Book Review: Lines of Departure by Marko Kloos

Terms of Enlistment, the first novel in the Frontlines series by Marko Kloos, was in my opinion an excellent if slightly flawed new entry into the canon of military sci-fi. The follow-up, Lines of Departure, picks up a few months after ToE left off, with Earth facing an extreme new threat in the form of 80-foot-tall sauropod-like aliens that the humans dub the "Lankies". These aliens are extremely resilient, highly advanced technologically, and distressingly prone to a nasty habit of sending three-kilometre-long "seed ships" to land on Terran colonies to exterminate the local human population.
The setting of the novel is even more grim and dystopic than the previous one. Earth has gone from being overcrowded, poor, and stinking to all of that plus uncontrollable and practically unlivable too; food riots are commonplace, economic collapse is being barely staved off by truly draconian price control and rationing; and despite the threat of utter extinction at the hands of a xenos race that has never shown even the slightest interest in communicating with humanity or in sharing the galaxy with humans, Terrans remain divided into two ideological blocs dedicated to destroying each other through any means necessary. In fact there are points in the novel where I found myself thinking that the only reason this isn't a Warhammer 40K novel is because the tagline, "In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war", didn't show up in the byline for the book...

Into this unrelentingly unhappy setting steps young Andrew Grayson- not really "young" anymore, after fighting for nearly five years in the Commonwealth's spaceborne infantry units and re-upping to enlist once more. Five years of war have made Grayson a cynical and hardened character, and as you see the world through his eyes, you cannot help but feel the same sense of contempt and despair at the way humanity refuses to set aside its old grievances in order to face a far greater threat. In this respect, I think Kloos actually did a better job with characterisation in this book than he did in the first; Grayson comes across as a scared kid who has been forced to grow up too early, and who tries very hard to remain emotionally detached from people in order to avoid being hurt by their deaths in war.

Despite the maudlin settings, though, there are some very bright spots in Grayson's life. His girlfriend, Halley- a hotshot dropship pilot stationed on Luna as a trainer- is clearly still crazy about him, and he about her. When they meet this time, the decision to get engaged- despite the fact that either of them could die at any time in the war against the Lankies- is clearly made without the slightest regret or hesitation on either side. And there is a short section in the middle of book in which Grayson meets his mother for the first time since enlisting and takes her out to the countryside, where price controls and rationing are just a bad memory, and both are treated to a breakfast of real food made by real people by an ex-infantryman, which is beautifully poignant and very emotional.

The plot of the book is as depressing as its setting. It starts off with a spaceborne shock troop landing to take out some Lanky atmospheric conditioners- mile-high structures that rapidly change the atmospheric composition of a target world into something deadly to humans and apparently perfect for the aliens. Here Kloos shows his talent as a writer by describing perfectly the fear and the anticipation that run through the minds of the troopers as they wait in their drop pods to fire through the Lanky minefield in orbit around their target planet. Duty done, the platoon boards the ship for the long trip back to base, and Grayson is permitted some time to head home on leave, where he meets his girlfriend and his mother, to the great delight of both. That bright spot dealt with, High Command proceeds to shut down the Alcubierre chute nodes (the means by which FTL travel is achieved to "jump" between systems), for they know full well that they are losing the war with the Lankies- and very badly- and adopt a strategy similar to the Cole Protocol in the HALO universe to give humanity some measure of safety against the alien menace. On the way to the ice moon that Grayson and his people are soon to guard, he meets his old platoon sergeant from his Terrestrial Army days, and proceeds to bond with Sgt. Fallon and her team of "difficult cases".

So far, so good, and this covers about two-thirds of the book. It is in the final third that things start to get a bit weird. I'll try to avoid any real plot spoilers here. Basically, civil war breaks out between two different factions on the iceball; Grayson chooses his old sergeant's side, and things proceed into a standoff until a Lanky seed ship shows up. I have to say that I found this section to be the least believable, by far, of the entire book. The fratricidal conflict just feels... forced, somehow, as if the author was watching "Crimson Tide" while writing the book and thought, "hey, that would be a great plot idea!". Kloos redeems himself quite thoroughly, though, by concocting a quite brilliant and thoroughly crazy scheme to destroy the Lanky seed ship- and then ends the book on a powerful cliffhanger, which indicates that the next book may well be the final third of a trilogy.

In terms of entertainment, this is quite an enjoyable book. It's just not quite as good as the first one. Everything that made the first book quite good is present and accounted for here- the obvious nods to great sci-fi canons like Starship Troopers and HALO (the way Grayson's team drops down onto the Lanky colony at the beginning of the book could not have been a more obvious reference to HALO's Orbital Drop Shock Troopers if it tried), the vivid and powerful descriptions of the battles; the fleshed-out and thoroughly believable characters (with a couple of exceptions- Sgt. Fallon, for instance), and the rather clear understanding that humanity's flaws will not necessarily be overcome to consistently build a better future, are all back and in force. Humanity is forced to resort to scorched-earth tactics to find even the slightest respite from the Lanky threat- and consistently fails to do so, as the Lankies just keep coming and keep swallowing up Earth's colonies in the process.

Despite this, the plot is not quite as believable as the first book, and the Lankies remain just as absurd now as they did in the first book- I mean, come on, 80-foot dinosaurs went extinct in large part because the world's atmosphere, which was once much higher in oxygen content than it is today, changed dramatically to a much lower oxygen atmosphere that is basically perfectly suited to us mammals, but in this book the same sauropod-like creatures prefer an atmosphere so high in CO2 that it is lethal and unlivable to humans, despite being, as far as anyone can tell, carbon-based creatures. It is simply very difficult to suspend disbelief properly where the Lankies are concerned. Maybe their biology will be explained properly at some point, but thus far, they remain quite at odds with the otherwise scientifically literate tone of the series- read the last five chapters of the book and you'll see what I mean by that.

And I've already mentioned how absurd the concept of female space marines is in my review of the previous book; let's just say that things don't improve in this one. I mean, Tom Kratman wrote an entire freaking book about a highly effective fighting force made up entirely of women, and he was the first to acknowledge how idiotic the idea seemed to him when he first thought of it. I really do wish that sci-fi authors would follow Tom Kratman's lead and stop trying to pretend that human biology doesn't matter when creating their universes- even my beloved HALO universe is deeply guilty of this, though fortunately the primary protagonist remains the biggest badass of them all.

The flaws aside, this is still very much an enjoyable book. It is definitely a good follow-up to its predecessor, even though it isn't quite as good. You'll go through it in a couple of days if you don't sit down and read it in one sitting (or in about 5 hours if you do). And despite the issues that I have with certain aspects of the book, I am still very much looking forward to the next one, whenever that one gets released.

Didact's Verdict: 3.5/5, several flaws remain from the previous book and the plot is somehow just not as interesting or as involved. Still a fine book, though.

Buy/download Lines of Departure here.

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