The Bastard Legion by Gavin Smith

Publisher - Gollancz

Price - £9.99 paperback

Published - Out Now

Four hundred years in the future, the most dangerous criminals are kept in suspended animation aboard prison ships and ‘rehabilitated’ in a shared reality environment.

Miska Corbin, a thief and hacker with a background in black ops, has stolen one of these ships, the Hangman’s Daughter, and made it her own.

Controlled by explosive collars and trained in virtual reality by the electronic ghost of a dead marine sergeant, the thieves, gangsters, murdered and worse are transformed into Miska’s own private indentured army: the Bastard Legion.

But are the mercenaries just for fun and profit, or does Miska have a hidden purposed connected to her covert past? And how far is she prepared to go to find out?

Sometimes with science fiction we tend to get focused on the giant technology, the philosophy of where we are going as a species - I’m therefore pleased to say this book brings those two elements together with a huge dollop of fighting; morally ambiguous characters and exploding heads.  This makes a rather compelling debut entry into what’s looking to be a very interesting series.

The story throws us head first with a soldier diving down in space over a gas planet orbited by a mining station where we meet our central character Miska Corbin leading a team into an attack on the station. It quickly becomes apparent that a) Miska’s crew is a group of hostile male prisoners b) all are hardwired to have their heads explode if Miska thinks appropriate and c) Miska will be happily do so if she feels they cross a line.  Rather than Firefly’s found family we have a Dirty Dozen with an additional six thousand prisoners guest-starring.  The rather new on the block mercenaries for hire a powerful conglomerate has hired their group to recapture a deep space mining station where the miners have retaliated against their employers. Miska therefore must balance a fledgling crew with homicidal tendencies; bosses who really don’t care about any issues she has doing the job and miners who feel they are morally obliged to declare independence.  Safe to say this is not going to be a smooth crushing of a fledgling revolution.

So, this is very much a visceral story. Not simply in the exploding heads but everything feels raw.  Characters don’t trade quips all the time and not everyone has a heart under a crusty exterior. It’s much more a series of fragile allowances while the groups work out how they can get the best deal for themselves. You can smell the welding on the space stations; dust the dated assortment of weaponry and technology being used depending on your social status and it s a very lived in universe. Countries like the US still exist and have some form of power but its mixed in with conglomerations; former AIs and even an alien race known as Them. Lots of fascinating hints as to how the Earth has fared but intriguingly all just good background so we can see this adventure is just the tip of the iceberg.  Smith wisely uses the debut to focus on the would-be Legion themselves.

A major plus is the character of Miska. Short and prone to demonstrating her temper towards her team explosively she is a fascinating lead character.  Neither you as the reader nor even herself seems to know what she should be doing next. With her nose ring and dream of dyeing her hair purple she could have been just a standard SF female fighter but there is more complexity to her which you don’t always see in similar action stories. This is achieved by access to her inner thoughts nicely contrasting with the snark she gives nearly everyone she meets.  The punk edge is more bravado as the would be general is learning she now has to lead a team (possibly to their deaths) rather than her previously murky role as a stand-alone govt soldier. Added to this is the dynamic that to train the troops she is using an old AI recording of her deceased father (who himself was an acclaimed sergeant)  and as he is the only person who actually knows her it adds an emotional heart to a character who otherwise I found to be one of those dangerous people you wouldn’t want to sit next to on a train in case they decide to spook you.

I also really was impressed by the weaving of action and strategy scenes. Smith has a way of making you understand the dynamics of two squads having a firefight in a hanger; then moving into a bruising one on one encounter with an enemy where you feel each punch or slice before finally going outside the station and into the dynamics of a gun battle between two starships. Each battle is unique and you don’t just get repeats of punch and kicks and testosterone. Moving it past some similar adventure action stories is because there is a lot of weaving in of flashbacks to explain how Miska ended up leading the legion and why she ended up carrying an AI version of her father around. AI is a running theme too in the books as well as the deliciously named Small Gods lurkig in the corporate shadows we also see some AIs are interested in their opponents.  This adds a lot of ambivalence to the plot as at the same time Miska’s crew, miners and employers keep pointing out to her that her mercenaries are not voluntarily behind her and all she does is follow her bosses’ orders without examining the morality of them. The reader though must wonder if Miska really cares about this or is she just focusing on her own personal ambitions?

For me the moral ambivalence all through the characters and the plot is fascinating.  I start to sympathise with prisoners who do terrible things and then it is made very clear that pretty much anyone can die even if few pages ago they were making you smile with their antics. If you prefer your heroes to be less ambivalent or violent then this tale may not appear, and the body count is rather high. I probably have two niggles – for four hundred years in the future there are a lot of 20th and 21st century weapons hanging around in one form or another and there is also a slight obsession with current films and TV I’m not too sure would have carried through the ages (although to be fair Star Trek does that all the time!) and at one point you are trying to work out exactly who is double crossing whom which takes some time to unravel. But for me that was the fun of working out where the book was heading towards…

Overall if you would like some science fiction with added portions of wonderfully choreographed action scenes; gritty characters and a sense of moral ambiguity then I think this should be your next read.  While it is a complete adventure in its own right; there are enough threads dangled to suggest an arc that will become more apparent in future instalments.  I am definitely looking forward to what the Legion does next provides it does it light years away from me!