The "Space Marine" sub-genre of sci-fi has been done almost to death by now, starting with the all-time classic (and in my opinion, high-water mark) Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein back in the 1950s. It's rare to find a book that takes the basic ideas of the genre and manages to elevate it somehow; it's rarer still to find an entire series of books that maintains a consistent level of quality and keeps you coming back for more. Some authors manage it better than others- Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos, for instance, was a really good but slightly flawed take on the classic space marine book, while the seemingly endless stream of Warhammer 40K novels that actually are about Space Marines are of significantly varying quality due in very large part to the fact that there are so many authors jostling for a place in the Warhammer 40K Black Library. Some of the HALO novels are fantastic- Karen Traviss's Kilo-Five Trilogy comes to mind- while others are just... mediocre at best. And don't even get me started on the steadily declining trough of pig s*** that is the Star Wars Expanded Universe series of novels...
Into this mix comes Jay Allen's Crimson Worlds series, which focuses on a central cast of characters and continues with them throughout the (so-far) 5-book series. These books are some of the best hard military sci-fi that I've read in years- I'd put it right up there with David Weber and Steve White's Stars At War series.
The first book in the series is titled simply Marines, and focuses on the life and exploits of one Erik Cain- the man who plays the same sort of role that Johnny Rico played in Starship Troopers, but basically without the moralising and political commentary. (That gets saved for later in the series.) The book starts out just like any good space marine novel should- in the middle of a hard drop straight into hell. You get to see war through the eyes of the men and women who fight it, on the ground, in the dirt, fighting and bleeding and dying for political masters dozens or even hundreds of light years away.
Reading through this book, it's quite obvious that Jay Allen has taken the best ideas that other writers have come up with and mixed them up into his own writing. Powered armour is, of course, right out of Starship Troopers- I can't think of a single modern space marine novel that doesn't owe its origins to Robert Heinlein, actually. AIs paired with power armour are a hallmark of my beloved HALO series- though in this case, the AIs aren't really hot/steadily-going-crazy naked blue chicks in the helmet. (Seriously, just how the hell does Master Chief concentrate on putting bullets into the brains of Grunts and Elites when he's got Cortana's ample cleavage quite literally in his face? Either he plays for the other team- which is unthinkable- or he's just very very very focused on killing things as quickly as possible.) The concept of "warp gates" or nodes comes straight from the work of David Weber and Steve White in books like In Death Ground and The Shiva Option. The concept of multiple superpowers on Earth fighting over colonies in space is nothing new either- Philip Richards does the same thing with his books. To be clear, this is not a criticism; every good author takes ideas from others and makes them work with his own. And in this regard, Jay Allen is very good- he takes some of the most basic and cherished tropes of the space marine genre and melds them with his own storyline very effectively.
One thing I like about this book is that it really is hard military sci-fi. Other than the science of warp gates never being explained properly- which is fine, you sort of need something like that in order to make sci-fi what it is- the book sticks to thoroughly Newtonian scientific principles. There's none of this reactionless-drive, space-folding, hyperspace/subspace/warp drive stuff that shifts many sci-fi novels into fantasy territory. Ships accelerate and decelerate based on fusion-based thrust reactions, the crews of those ships have to be in cushioned couches and injected with drugs to avoid being turned into strawberry jam by the brutal g-forces of space-based combat, vectoring is done in strict accordance with Newtonian physics, lasers and missiles fire and are guided to target by computers in the same fashion, and humans fight and bleed and get treated with amazing but still believable medical technology. In other words, Jay Allen knows his world, his characters, and his settings, and he sticks to them. That consistency is admirable, and it creates a very believable yet futuristic world for his novel.
Regarding the actual content of the novel, let's put it this way: if you've read Starship Troopers, then you largely get the idea of what this book is all about. The book tells Erik Cain's story, but jumps around a bit in terms of chronology. We start with the fighting, bleeding retreat of Corporal Cain and his Marines on Epsilon Eridani IV; then, the action moves to the "disaster at Achilles", in which Erik Cain and his Marines pull off an incredible victory in the teeth of impossible odds thanks to the strategic and tactical genius of one Colonel Holm (who becomes one of the main and most important characters in the series). It is in this battle that Cain is critically wounded by being caught too close to a massive orbital nuclear bombardment.
We then flash back to Cain's childhood, which is also a device used by the author to build up the politics and setting of Cain's story. Basically there are 8 Superpowers left in the Sol System, one of which is the Western Alliance. The Superpowers are all decayed, economically bankrupt, horribly corrupt parodies of the major powers of our modern world, with the Western Alliance essentially representing today's Anglosphere in space. Earth is a corrupt, overpopulated, tyrannical hellhole, in which the vast majority of people are consigned to a lifetime of misery as cogs in a vast machine- in fact that's literally what they're called, "Cogs". Colonisation of space is the only way that the overstretched, polluted, economically decrepit powers can maintain themselves, so each power expands aggressively into space, sending young men like Cain to fight and die so that the mother system might survive a little bit longer in its own filth and squalor.
We watch as Cain's life goes from relatively comfortable middle-class status to poverty overnight, then watch him become a gangster who commits serious atrocities upon others and lands up on death row. We see him granted a reprieve from execution by a man who offers him a chance to join the Marines and become something greater than what he is. And we see Cain transform himself from a low-life gangster to a military hero, the very epitome of the values of the Marine Corps. Along the way he falls for his doctor (apparently a very attractive strawberry-blonde with a dark secret in her past), comes to hate the Earth-based government for everything it represents, and comes to love the Corps with every fibre of his being.
There is much to like and admire about Cain and about the Corps- his sense of honour, humanity, and absolute, unswerving devotion to the Corps and everything it values is mirrored in the way he fights his battles against the militaries of the other Superpowers and the way in which he treats ordinary colonists simply fighting to survive. In short, if you liked Johnny Rico, you're definitely going to like Erik Cain.
There is a great deal to like about Marines. However, there are two major criticisms I have of this book.
The first is that it kowtows to the usual politically correct nonsense about women fighting in the front lines. Now I'll be the first to admit that powered armour would definitely go a long way towards levelling the playing field between men and women; the powered armour depicted in the Crimson Worlds series is tremendously powerful and resilient, and the part of the book dedicated to showing how Marines adapt to training in it makes it clear that this armour is not to be taken lightly. But, as much as I love HALO and other works like it, I have to be clear about this: I do not find it at all believable that women would be as effective as front-line soldiers as men are under any circumstances, no matter how good their equipment or how well-trained. War is a country of will and blood and death, and that hell should belong to men alone.
The second criticism has more to do with the fact that I can't tell where the hell every major battle location is relative to every other one. This is due in very large part to the author's failure to create a map of any kind that tells you where the battlefronts are relative to each other. For instance, in the first few pages of The Shiva Option, there is a route map clearly showing which star systems are connected by which warp gates, which makes it very easy to figure out where the fighting is going on and therefore make tactical sense of the combat sequences. In this book, that lack of clarity hurts the book's overall delivery, which is otherwise excellent.
In conclusion, if you like good military sci-fi, by all means give the Crimson Worlds series a go. It is well worth the time, and given the prices at which these books sell on Amazon, the skill of the writing, and the unbeatable combination of a great hero and a desperate war in space that seems highly believable given today's geopolitics, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a better book of this type out there.
Didact's Verdict: 4/5, a couple of big flaws don't stop this from being a great read and a great introduction to a much longer and clearly very interesting series.
Buy Marines by Jay Allen here.