While Master Sergeant (Book One of The Makaum War) did not go at all in the direction I expected, that's entirely okay, because it's a far more interesting and surprising story for taking that shift in direction. Mel Odom has put more thought into the concept and world-building that I'm used to in a military sci-fi thriller, and then invested even more in the actual story itself.
Early on, I was sure we were heading for a Predator-meets-Avatar kind of story, complete with ultra-sophisticated mech-suits, a hostile environment, and warring alien races. I liked and respected Master Sergeant Frank Sage as a lead, and was really interested in the Phrenorians as a hostile, insectile type race. The confrontation I expected never came to pass, however, as civil war and corporate drug-running end up shifting to the forefront.
What Master Sergeant ends up becoming is a story about the politics and the economics of war. Odom takes us deep into the organizational structure of setting up, equipping, and running an interstellar war. The military needs private contractors to do their job, and those contracts need the military to open up new opportunities. Of course, where there's temptation there's corruption, and the planet of Makaum is rife with possibilities for the drug trade. It doesn't help that Sage begins his posting by running afoul of the corporation, and that confrontation will come back to drive the action in the latter half.
The characters here were strong, as is the science and the technology. It's a smart, imaginative tale, and one with a deep social conscience. While the confrontations with top brass are a little clichéd, I liked the dynamics of Sage's platoon. Similarly, the tension between professional military personnel and civilian contractors is hardly new or original, the interference of the Phrenorians give the story an additional edge, and the human element of the civilian refugees really brought the story together.
As military science fiction thrillers go, Master Sergeant is a strong one, with more than enough plot threads and themes established to carry the reader through the rest of The Makaum War.
Paperback, 384 pages
Expected publication: January 27th 2015 by Voyager