Burning Sky by Weston Ochse

I would like to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Solaris

Price - £8.99

Published – Out now

Everything is dangerous in Afghanistan, nothing more so than the mission of a Tactical Support Team or TST. All veterans, these men and women spend seasons in hell, to not only try and fix what’s broken in each of them, but also to make enough bank to change their fortunes.

But seven months later, safely back on American soil, they feel like there’s something left undone. They’re meeting people who already know them, remembering things that haven’t happened, hearing words that don’t exist. And they’re all having the same dream…a dream of a sky that won’t stop burning.

I haven’t read much military SF recently and I will admit the idea of a group of men talking about their mighty weapons (snigger) tends to make me snooze but one of the best bits about reading is when you get surprised and this story gave me a lot of them aiming more for Jacob’s Ladder than the next Jack Ryan.

The story starts with the TST team out in Afghanistan; at this point it feels your standard hi-tech war thriller very much as the team are immediately shown in a dangerous part of the country escorting a General to a meeting. Lots of technical jargon and a team waiting for an attack but then glowing lights from the skies intervene and the story immediately time jumps to six months later and the TST is split up and back in the US. The first chapter hammered home that this was a group of seasoned albeit young professionals and now they’re shattered. The focus of this story is Bryan Starling (who uses the nickname Boy Scout) and he’s now surviving on drugs, alcohol and missions for gang bosses. An increasingly out of fit muscle for hire sent to silence a woman making trouble so he can make some money. For the reader very jarring to see this transition from someone we first met as a very by the book soldier and then things get even weirder – his intended target tells him he’s done this before and she knows what he will do to her. Bryan decides to make a stand for the guy he used to be and starts to bring the team together. During which he finds he’s not the only member to have gone off the rails and all of them seem to be having the same dreams and an ever-growing sense that something went horribly wrong on that last mission.

In many ways this is a book of three parts and how they connect is a major attraction.  The start could easily be one of several action thriller plots where an army veteran finds his skills more useful on the wrong side of the tracks but then a more unusual plot with hints of something much more supernatural make it becomes increasingly important that this troupe is put back together to go back. This section gives a me a feeling of a Jacob’s Ladder style plot where two narratives are fighting for control and reality becomes increasingly blurred with the fantastical and once the team get to Afghanistan the final reveal shows how this team all link into an ongoing mystical battle that has been running for centuries.  It’s a very unpredictable ride and avoids constant discussions of weapons and tactics swapping it for a more personal and for me more interesting dynamic.  This session is where it becomes a clash of fantasy horror and action which I think largely works as you’re not sure how the team can survive and where it will finally end.

The character dynamic was appealing.  This is a military team with two skilled and respected women operating alongside the men and the men themselves are a diverse group of backgrounds including former criminals and a gay man who again the team have no issues with.  It feels a refreshingly 21st century set-up.  Ultimately the TST enjoy what they do and while they all have their reasons for fighting and it is clear they complement and need each other on a very deep level.

My only reservation was the final reveal is a historical character who really set the ball rolling on the confrontation the team need to address.  That character is shown in a less than positive light and as far as I’ve been able to see he had no ulterior motives and instead is a respected literary figure to Persian culture.  Artistic licence must be expected in the genre but to base a story in Afghanistan and use a famous Muslim character as a potential antagonist (and to be fair their motives are still unclear, so this may be revealed in future stories as a red herring) I felt made this a little out of step with the rest of the book.

This is the start of a new series featuring the team (well whoever finally survives) and it’s a strong start to help launch what could be a very unusual series treading a line between military action and horror fantasy.  Really accomplished and I think if you enjoy action in your stories then this may be right up your attack zone.