Lines of Departure is the second book in the Frontlines series. It is a solid piece of military science fiction, with plausible main characters and a story that goes beyond the usual futuristic action. There is more character development than one would expect from a book of this genre, and despite the well crafted battle scenes, the peeks into soldiers’ lives outside the conflict are far more interesting.
The book follows Andrew Grayson, who had been one of the first soldiers to encounter a race of aliens dubbed the Lankies, and to live to tell the tale. Back in the first book, Terms of Enlistment, Grayson was an IT technician on a space ship who survived the destruction of the vessel and was instrumental in evacuating the other survivors from a former colony planet, which had been overrun by the 30 meter tall aliens. Five years later, bored with his previous post, Grayson had transferred to the position of a combat controller: a front-line foot soldier who coordinates orbital strikes against the enemies. In his nearly 200 combat drops, he had been facing both humans in the form of the Sino-Russian Alliance and the Lankies.
The war, if it could be called that, is not going well. The Lankies are pushing the humans out of all planets they approach, giving no more consideration to the people as we give to insects. Grayson and the army can at most cause some damage to the new occupants of their former colonies, without any hope of conquering them back. The situation on Earth is also deteriorating, with enormous social housing complexes abandoned by security forces, which leads to violence escalating to such a degree that even Grayson, on his visit to his mother, fears for his life.
Things take an additional turn to the worse when Grayson is a member of an invading force that tries to dislodge the Chinese and Russians from one of their old colonies. On the brink of success, the Lankies show up and decimate the North American armada, with Grayson being one of the very few to survive. That immediately makes him suspect in the eyes of his superiors, and he is reassigned, along with two army groups of troublemakers, to a desolate planet for guard duty. The effective leader of the army is his former squad leader, a capable woman who refuses to obey combat orders against the civilians living on that planet. A brief and bloody fight ensues, and it is barely over when a Lankie ship shows up in the system. Desperate, the civilians and army hatch a plan to destroy the ship. They just pull is off when another armada of ships emerges, this time from Earth. They are the only ones who escaped a Lankie siege of the Solar system.
This is a lot to take in a single, relatively short book. And I feel that’s not even the main focus of the story. Grayson as the narrator is growing disillusioned with the military and civilian leadership, the wars between human fractions, and the feeling of helplessness against the Lankies. Yet, he soldiers forward, often making tough decisions. What really stood out for me, however, was the time he spent with his mother. Here, the author clearly shows that Grayson is no superhero. Confronted by five teenager muggers sharing a single gun, this experienced combat veteran is expecting to get killed. He later meets a fellow veteran, and their interaction is more telling of the entire military structure and the lack of leadership capability than all the battles that are described in the book. This interaction also feels very genuine and heart-warming, as something that veterans would actually do when they meet.
That’s not to say the combat wasn’t up to par. On the contrary. I was a little disappointed in the first book, when the superb description of urban combat (which I favorably compared to Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down) got replaced by what I considered standard space warfare and alien encounter. As such, I was very pleasantly surprised to find Grayson back on the ground, and fighting mostly humans. Combat against the Lankies was abbreviated, in favor of a battle against the Sino-Russians, and especially a very detailed and gritty fight against his own troops that were trying to establish a military dictatorship on one of their own colonies. The battle and its aftermath, when people were trying to sort out their losses, was absolutely superb.
There is precious little to dislike about this book. I liked the low-key narration of events that may lead to the extermination of the human race. I didn’t mind the heavy and gritty feeling of the book, without an ounce of comedic relief. It made the book feel more realistic. I liked the battle descriptions and was willing to overlook the few logical shortcuts, such as personal armor with features that conveniently pop up when it’s time to save Grayson once again. Perhaps the only thing I could live without was the accidental reunion between Grayson and his former squad leader, Sgt. Fallon. She is a great character whom I really liked in the first book, but it seems a little too convenient to have her back. And if Grayson is normal and realistically portrayed, she is the closest a character in the book gets to superhuman, which makes her a little one-dimensional.
All in all, though, Lines of Departure is a step up from Terms of Enlistment. The character development is superb, the story is very plausible, and I really appreciated that the focus was on a relatively low-ranking soldier in a big military machine, with his personal issues both on and off the battlefield. This made the entire struggle against the Lankies much more personal, and I could identify with the protagonist better. This book is a great reason to start reading the entire Frontlines series.