Unbreakable is the debut novel from W.C. Bauers and the first book in THE CHRONICLES OF PROMISE PAEN, billed as a blend of hard military sci-fi (in the vein of Starship Troopers) and the Wild West-like sensibilities of the television series Firefly. While the novel does contain those elements, focusing on them alone does a disservice to Bauer’s incorporation of real and imagined military history and his skillful portrayal of the marines who serve the interests of the Republic of Aligned Worlds.
Second Lieutenant Promise Paen (call sign: “Slipstitch”) is one such marine in the employ of the RAW, and the relatively untested leader of the men and women who make up Victor Company. She’s been traveling to different systems, going whenever her guns and grit are needed, following the tradition of generations of her mother’s family. Her homeworld, the planet Montana, is in desperate need of assistance after a deadly attack by space pirates who could be illicitly working for the Lusitanian Empire. Naturally, the Republic doesn’t want to give up any ground to the enemy, even if it’s a backwater planet which didn’t merit notice until the attack, so Victor Company is deployed. Promise must train the local militia, protect the planet’s people and resources, and force the Lusitanians to show their hand without any official assistance from the Republic.
The timeline of Unbreakable is difficult to pin down — the events take place nearly one hundred years after Earth has been abandoned due to war and destruction, and there is mention of geo-political conflict which took place in the twenty-third and twenty-fourth centuries, but cultural touchstones which are familiar to various characters would easily be recognized by readers today. If you’ve read Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or are aware of the James Bond books and movies, you’d have much to discuss with the men and women of the RAW-MC. Promise and the marine corps under her command each pilot a mechsuit which comes equipped with an artificial intelligence; Promise has programmed hers to sound like a particular actor from the James Bond movies, one whose voice appeals to her in a particular way. Bauers is an imaginative enough writer that I wish he’d also created more books and movies as contemporary reference points for his characters rather than his readers. I know what spies and “ear candy” are without needing the Bond connection — I don’t want to think that the Bond franchise is the apex of the form.
Mechsuits, and indeed all of the technology described in Unbreakable, are convincingly futuristic without forcing the reader to suspend disbelief. There are pulse rifles and gravity-defying vehicles, cloaking devices and sophisticated ship-hacking, as well as asteroid-mining crews and spaceships which travel between star systems, but they are all refreshingly anchored in their utility to the humans who use them. This is not a future dominated by machines as their creators fade into obscurity: people take center stage in Bauers’ prose. When those people are sympathetic to Bauers’ storyline and agenda, they are well-written and complex, but when they are the “bad guys,” they come off as closer to cardboard than flesh-and-blood. I don’t need every Lusitanian soldier to make a nasty joke about Promise’s menstrual cycle to know that they’re her enemies, particularly when the Lusitanians are engaged in a hostile takeover of an entire planet.
When it comes to battles — whether vessels in space or factions of ground forces — they are action-packed, visceral, and riveting. Victor Company is full of good men and women, and frequently I found myself in tears as the outcomes of each bloody struggle were detailed. Bauers relates the camaraderie of military culture very well, and his tremendous support for the efforts and sacrifices of enlisted men and women is clear on every page. What troubled me are the lack of real danger to Promise and the subsequent increase of danger to her troops. If there’s no conflict she can’t handle, no battle she can’t win, then all that’s at stake are the lives of her marines, who run the risk of seeming like disposable characters. And unfortunately, there is far too much time between the skirmishes. The diplomatic dances between Promise and the local militia, between Promise and the colonists, between Promise and the Lusitanians, between Promise and her troops, frequently drag on too long, leaving the reader with the urge to skim paragraphs or flip ahead to the next time “mechsuit” or “grenade” appears.
Unbreakable shows that Bauers is a writer of tremendous potential with an appreciation for military history and its ramifications throughout literature and humanity’s potential future. All in all, while I did have issues with pacing and character development, I did enjoy many aspects of the novel. I’m interested to see how Promise’s story plays out, and I’m definitely interested in watching Bauers develop his talent.
“I know what spies and “ear candy” are without needing the Bond connection — I don’t want to think that the Bond franchise is the apex of the form.”
I laughed out loud, Jana.
Thank you, Marion! For once (in my life) I wasn’t trying to be snarky, if you can believe it.