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The Trials (The Red Trilogy) Mass Market Paperback – August 18, 2015
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"Where other books might have been overshadowed by a book as good as The Red: First Light, The Trials manages to shine." --Anthony Vicino, SF Signal
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Perhaps it's ironic to say this about a series built around installments of a fictional reality show about military life, but the biggest problem with The Trials is that it's overly episodic. The opening section with Shelley's trial would have made a natural epilogue to the first novel; here, even expanded with a few technically superfluous action sequences, it drags. The rest of the book is taken up by missions that fit with the general theme of the series but don't quite cohere into a single narrative. The climax is a very dramatic mission that takes Shelley into new territory, but it emerges so late in the novel that it doesn't feel like that much of a payoff.
That quirk aside, this is a satisfying example of the thoughtful thriller. I am not a reader of most military SF, simply because it runs on a worldview and an aesthetic completely opposite to my own, but Nagata captures what's appealing in the subgenre with none of what isn't. The technology is a logical extension of what already exists, intriguing without becoming so futuristic as to create a disconnect with the earthly and earthy realities of military service. The plot reflects contemporary concerns about the power of the massively wealthy, the corruption of democracy, and the dangers of an infrastructure heavily dependent on computers and the cloud, but the thematic relevance is never overplayed or dogmatic. The first-person, present-tense narration keeps the action sequences focused and involving, even for a reader like me who doesn't particularly enjoy that sort of thing. In short, this is the kind of highly readable yet carefully-considered work that ought to be winning Hugos and Nebulas. And in fact the first book in the series did get a Nebula nomination when it was self-published a couple years, becoming the first self-published book to be so honored. Now that the series moved to traditional publication, I can only hope it will get even more attention in that line. The third in the trilogy releases in a couple months, and I'm very much looking forward to it.
I didn't think The Trials did a very good job of advancing the story and it left a number of (in my mind) gaping holes. Instead it felt like a series of disconnected action set pieces. There is an (underplayed but continuing) motif of "reality TV episodes" so the episodic "take down the dragon of the week who happens to have nuclear weapons" sequence in this book echoes that. But after the third such dragon-with-nukes takedown it felt repetitive rather than building towards anything.
One of the more disappointing aspects of this book is that the dragon trial set up in the first book has no impact on the world. There's a trial involving multiple nukes that killed almost 100,000 people and a massive coverup and we see nothing about that other than promises the consequences are coming in the third book. But presumably the trial included the kinds of smoking guns that would have outraged the public around the world and we don't see any of that.
It also became increasingly hard to believe that muckrakers and internet conspiracy theorists aren't having a field day with overlays that have secret backdoors that allow people to literally control you (there are several hundred thousand of these sold and the company that builds them has hundreds of employees) or skullcaps that turn government employees into addicts without their consent.
It felt like the book became overly focused on the action aspect and ignored the massive implications unfolding around it.
There is so much to like about this book (the entire Red series, actually). This book picks up from the first book with James Shelley and the team being court martialed for their kidnapping of Thelma Sheridan and delivery to Ahab Matugo in Niamey for trial.
Her husband,Carl Vanda, takes this personally, far more than any "dragon" should, and goes after Lt. Shelley. He isn't a very effective field agent.
The trial ends in a job offer to work directly for the organization that Kendrick and Rawlings had worked for. Upon returning from a mission to retrieve some nukes from a ship owned by Carl Vanda, he takes an involuntary vocational detour to another organization which is attemping to work with/control the Red by retrieving more nukes from a low earth orbit habitat. He's rescued by his team before he can go on that mission, ends up executing it with his old team, and is rescued by yet another organization of enhanced soldiers working directly for the Red.
We get further insights (deductions) about the nature of the Red and what its motivations (without humanizing it) are.
There's lots of new technology from drones and robo-bugs to an app called FaceValue which runs in Shelley's overlay and is used to evaluate the truthfulness of someone's statements. There's EXALT (Expandable Aerial Labyrinth Traffic), the communications system being build to replace the Internet backbone (which was designed to make it more difficult for the Red to hide).
One statement aptly describes Facebook users in a few years: "The girl doesn't matter to Shiloh beyond her function as a mobile platform for EXALT data collection." This applies to Facebook, Google, Instagram, etc. A variation on this is Carl Vanda's statement, "I don't wear an overlay... And no chip. Only an idiot would hardware himself into the Cloud."
While I'm really enjoying this series of book and I highly recommend them, remember the warning: contains military grade profanity!
Oh, and there's a developing relationship between James Shelley and Karin Larsen (AKA Delphi) that expands and contracts as he takes on new missions. It's especially emotionally challenging for her.
Top international reviews
Most of the characters are present from the first book and if I must complain a good chance has been missed to flesh out the rest of the squad - most of them seem interchangeable and as a result some of their inevitable demises lack impact because of it.
Still the book rattles along nicely with new missions and a new love interest and more complexity as further actions by both The Red and the evil Corporates come to light. Its also good to see that the author hasn't succumbed to the temptation to anthropomorphise The Red leaving a good air of mystery that continues into the set up of the Third book.
Roll on November 2015!
This is book 2 of 3 - read book 1 "The Red" first.