Novels like The Trials by Linda Nagata give me—or at least restore some of my—faith in the publishing industry.
Sure, there’s the story of how the book came to be in the first place: Linda Nagata, who wrote several critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful science fiction novels in the 1990s, self-published The Red: First Light in 2013 after a long break. Lo and behold, the indie-published title garnered critical acclaim, not to mention nominations for both the Nebula and the John W. Campbell Memorial Awards.
Soon after, the novel and its sequels were acquired by new SFF imprint Saga Press. A slightly revised edition of The Red was published in June, closely followed byThe Trials, with series closer Going Dark due in early November.
While I enjoy a good Cinderella publishing story as much as the next tired, jaded reviewer, I really love these books most of all for what they are: some of the most action-packed and intelligent military science fiction to be released in years.
(Spoiler warning: The Trials is the direct sequel to The Red, and it’s pretty much impossible to discuss the new book without including plot details from the first one. So, if you haven’t read The Red yet, stop here and go check out my review of the novel instead.)
My first impression of The Trials was not completely favorable. For a (for me at least) highly anticipated sequel, the first hundred pages or so were a bit of a let-down. That’s partly because, maybe as a memory aid, the early section of the novel recaps the events of book one, and it does so a bit clumsily. To be fair, it’s been two years since the original self-published edition of The Red, so maybe it was a wise choice to incorporate a plot summary, but because our narrator is still Lt. James Shelley, these paragraphs have a strong “As you know, Bob…” vibe to them.
The novel’s opening also isn’t helped by a markedly slower pace than what came before, as Shelley and his “Apocalypse Squad” are court martialed, ostensibly for their role in the kidnapping and extradition of dragon mastermind Thelma Sheridan. The legal proceedings are described with a level of detail worthy of John Grisham—not necessarily a bad thing, but a surprising turn in this MilSF story nonetheless.
Fortunately, Nagata somehow keeps the pace snappy and the reader’s attention focused. It soon becomes clear that the courtroom is just the next battlefield in Shelley and company’s struggle for the fate of the country and the world. When the case winds to its close, the squad moves on, and the story goes back to more familiar ground. By the time you turn the final page, you’ll have forgotten that slow start completely.
One of the aspects of this new novel I love most is its realistic portrayal of the effects of “Coma Day.” Remember when Thelma Sheridan attempted to kill the rogue AI known as The Red by nuking several data centers in major cities, incidentally killing tens of thousands of innocents? The atmosphere in The Trials is not unlike the one in Will McIntosh’s excellent Soft Apocalypse, in which the world slowly disintegrates as the economic and social underpinnings of society unravel. Sure, Shelley & co. are constantly in the foreground and the focus is on the action more than the setting, but the empty parking lots and office buildings in the background paint a bleak, effective picture. Income equality skyrockets as the rich build billion dollar private space stations while down below ordinary people go broke. (And you just know that, once Nagata casually mentions those private space stations, you’re in for some serious action sequences later on—and you won’t be disappointed.)
Nagata also continues to explore the consequences of the technology that shapes this story, from the constant scrutiny that the skullnet-enhanced Shelley is under, to his dependence on the “emo drip” that levels out his darkest moods. During the trial early on in the book, it becomes more and more clear that the Linked Combat Squad, despite being heroes in the eyes of many, are also perceived as mindless, centrally controlled soldiers—automata, almost. The contrast between this perception and the shocking, very human trauma Shelley lives with is one of the strongest aspects of these novels.
So yes, there are a few hiccups. I could have done without the foolproof lie detector “FaceApp,” which would surely have a much larger effect on society than what’s shown here. (Anyone remember The Truth Machine by James Halperin?) Some of the supporting squad members aren’t as compelling as the ones lost in the first book. And, as mentioned before, the novel falters somewhat out of the gates.
Still, The Trials comes in for a strong, spectacular finish. In the end, I can confidently say that, if you loved The Red, chances are that you’ll love The Trials too. This is some of the smartest military SF on the shelves today. You should read it.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on September 7th, 2015.