War Criminals by Gavin G Smith

Rating 7.5/10
This series covers all the bases- incredible world building, blood-soaked action, and memorably lethal characters- it's one you don't want to miss.

Miska and her criminal crew are on a planet in the Epsilon Eridani system, fighting to protect colonists from violent corporate interests. If that sounds a bit well, moral, then remember that she’s getting paid and using smash and grab tactics to procure handy enemy tech for her outfit. Never one to waste an opportunity, Miska’s proactive high-speed, high stakes military actions are getting her into trouble. But rules schmules. She’s playing finder’s keepers with her opponent’s hardware and having fun with it until she realises things aren’t adding up. At first and second glance, New Ephesus doesn’t seem to hold any real value, but Triple S seem to be suspiciously desperate to get to one particular area by any means necessary. And Miska’s getting in their way. When the Legion are framed for murder, and get blasted by a seriously unflattering PR campaign to boot, she discovers she’s in the middle of a much bigger conflict. And this proxy war’s rules of engagement are about to get torn up and stomped bloody.

The book starts out with a break in, the Legion hitting a Triple S mech base for some serious thieving, followed by an aggressive clearing out of enemy forces in Port Turquoise. Its newly formed (to us at least), skill focused squads reveal just how much the group has adapted and militarised since their last job. Despite the potential of this, it’s a bit of a slow and tech heavy opener. The close focus on the immediate mission and Miska’s angsty interchanges with Torricone made it feel small, without the wide open possibilities that ended the previous book, and I wondered whether I was going to like this one as much. Then suddenly, there’s a discovery of hundreds of headless bodies impaled on stakes. Always a game changer. That’s when the fun really starts and it doesn’t much let up till the final page. It’s the mystery of it that kicks everyone into high gear, the questions and resulting need for answers adds the dynamism that was missing from the initial sequences, which felt separated from anything important, more a means of showboating than anything else. The angst turns to snark and here is the Miska I was looking forward to. She ups her crazy a bit in this one, but I continue to love her anyway. She may be a psychopath but she’s funny and not without her own brand of feeling, caring about her crew in her own special way. It doesn’t show quite as much in this offering as the new characters are mostly there to be compellingly psychotic, with the ones who most make Miska feel something playing a somewhat lesser role than in Friendly Fire. Except Torricone, who seems destined to be a massive problem. This means some top notch action, but a bit less boundary pushing dialogue. Apart from Miska, women are scarce, but when they arrive on the page, they do so with the kind of presence that pushes the men right off the edge. From pirate captains to soldiers, they are not to be messed with, and these are exactly the kind of depictions I have celebrated since Ripley and Sanchez showed everyone how it was done. Kudos for that.

Best of all the new stuff, the Nightmare legion is unveiled. Unveiled and utilised in brutal, bloody fashion. The Ultra and his merry band of the worst of the worst go through people like a hot knife though butter, leaving little more than body parts in their wake. Sometimes just the inedible bits, the succulent or significant sections having been scooped up by a cannibal or trophy collector. It’s fabulous. However, the author hasn’t flashed all his best bits, he’s still only teasing Skirov, the werewolf, holding him back for what I really hope is the next instalment. Show me someone who doesn’t want to see an insane human/tech/wolf hybrid and I’ll show you a liar. In the meantime, revelations about the Ultra are more than enough to keep me up at night. And, unlike Miska, I mean with fear, not the sexier stuff. Thankfully, her ‘who do I want to do more, the Ultra or Torricone’ thing is muted in this one, though I can see problems ahead. Bloody Torricone. Look, I’m not really down with this whole love triangle thing but when it comes down to it, the Ultra might well be an actual God. The clue’s in the name. He’s charming, helpful, and a super efficient murderer who gets his thrills ridding the world of bad humans- sounds like boyfriend material to me. Yes, he’s terrifying but who doesn’t like a frisson of excitement/terror in their lives? 

Anyway… why not full marks? Perhaps because there feels like there’s a bit too much tech and not enough human in this one, with the descriptions of the mech dominating the scenes. While I obviously want to see monster machines smash shit up, it’s actually the way the Bastard Legion is altering both Miska and individuals/groups within the whole that really has me hooked. Essentially something has been created that is turning into something very different than originally conceived or could even have been expected. The changing alliances and relationships, the slow building of trust and bestowing of responsibility is all made so incredibly tenuous by that one kicker: these criminals…soldiers…men… have no real choice. Regardless of any emotional connections that might be made, they will still do what they must to escape. It’s this delicious tension that holds the main draw for me, though it comes wickedly into play during the action scenes when someone might ‘accidentally’ shoot Miska in the back, no matter the consequences. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some solid time given over to these deeper questions, especially when the prisoners are given a momentous opportunity to escape, but it felt like a bit of a step back from the last book.

There’s so much going on here, in this book and the series overall, so many unanswered questions about Them, the Small Gods, Spartans, Mars, alien artefacts, Miska’s sister, her father’s murder… layers upon layers of unanswered questions. Personally, I like that we’re chipping away at these gaps in our knowledge, rather than having it all at our fingertips. The incredible detail of the tech and the lived experience of Miska and her Legion against the backdrop of this vast, hardly known galaxy with its competing factions and unimaginably long history all adds to the sense of a complete world. It practically screams possibilities and opportunities. Never for a second while reading this series have I ever doubted the veracity of this imagined space, the labyrinthine mysteries just making it all the more convincing. Even so, there are hints everywhere if you know what to look for: New Ephesus?? That’s a pretty significant nudge in the right direction, though being a student of Classics might give me a bit of an advantage. I have every confidence that this will all come spectacularly together and I’ll be reading eagerly until it does. This series covers all the bases- incredible world building, blood soaked action, and memorably lethal characters- it's one you don't want to miss. 

ARC via author for Fantasy Book Review

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