“For the dead, war never ends.” That’s the somewhat ominous tagline on the cover of Myke Cole’s newest military fantasy novel Gemini Cell. Set in the early years of the Great Awakening, the novel shows how humanity first reacted to the sudden appearance of magical powers in random people—a process that would eventually lead to the militarization of magic as portrayed in Cole’s first three Shadow Ops novels: Control Point, Fortress Frontier, and Breach Zone.
Gemini Cell is in a sense a prequel to that trilogy. It doesn’t share any characters with the first three books, but it’s set in the same world during an earlier age, more or less setting the stage for what’s coming down in Control Point. A prequel in the L.E. Modesitt Jr. sense, maybe.
There’s two bits of good news here. First of all, if you’ve always been curious about the action-packed military fantasy Myke Cole excels at, this book is an excellent entry point to the series, as it basically requires zero knowledge of the other books. The second bit of good news: it’s also the best novel he’s written so far.
US Navy SEAL Jim Schweitzer is a battle-hardened operator, a professional soldier trained to work and remain calm in near-impossible situations and take down the most challenging targets. However, the clarity and focus that makes him so lethal on the battlefield eludes him when it comes to his personal life: his wife Sarah, a talented artist, is increasingly unhappy with the amount of time Jim’s work takes him away from her and their young son. Jim struggles to reconcile these two sides of his life: his highly successful, adrenaline-fueled career and the beautiful young family it keeps him away from.
Everything changes when, after a partially botched operation against an organization known as the Body Farm, the unthinkable happens and Jim’s work finally follows him home. Before Jim is summarily executed, he sees his wife and child shot by intruders equipped with the same military-grade gear as the ones guarding the Body Farm asset he just helped secure.
But remember that tagline: for the dead, war never ends. Jim inexplicably finds himself drawn back from the void. He returns to a heavily modified version of his body which he now shares with Ninip, the ghost of an ancient warrior/semi-divine king who has spent thousands of years in the same void Jim just returned from. Together, they become part of the Gemini Cell, an experimental branch of the American military that is attempting to make use of and ultimately control the magical powers that are reappearing all over the country.
The chapters focusing on Jim’s rebirth as “half of a god of war” are probably the darkest thing Myke Cole has written so far. Jim has just seen his family murdered, then finds himself revived in a monstrous new body that he shares with the soul of an ancient warrior. It’s a constant struggle to keep Ninip under control, because given free rein he would kill everyone in sight. It’s like that Steve Martin movie All of Me, except instead of Lily Tomlin, Jim’s got a psychotic warrior-king sharing his body.
Unbeknownst to Jim, his wife Sarah and son Patrick did survive the attack. The chapters focusing on this side of the story are equally dark, showing Jim’s grieving widow who not only has to cope with her husband’s death, but also her young son’s lack of communication and increasing withdrawal from the world. And through it all, Sarah can’t fight off the feeling that, somehow, somewhere, Jim is still alive…
Gemini Cell is another excellent novel by Myke Cole, maybe his best yet. It’s an intensely emotional story, focused on two people who have lost their loved ones. The story at times feels almost claustrophobic, with Jim trapped in the darkness of his inhuman fighting machine body, constantly fighting for control with Ninip, and on the other hand Sarah and Patrick walled in and crushed by grief.
Although there are references to Physiomancy and Pyromancy and so on inGemini Cell, the novel is set in the early days of the Great Awakening, before the military structured everything in schools and covens and so on. This lack of structure gives the story a more threatening atmosphere: everyone’s operating in the dark, with terrifying new powers just being discovered. The military is trying to get a handle on this unnatural new phenomenon (we even hear an early version of the “Magic is the new nuke” line) but at this point, they’ve barely got the tiger by the tail.
All of this results in what’s possibly Myke Cole’s darkest novel to date, a military fantasy that combines intense personal anguish with elements of actual horror. It’s also easily his best work to date. If you haven’t read this author yet, Gemini Cell makes for an excellent place to start.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on January 28th, 2015.