Veteran by Gavin Smith

Three hundred years in our future, in a world of alien infiltrators, religious hackers, a vast convoying nation of Nomads, city sized orbital elevators, and a cyborg pirate king who believes himself to be a mythological demon Jakob is having a bad day:
“Nothing gets in the way of a hangover like being reactivated by your old C.O and told to track down an alien killing machine. The same kind of killing machine that wiped out my entire squad. And now it’s in my hometown.
My name is Jakob Douglas, ex-special forces. I fought Them. Just like we’ve all been doing for 60 bloody years. But I thought my part in that was done with.
My boss has other ideas. If I didn’t find the infiltrator then he’d let the Grey Lady loose on me. And believe me; even They’ve got nothing on her. So I took the job. It went to shit even faster than normal.
And now I’m on the run with this teenage hacker who’s had enough of prostitution. The only people I can rely on want to turn the internet into God. And now it turns out that They aren’t quite what we’d all thought. I’ve been to the bottom of the sea and the top of the sky and beyond trying to get to the truth.
And I still can’t get far enough away from the Grey Lady.
All things considered I’d rather be back at home deep in a whiskey bottle.”
Veteran is a fast paced, intricately plotted violent SF Thriller set in a dark future against the backdrop of a seemingly never ending war against an unknowable and implacable alien enemy.
A powerhouse SF debut – a jawdroppingly vivid hell-on-earth future, a brutal war against unknowable aliens and Jake – a harder than all the rest anti-hero its impossible not to love.

veteranVeteran is the debut novel from Gavin Smith and a book that I heard of earlier in the year, one that quickly made its way on to my list of books that I must read in 2010. What I liked about the blurb was that is had a no-nonsense, straight to the point feel and was laced with hints of what lies within. It’s told in the first person and takes no prisoners with its story and characters, but does both aspects very well indeed. Veteran is a novel that could very easily be up in the top few sci-fi debuts this year and one I see making my overall top ten.

Jakob Douglas is our main protagonist, a former special forces soldier that fought Them during the war and is now retired after being dishonorably discharge for his role in a mutiny. He’s reactivated by his old CO, a man he despises, and must track down an alien infiltrator that has managed to make its way to Earth. With the apparent landing near his hometown of Dundee he’s the best, and closest, chance of removing the problem. Armed with his newly reactivated weapons and cyber systems, Jakob is no man to mess with, a fact that becomes apparent very quickly indeed. With certain facts coming to light during his mission, Jakob defies his orders and goes on the run, helping what he swore he would fight against and doing so with the help of a few other ex-comrades and soldiers.

The above is a very brief introduction to what Veteran is about, but suffice to say that it isn’t just a normal run of the mill action novel. Jakob is great as the protagonist, and as the story is told in the first person we see him for what he is and how he views the world and others. He’s a good character to read, an easy one to like, but he has a deeper personality that slowly reveals itself throughout the novel through events in the here and now and some great flash backs to the time when he was a serving soldier on the front line. Morag, the former whore-turning-hacker, is in her late teens and finds herself part of the group that Jakob essentially leads. This allows a relationship to develop between Jakob and Morag, one that often has Jakob trying to relegate her to a helpless female that is tagging along. While this is far from the case it does show an interesting aspect of Jakob, of Morag in how she deals with it, and the way that situations are affected because of his view. It’s not always a comfortable relationship and Morag is a character that doesn’t initially come off as being suited to the story, but Smith is able to use difficult characters and difficult relationships well and by the end I wondered why I had even questioned it.

One of Veteran’s strong points is the sheer pace of the novel. From early on we go from scene to scene in an all out action packed rush. The fight scenes are suitably realistic, or as realistic as cyber enhanced super soldiers can be, with the hero never having too easy a time of it. This adds to feeling of unease and showing us that not everything always goes right, making us wonder whether or not things will actually work out the way Jakob wants them to. It also means that while the fast paced sections work really well, the slower paced sections stand out because of it. They need to be there and work well to progress the story, to take it above the bog-standard action adventure it could have been and put it up with some of the better sci-fi novels out on the market. There is a story here and it’s told well, but I just wondered if the pace could have been a little more even throughout.

To compliment the story there is the backdrop, an Earth 300 years into the future and 60 years into a conflict with Them. What we see is a rough and degenerate world, the set pieces presenting a dire look at life at the bottom of society: a future Dundee where the poor live on the rigs, a flooded New York city that is home to gangs, and Crawling Town, a place that is constantly on the move and made up thousands of individual vehicles. What strikes me is that despite humanity having the ability to reach the stars and colonise planets, we just don’t see much of the higher technological society on Earth. It’s there, in glimpses and at times later on in the plot, but most of what we see is the bad side of life on Earth. I suppose that is what happens when the story and characters come from such places, and the first person perspective is never usually a strong point for deep and complicated world building, but I would have liked to have seen a little more present.

One of the real pluses about Veteran is the aliens, Them. Humanity have been fighting them for 60 years, but they’re still as mysterious now as the day they were first encountered, still fighting to the bitter end against humanity. The story does focus on this and it’s a plot thread that is extremely interesting, culminating in some very interesting events and laying the ground work for what is surely going to be a superb sequel.

Veteran is a very good debut indeed, it has characters that are well fleshed out, a story that makes you want to know the outcome and action scenes galore – enough to satisfy any sci-fi action fan. I was reminded very much of Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs books and the Death’s Head books of David Gunn, and Smith should be proud to present such an interesting take on a sci-fi action adventure. The ground work laid here is going to go a long way to make its sequel a must read, one that I will be making sure I pick up upon its release.

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