TL;DR version: Better than average world-building concepts, reads like well-written Mass Effect fanfiction, Dinosaurs In Space! (+1.5 stars just for this), MC is not a convincing soldier, MURIKA!
Of many, there are three things that, I believe, characterize good science fiction stories:
1. The Concept(s): good concepts are about technology, about looking at the Universe a different way, about something new born out of the minds of men (or aliens). And ultimately, the concept must be expressed in human terms, must shape and warp and define the narrative in a deeply meaningful way. This book delivers on the concepts it promised. +1.5 stars.
2. The Character(s): 3D. Familiar-and-yet-unfamiliar. Heroic, whatever the author defines that word to be. Convictions, moral or immoral, chaotic or otherwise, but *convincing* convictions.
3. The Arc(s): Growth or decay. Change. Not just in the story, but in the *reader*.
I have never encountered a truly *good* science fiction story from which I didn't walk away a changed person, in a small or a large way. Because we - our hopes, our fears, our technologies, our worlds - are mirrored in the story and the character.
Conversely, of the many things that characterize first-person-shooter/shooter-rpg games, there are two that are pertinent to this book:
1. Playability and repeatability: To be able to mow down enemies in a satisfying way, in a way that is just familiar enough to feel comfortable, and in a way that's changed just enough that we keep coming back to mow down said enemies on new terrain.
2. The ability to disengage from the character - play in their bodies, but not their heads. Kill 10,000, turn off computer, kill more tomorrow. Headshot! Awesome! Laggy. Damn. I mean, if you grant violent FPS games the ability to truly *change* or *affect* the player, you have to grant that kids are being brainwashed into mass-school-shooting perpetrators because of video games, which is hogwash.
Both games and novels are awesome things in their own right, but when your gameplay is nothing but cut-scenes with a dude reading to you, it sucks. And when your novel reads like a dramatized version of UT....
In this book, there's a few good things. Firstly, it's well written - the author had a clear, consistent and strong voice. Secondly, the plot moves along at a fair enough clip (despite there being, in parts, too much shot-for-shot narration, enough that Clancy would get bored). Thirdly, two of the concepts developed - Earth's only export being Mercs, and the endless death-revival of said soldiers - are refreshingly original.
Caveat: they're refreshingly original *if* you look at the book as a book, and not video-game fanfiction. The author gives it away a bit too, at the beginning.
This book is a gamer's fantasy. The plot can be boiled down to this: entitled gamer-kid realizes family doesn't have money to send him to school, enrolls in a mercenary outfit, battles ensue, he finishes all his missions, dies and gets revived a couple of times, a couple of cut-scenes explain the larger universe. At the end, we find out there's Politics. And Bureaucracy. The Earth is at risk, and low-level grunt will somehow save the day, eventually, buy the expansion pack and find out how.
My biggest gripe isn't even the lack of *other* world-building concepts, I mean, FTL is somehow there and isn't even hand-waved, it's unlikely you're going to get lizards with blood similar to humans on a silica-poor world, blah blah blah. Whatever, I've read and admired worse world-building in books.
My biggest gripe is the Main Character - already forgotten his name, Jarvis McCain?
Firstly, he's a dick. A caricature of what people think teenage gamer guys are - unsympathetic to their families' plights, unmotivated about carriers and schools, arrogant and self-entitled. Okay sure, let's wait and see how this guy grows and changes...and wait...and wait...The End.
He's not a convincing solider, or a convincing Merc. After much training and supposedly life-and-death bonding experiences, his concept of camaraderie begins and ends with off-hand insults traded with a lacky. His unit-cohesion with his squad is nonexistent. He obeys orders when he feels like it, rebels when it suits his surly, arrogant self. He's *exactly* what an entitled-dick-gamer-caricature-19-year-old *thinks* a soldier is.
A real marine would pop this kid one in the teeth.
And he's the hero.
This could have played very well - real opportunity for meaningful character growth right there. I suspect, however, that the author is *not* aware of how very un-soldier like his "solider" is.
At least there's women fighting alongside men, equality in the forces and all that jazz, right? Well, there's 4 major female side characters. Kiwi, squadmate (fucked by MC). Natasha, squadmate (clumsily romanced, rescued and then fucked by MC). Anne, biomedical officer (shown to be incompetent under fire, unfairly blaming MC, then rescued by MC, now friendly. To be leered at in 3 separate scenes out of a total of 7 encounters). Thompson, another biomed. CRAZY BITCH out to kill MC. The 2nd in Command of the entire mercanary fleet. CRAZY BITCH - Hillary Clinton in Space, out to KILL MC but leered at by MC the moment he sees her. Petty jealousies, because they're all fighting, one way or another, over MC's ass.
Oh, and he's the most popular guy around, got a mouthy sidekick that's more comic relief than friend.
If this was a real person - or even if the author was doing a character interview, I'd like to ask him a couple of questions:
1. Solider, did you ever miss your mother, she of the shaking-hands who tried to keep you in elite-gaming-rigs and university with the last of her money? Did you ever write home? Send back some of your pay? MENTION family even once? What about all the guys you played basketball with (we're led to assume he has excellent physique because he plays tons of basketball)...your gaming clan (he's clan/guild leader. Because of course)...anybody at all? Do you realize mercenaries are people too?
2. Soldier, why didn't you react AT ALL when you killed someone for the first time? Yeah, they're aliens. But they bleed like humans, they are an intelligent starfaring species. The most stoic hunter *reacts* when he shoots even a dumb animal for the first time. I'll buy adrenelin and heat-of-combat as an excuse. What about after? And what about your mouthy sidekick? His first time out, he's convinced he's getting kill-shots, and he's bragging, calmly. You're too manly to react, what about him?
The characters didn't think about this because the author didn't. This is a video game.
And my biggest issue? It's the MC bitching about the raw deal he's getting, rebelling against the "system" - his superior, the galactic laws, what-have you - then going back to eating chow and extolling some virtue of the same game that keeps getting him killed. Like the rifles - that struck me - they're mass-produced for an "average" humanoid, don't have friend-or-foe ID. Weaponeer mentions that if Earth made it, friendlies *would* be identified, dammit, so they don't keep killing their own guys. MC agrees, has a 2 paragraph internal monologue about the system that keeps earth from manufacturing their own, superior, weapons that wouldn't kill his troop-mates. Then he says (paraphrased) "but these guns are a damn fine weapon". WTF?
All this *could* have worked, you know, if we'd been shown MC as an unreliable narrator. But he's in deadly earnest. We're *supposed* to accept his reality as the Right One.
This is the first book I'd read by this author. Tempted by the concepts offered in the blurb (and, to be fair, the conceptual promise was delivered as advertised), but I won't be reading any more.
A counter-recommendation: if you're looking for something that tastes like this - space-marine flick - read Elliot Kay's. It has its flaws, but it's far more characterful than this.