prevail under fire. Then again, everyone has their limits, I suppose. But towards the end of the book, Britton commits one painfully stupid act for no good reason other than to meet the needs of an increasingly complicated plot. It’s a thing he should have known better than to do, but Cole has him do it anyway.

And there are other nitpicks. There’s one alien character — Marty — whom I could not help but visualize as Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter films. Perhaps that’s a fault of my own, allowing myself to be influenced by that series’ massive level of cultural assimilation. All that notwithstanding, Control Point is an extraordinarily assured debut with both a command of what makes for strong action and thrills, and much intelligence and confidence in giving readers food for thought. The Shadow Ops trilogy marks the emergence of a writer who is certain to go on to bigger and better things.

Followed by Fortress Frontier.