The fourth book in the most endearing military science fiction series, Frontlines, is a little less endearing. It is still action-packed, returning to some more grounded and gritty combat that I’ve been missing so much since the first book, but the action is overshadowed a little by poor pacing and less character development I grew accustomed to. The short book is still a fun ride while it lasts, but I felt it was more of a contractually required series filler than a work of passion.
Back on Earth, Grayson and Halley are both training new troops to fight against the giant aliens, dubbed Lankeys. Grayson is a sergeant at a military training camp, while Halley returned back to training pilots on the Moon. As some of the most experienced combat officers the Earth has left, they enjoy some privileges, such as weekend marital leave and the opportunity to socialize with the higher-ups.
Earth is relatively safe from another invasion, mainly thanks to surprisingly low-tech weapons that can punch surprisingly large holes into Lankey ships, but invading Mars to take it back would require many more ships that mankind has at its disposal. Grayson and his wife are thus recruited for a top-secret mission to recon a star system where the former government fled, along with most of the advanced spaceships. There, they should find ways to recover the stolen ships before the invasion of Mars. Grayson is given command of a platoon, and realizing his own inexperience in commanding troops, he enlists his former commanding officer Fallon to be his second in command.
Once on the planet, the troops realize that it had been prepared for secret colonization for decades. The air is breathable, and nature is Earth-like, allowing the soldiers to conduct their tasks in a familiar setting. When Grayson’s platoon, one of four on the mission, finds a settlement, he is given the order to attack. Grayson is not too happy to see his recon mission change to a combat one, but he follows the orders. The attack is successful, even though his platoon suffers losses, but it only provokes a very strong response from the local military. The platoons become hunted, and when the noose around them tightens, his last desperate plan is to capture the command building with all colony leaders and force them to negotiate.
A fierce battle ensues, and the colony leadership escapes to an underground shelter. As the enemy slowly clears the command building from Grayson’s troops and even Halley is shot down, a nearby nuclear explosion stops all fighting. Grayson’s mission commander announces that his secretive fourth platoon planted nuclear devices all over the planet and will detonate them all, lest the colony military surrenders and hands over its fleet. This happens, and Grayson learns that his platoon and the two others served as a diversion for the fourth platoon to plant the bombs.
The book goes back to the first title of the series by having our protagonists fight other humans in an urban environment. For me, this added a sense of familiarity, and thus tension. I can’t very well imagine fierce combat against ten-meter-tall aliens that don’t use weapons or any kind of military tactics, but I can envision two armed forces fighting each other. Some scenes, in particular the final battle for the command center, were very vivid and detailed, and I absorbed them in one frantic reading. I really appreciated this kind of combat. However, to get there one had to slog through half of a book where nothing of importance happened. This took place primarily on Earth and orbit, with bit characters popping up and disappearing, while never having any impact on the narrative. I thought this was a missed opportunity to include at least some character development for Grayson and Halley, whose relationship is one of the most wholesome ones I’ve seen in science fiction, but instead we get very flat characters this time, save for a little bit of late-stage development where Grayson has to come to grips with commanding soldiers and having them die (resulting in his clichéd melodramatic reaction at the very end).
The pacing issue is not confined to the two halves of the book, though. In the second part, Kloos takes large leaps in time during the chase, when Grayson’s platoon has to evade the enemy. Even though he periodically mentions the craft’s fuel level, to instill some sense of urgency, I was never convinced that Grayson or his soldiers were exhausted from being chased, were running short on food or ammo, or at least demotivated. The chase also left a large plot hole open: why were the soldiers evading the enemy on the planet? They were supposed to meet their fleet in a few days, so they could have headed there a few days earlier and loiter at the pick-up spot for the time being. It’s not like they were doing much more while they were being chased.
For military science fiction, I hold Frontlines in a very high regard, which caused my expectations to grow accordingly. Considering these expectations, I was a little disappointed in Chains of Command. It is still a very entertaining book that is above average of titles in this genre, but in my opinion, the series deserved even better. I personally don’t think it has a significant impact on the overall narrative, and I believe (without reading the next sequel at the time of writing) that it may be skipped entirely by people short on time and patience. I’m still content with having read it, though.