Much to my delight, there is no shortage of military science fiction. To my even greater pleasure, Terms of Enlistment stands above the average. That’s not to say it’s in any way exceptional, but it’s got all the right ingredients to make it memorable in the genre: it’s gritty, with well described set pieces and action sequences, and it subverts expectations in delightful ways. This book is a great introduction to the Frontlines series, and I’m eager to pick up the sequel.
Andrew Grayson grew up in a social housing estate, with endemic poverty, mind-numbing daily routine of watching TV and the ubiquitous crime. To escape his situation (and to prove his dishonorably discharged estranged father wrong), he enlists into the military. After a short stint in the bootcamp, he is quickly thrown into action as a member of the ground-based Terran Service, a military branch that engages in wars and police actions on Earth. The world is divided into a few superpowers, most notably North America and a Russian-Chinese Aliance, with a few buffer countries in between, where the two sides wage proxy wars. In addition, the country is full of social housing estates like the one Grayson grew up in, and the occasional unrest can grow into full-fledged riot, which needs to be put down.
After a short proxy battle, Grayson and his team are dropped into the middle of one such riot. Things go sideways, and instead of a relatively straight-forward massacre of rampaging civilians, one of their air support units is shot down and they are sent across hostile territory to recover the crew and return it to base. In a scene reminiscent of Black Hawk Down, and just as tense and full of action, things go from bad to worse, and the team barely survives. Grayson is wounded and sent to a hospital for recovery. There, he gets scapegoated for some of the civilian deaths, but manages to avoid court martial by being transferred to the Navy.
The Navy and the Marines are choice spots in the military. The former travels between the stars, and the latter is ferried to new colonies to maintain peace. Grayson is reunited with his lover from the bootcamp, and together they travel to a distant colony, only to have their ship shot up from around them, barely surviving and making their way to the planet, where they encounter a few survivors, but also the first members of an alien race humans have ever seen. This race happens to be gigantic, treating the soldiers like bugs. Somehow, they manage to hold on for long enough for the cavalry to arrive.
This is a by-the-numbers storyline. In fact, the tone reminds me of Craig Alanson’s Columbus Day, the first book of Expeditionary Force, which I found so disappointing I never picked up its sequel. The first part of the story is very gritty, leading to some interesting questions and dilemmas that need to be resolved. In Terms of Enlistment, these questions included who was arming civilians with military-grade equipment and training them, and how to deal with that. This portion of the book was setting up a very intriguing storyline, and while the action took place in the future, the setting was familiar enough to suck me right in. The second half of the book takes an entirely different tone. In Columbus Day, the protagonist finds an omniscient and omnipotent computer, who serves part as a comedic relief and part as the ultimate solution to all the problems what seemed to require too much work on the part of the author to figure out. In Terms of Enlistment, the gritty, in your face pedestrian action is replaced by high adventure with aliens, observed from a greater distance. I was very disappointed to abandon the questions that were raised in the first half, but I still stuck to the story, just not as enthusiastically as before.
This duality of the first book is my only complaint. It’s more than overcome by superb writing and lots of little unexpected twists. Let me start with the latter. Grayson enters bootcamp, and from the very beginning we are told that it has a very high dropout rate. However, there is very little yelling by the drill sergeants (there is some), and instead the recruits are told that anyone would be free to quit on their own at any time. This sort of non-coercive treatment goes against the established trope, and yet Kloos logically explains it. Once Grayson joins the real military, there is no hazing by the older members, and he is immediately accepted by everyone, since all soldiers remember how it was when they started. The author opted to not introduce artificial conflict that is so prevalent in this type of fiction, and instead went a direction that struck me as utterly realistic. I have myself experienced something similar numerous times in social and work situations, from both perspectives. However, the biggest subversion came in the form of Grayson’s girlfriend. Stop me if you heard this before: A boy meets a girl. They fall in love. He ends up stationed on ground with the infantry, while she is sent to the navy and is on her way to become a star pilot. This sounds very much like Starship Troopers (the movie), and I was expecting the story progression to be the same: girl finds someone else in the navy, oblivious boy sacrifices a lot to get back to her only to have his heart broken. Instead, when they reunite, they immediately continue their courtship, and if anything, the girl is more ecstatic about being back together. This was such a shock and a pleasant surprise to me that it was the main reason why I kept on reading. If the author is able to break established tropes so seamlessly, I’ll expect more pleasant surprises along the way.
The other strong point of the book is the writing, especially in the first half. The riot and Black Hawk Down scene were described so superbly that I felt like in the middle of the action. None of the little gory details were left out, and Kloos did great job in describing the battlefield, equipment used and belligerent parties. Using a first person present tense narration further helped my immersion. I got to this part of the book relatively late in the evening but could not put the book down until the battle was over. At my age, this doesn’t happen all that often anymore. The rest of the book was also well described, but given the subject matter switched to a far more speculative level, I found it more difficult to keep up.
Still, I became curious where the series would lead. The protagonist is already well developed and quite authentic. The story still has the potential to explore the conflicts on Earth, in addition to the potential interstellar war. The first book has proven that tropes may not be safe here: Kloos may lull the reader with some by-the-numbers elements, just to subvert them later on, in a surprisingly positive way for a military fiction book. I am looking forward to the next installment in the Frontlines series.