Review: Unbreakable by W.C. Bauers

unbreakable by wc bauersFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: military science fiction
Series: Chronicles of Promise Paen #1
Length: 368 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
Date Released: January 13, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

The colonists of the planet Montana are accustomed to being ignored. Situated in the buffer zone between two rival human empires, their world is a backwater: remote, provincial, independently minded. Even as a provisional member of the Republic of Aligned Worlds, Montana merits little consideration—until it becomes the flashpoint in an impending interstellar war.

When pirate raids threaten to destabilize the region, the RAW deploys its mechanized armored infantry to deal with the situation. Leading the assault is Marine Corps Lieutenant and Montanan expatriate Promise Paen of Victor Company. Years earlier, Promise was driven to join the Marines after her father was killed by such a raid. Payback is sweet, but it comes at a tremendous and devastating cost. And Promise is in no way happy to be back on her birthworld, not even when she is hailed as a hero by the planet’s populace, including its colorful president. Making matters even worse: Promise is persistently haunted by the voice of her dead mother.

Meanwhile, the RAW’s most bitter rival, the Lusitanian Empire, has been watching events unfold in the Montana system with interest. Their forces have been awaiting the right moment to gain a beachhead in Republic territory, and with Promise’s Marines decimated, they believe the time to strike is now.

My Review:

If you like military science fiction, especially military SF of the space opera school, you will like Unbreakable. And if you enjoy the Honorverse, particularly the first several books before Honor became a walking deux ex machina, you are going to absolutely love Promise Paen.

Which also invites some inevitable comparisons, because Promise and Honor are at least cousins under the skin, if not sisters.

The world setup will seem rather familiar to those who enjoy military space opera (let’s call it that). Promise grows up on a boundary world colony caught between two star empires that have been making cold war on each other for decades if not centuries.

Her planet, named Montana, is a member of the Republic of Aligned Worlds, as opposed to their, well, opposition, the Lusitanian Empire. Unfortunately for Montana, she is in the borderlands, and both empires want to use her and the space she controls as a buffer zone from the other. Even worse for Montana, although they are still developing their world’s resources and economy, they are rich in minerals and other natural resources. So the place is strategic from any number of standpoints.

This is a cold war, so the great powers are using proxies to either defend or destabilize the region. The Republic of Aligned Worlds (RAW for short) isn’t sending nearly enough defenders to fight off the surprisingly organized and well-equipped pirates that the Lusitanians (usually shorted to the offensive “Lusies”) are using as proxies. The Lusies want to create enough disruption that they can pretend to come in to keep the peace. They’ve done it before.

Promise and her father live on a rather remote farmstead. One day while 18-year-old Promise is out for a run, her home is destroyed by pirates. She watches from a distance as her dad tries to talk to the pirates, and they gun him down in cold blood.

After the bloody dust settles, Promise is certain that whatever she wants to do, she wants to leave Montana above all. Her father was a pacifist, her mother was a soldier. Promise joins the RAW Marine Corps and goes off to see the galaxy. She doesn’t so much recover as bury her grief under a pile of duty.

She doesn’t want to ever return to Montana. But years later, after Promise has some experience under her belt and has risen to the rank of Sergeant (and platoon leader) she is ordered back to her former homeworld.

That cold war is heating up, and it has become obvious to the powers that be in RAW that Montana is going to be the first frontline. And they have finally responded to the clue-by-four that they don’t have nearly enough of a garrison on Montana, and that the Montanans are pissed that RAW hasn’t kept their promises.

The military wants to send a native Montanan to head the garrison that they are leaving on planet. It’s a very, very understrength garrison – one company of 40 Marines, plus a ship in orbit. Unfortunately for the Montanans, that really is all that RAW can spare.

Fortunately for Montana, they send Promise. She’s going to have to be everything that they need. Unfortunately for Promise and for Montana, they are all going to pay a cost in flesh and blood and lives to keep Montana safe. Or at least free.

Escape Rating A-: I loved this book, and pretty much poured through it as fast as possible. The more the situation goes out of whack, the higher Promise rises to the occasion. Pretty much of a 24-hour occasion by the end, as the hits just keep on coming.

The book is described as “Book 1 in The Chronicles of Promise Paen” and thank goodness for that! I want to read more of Promise’s career, because she is definitely a rising star.

Other reviewers have compared Unbreakable to Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers (minus the bugs), which I confess I haven’t read. For this reader, the comparisons were more towards David Weber’s Honor Harrington, with a bit of Torin Kerr from Tanya Huff’s Valor series.

But mostly the Honorverse.

When the story started out, the world felt surprisingly familiar. I say surprisingly because this is the author’s first novel. I can’t have read it before. But it felt familiar because the setup is similar to the Honorverse. They even use the same acronyms for their military departments.

In both stories, a young woman rises higher and faster due to planetary or empire-wide disasters that are not of her making. They are both fast rising stars in empires that need someone to step up and be a standout hero.

Promise’s rise seems more sudden than it actually is, because we don’t see her go through the Academy or watch her in her first assignments as a Marine. We don’t see her in the academy because she doesn’t go – Promise is a non-com like Torin Kerr. Also a Marine like Kerr – Honor is in the Navy.

We catch up with Promise’s career as she really starts living up to her promise – the military operation begins when she is promoted to sergeant. It’s what happens after that makes the book so interesting.

We also get to see a lot of how she feels about it. And sometimes tries NOT to feel about it.

As a military officer, Promise is an expensive miracle who pulls solutions out of her ass with amazing and sometimes frightening regularity. She is also astonishingly lucky – but if she weren’t, she’d be dead.

It’s not that her “luck” isn’t very expensive, her company and the native Montanans pay a huge price for their freedom – but that Promise is always in the right place at the right time with the right tools, even if some of those tools don’t survive. War is still hell.

The situation that Promise faces may be a SNAFU, but it is a SNAFU that is deliberately caused by the Lusies. It’s not just that the Lusie fleet sent for “training maneuvers” in Montana space is there to take advantage of any opportunity, or even that they create those opportunities through the use of their pirate proxies, but that they are deliberately starting a war with extremely underhanded means and a total lack of human compassion. Or human conscience.

They know that Montana and her people will be totally exploited and infinitely worse off under Lusitanian rule than they currently are under RAW’s benign neglect. RAW wants her worlds to be successful, where all Lusitania wants is to suck her colonies dry.

I found the Lusies to mostly be cardboard cutout villains. Not just because they were painted as the bad guys, but because their actions were always the stupidest and/or the most venal and depraved. They always cheat, they never play fair, and they operate under the assumption (possibly correct) that as long as they win they can manufacture enough spin to make their actions seem plausibly justified in universe opinion.

No one seems to care that their actions violate every tenet of the equivalent of the Geneva Convention. I didn’t hear much if any internal dialogue on the part of the Lusies to justify their actions, at least not in the same way that Victor Cachat in the Honorverse often does very bad things for reasons that he feels are good. I missed that sense of decent people doing bad things for good reasons.

The people on Montana, on the other hand, are the classic brave and plucky colonists. At the same time, there are some definite individuals who stand out. President Annie is a fantastic leader who knows just how far she can push her people, and is personally brave into the bargain.

The leader of her all-volunteer almost-militia is an interesting man who we don’t see nearly enough of, and Promise doesn’t either. She is very conflicted about her feelings for Jean-Wesley Partaine, but knows that her life doesn’t include the time or the space for a long-distance relationship.

On a side note, every time I see the name “Jean-Wesley Partaine” I want to shoot the author. In my mind, that name is a combination of “Jean-Luc Picard” and “Wesley Crusher” from Star Trek Next Gen, and just no. It makes me groan and laugh and the character doesn’t deserve that. But that name – OMG.

The star empire cold war reminds me very much of the starting lineup in the Honorverse, with some name reversals. RAW feels very much like the Manticore Empire in its sensibilities, and the Lusitanian Empire is the stand in for the Republic of Haven. Montana is even a good approximation of Grayson if you squint. If the author is planning to revisit the Napoleonic Wars through star empire proxies as the Honorverse does, I would not be totally surprised.

But I would love to see a new interpretation. The Napoleonic Wars are a source for terrific fiction that just keeps on giving.

I loved Promise’s adventures. The action is pulse-pounding, the people are all fascinating (some in a good way, some definitely not) and the world building, while familiar, definitely works for this reader. I can’t wait for the second adventure of Promise Paen – I sincerely hope that it will be just as terrific as this first installment.

Reviewer’s note: I met the author at Worldcon in 2014. We got onto the topic of the Honorverse, and I mentioned that while I enjoyed the books, especially the early ones, Honor’s internal voice just didn’t feel like a woman’s to me. The author said he hoped to do better in his own book. Achievement unlocked.

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