Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Book Review: First Light (Red #1)

book cover for First LightLieutenant James Shelley, who has an uncanny knack for premeditating danger, leads a squad of advanced US Army military tasked with enforcing the peace around a conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. The squad members are linked wirelessly 24/7 to themselves and a central intelligence that guides them via drone relay—and unbeknownst to Shelley and his team, they are being recorded for a reality TV show.

When an airstrike almost destroys their outpost, a plot begins to unravel that's worthy of Crichton and Clancy's best. The conflict soon involves rogue defense contractors, corrupt US politicians, and homegrown terrorists who possess nuclear bombs. Soon Shelley must accept that the helpful warnings in his head could be AI. But what is the cost of serving its agenda?

Back in my indie book reviewer days, I'd heard that this book was originally self-published before it was picked up by Saga Press (Simon & Schuster). Then the accolades poured in, and the story garnered three award nominations. So I made a note to pick it up once I had the chance. Now, having read it, I can see why. The writing is tight and polished. The opening hook grabs you ("There needs to be a war going on somewhere...") and pulls you in, the action is well-choreographed, and there's plenty of dramatic tension.

The military jargon and procedural actions ring true. The gear is well thought out and frickin' cool. Nagata provides mid-21st century soldiers with powered exoskeletons, "skullcap" computer interfaces that send signals to the body to adjust biochemical responses to the surrounding environment, and implants to connect with weapons and recon drones.

The story starts in the Sahel, and I enjoyed the way it unfolded, but then, in a major plot twist, Shelley gets injured and the story shifts stateside to focus on his recovery and rehabilitation. The time in the hospital gives him a chance to reconnect with his former lover, his father, and the journalist who fatefully led to his army recruitment. We learn more of Shelley's past and the dystopian world (similar to our own) he lives in. We also learn that there appears to be an AI that's gone rogue (The Red). It's intentions are unknown, but it seems very interested in Shelley.

I would've thought that a military thriller with cyberpunk elements would've been everything I needed here, but it didn't pan out. So what's the problem? Quite simply, me. The book had me hooked at the start, but then it lost me with the setting change. Developed characters were suddenly lost, irrelevant to the overall story. The pace slowed way down, too. I cut it some slack, feeling that Nagata was ramping things up for this new direction, but then the plot radically changed course again. The confrontation I expected was pushed back to another novel. I couldn't get on board with the new course.

As well written as the story was, I couldn't connect to it. I felt like I was reading the script to the Rock's next action movie. Once Nagata described Shelley, I couldn't not picture him in the lead. And that's fine. I think he's incredibly talented for a particular genre of films, and I've enjoyed every one that I've seen him in. It's just that Mr. Johnson's movies aren't something I want to read.

3.5 stars.


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