Two Very Good Things happened on January 31st, 2014: HALO: Spartan Assault was released for the Xbox 360, and Jay Allan's latest entry into the Crimson Worlds series was finally released, after a month of delays and revisions. I have to say, I was quite annoyed by the wait for the new book; I was hoping to read it while I was still on holiday in Singapore, but to my great disappointment that didn't happen. Judging by what Jay Allan wrote on his blog about the subject, he needed to make a few additions and edits to the latest book in order to make it fit into the overall plot arc of the last three books in the series. The end result is an impressive, if somewhat flawed, work of sci-fi that is a worthy entry into the Crimson Worlds canon and nicely sets the stage for books 8 and 9.
A word of warning here: if you haven't been keeping up with the series up to this point, then this book won't make the slightest damned bit of sense to you. There is a great deal of knowledge that is basically assumed about the characters and the factions involved in this book, so if you haven't been reading the past, oh, five novels, this one is going to be quite difficult to follow.
If you have been keeping up, however, then you're going to enjoy this book.
The book starts pretty much right where To Hell's Heart left off. The Grand Fleet of humanity, under the command of the greatest naval commander in human history, Augustus Garret, is limping back to human space after achieving a Pyrrhic victory against the robotic forces of the First Imperium by detonating a massive antimatter device inside a warp gate. By doing so, the fleet managed to cut off a massive First Imperium armada that would, without a doubt, have destroyed humanity had it been allowed to proceed through that gate, but the victory came at a truly staggering cost. More than 40,000 men and women remain trapped on the other side under the command of Admiral Garret's best friend for more than 40 years, Terrence Compton. Garret himself, devastated by the loss but trying desperately not to show it, faces a massive new crisis almost immediately: an unknown force, armed and armoured and trained almost exactly like the Alliance's Marine Corps, is attacking and conquering colony worlds throughout the rim of Alliance space. Suspicion and doubt begin to fracture the Grand Pact, and at Sandoval, Garret dismantles it for good, recognising full well that he and his people may very soon have to fight the very same brave men and women that they once stood beside against an overwhelming alien threat.
Into this volatile background enters, once more, Erik Cain and his Marines, who take the fight straight to their unknown enemy on the ground. Cain's character has shown considerable development over the past books of the series; he starts out as someone very similar in character and style to Juan "Johnny" Rico from Starship Troopers, but over time, as he sees ever more of war and death, he becomes almost two separate people, and this division is made very clear in this book: the introverted and quiet but affable and rather dishevelled man who is deeply respected and admired by the men and women he leads; and the utterly cold, ruthless, remorseless harbinger of death that he becomes on the battlefield, the general for whom defeat is never an option, for whom only victory or death are permissible outcomes in battle. Cain takes to the battle with the same unbreakable iron will that he has always exhibited in the past, fighting grimly and without mercy against an enemy almost as well trained as his own troops- but numerically far superior. The manner in which he fights his war shows that Cain, who was on the cusp of losing his humanity in the previous book, recognises full well what he has become, and is heartily sick of war and death, but drives himself relentlessly onward even so in order to protect the few bright spots left in his world- his lover, Sarah Linden; his beloved Marine Corps; and the colonists of the worlds that he has sworn to protect, for they represent the sole hope for a better future for his people.
In many respects, I think this is the best book in the series thus far. Everything in the series so far (except maybe the first book, which was really a standalone novel that was very successful and turned into a much bigger venture) has been building to this climactic point, and you finally get to see where the series itself is going to end up. All of the major players of the past novels- Gavin Stark, the utterly amoral and now basically insane leader of the Alliance's Intelligence Directorate; Li An, his counterpart among the Chinese; Roderick Vance, the head of the Martian intelligence organisation; Augustus Garret; Erik Cain; Elias Holm; Sarah Linden- are present and accounted for, and significant time is spent with all of them. The plot is truly engrossing and intricate, because the attacks by the Shadow Legions on the Alliance's colony worlds are basically part of an awesomely complicated, and completely batsh*t insane, scheme on Stark's part to take complete control over all of human space.
The broader plot itself is really quite interesting. As you will find out in the book, the attacks of the Shadow Legions are basically part of the machinations of Gavin Stark, who is engineering a colossal takeover of all of humanity, with the outright goal of remaking it in his image. The methods by which he seeks to do this will result in the deaths of millions- probably billions- but that doesn't bother him in the least. You get to see, in some detail, just how Stark's plan will bring the entire human galactic economy to its knees, through the greatest and most vicious economic collapse ever seen- one that will take place in minutes, not months, and one that will impoverish Earth so completely, and will destroy the existing balance of power so thoroughly, that only a truly insane mind could see that collapse as a virtue. This book, more than any of its predecessors, has a very tight, very interesting plot that never gets lost despite its twists and turns, and which reads like a great thriller rather than a sci-fi book. It's a lot like reading one of Tom Clancy's books, but without the overwhelming wordiness.
The characters are fully fleshed out and very easy to relate to. Even the newer characters, who keep popping up throughout the books, are always interesting, and Allan does a quite remarkable job of keeping up with his own universe. His plot lines are internally consistent, and the characters that were killed off in previous books are recognised by their successors and friends in later books in a manner that tells you clearly that Allan knows exactly what he's doing. Overall, the way that Allan handles plot, setting, and character in this book is very impressive; it's clear that he's learned from a few mistakes in the previous books and has excised most of those flaws from his writing.
The one major downside of this book is that even though extra time was taken with the editing and the prose, it still feels rushed. It's not because the quality of the writing is lacking- very far from it. It is because there are several truly jarring mistakes of spelling, grammar, and even character names scattered throughout. The biggest one comes about literally in the last chapter of the book, where Vance is called "Stark" for no good reason for a couple of paragraphs, and then it's like the editor suddenly woke up and did his job, because things go right back to normal in the next paragraph. It's weird, and that is only the most obvious mistake in a book that has a fair few of these irritating gaffes scattered throughout it. I'm not saying that this automatically renders the book unworthy of reading (it doesn't), I'm just saying that if you're going to take an extra month to write a book and get it really in shape, then surely that extra month would result in a completely polished product?
(To be as fair as possible, it must be noted that George R. R. Martin took a total of eleven years to write the two sequels to A Storm of Swords... and both books ended up being terrible. So it's not like Allan is committing some terrible sin here, a month-long delay is quite acceptable when the end result is this good.)
Overall this book is not only a worthy successor to the previous book, it also neatly sets the stage for the final climactic arc that should be published by roughly June this year. In many respects, this is indeed the best book in the series- better even than The Cost of Victory. It's not perfect, but it is definitive proof that Jay Allan is one of the best military sci-fi authors out there right now. I am definitely looking forward to reading the rest of the series, as and when it comes out.
Didact's Verdict: 4.6/5, really solid read despite some very irritating flaws in the editing process and absolutely recommended (just remember to read the other books first).
Buy/download The Shadow Legions here.