The Bastard Legion - War Criminals by Gavin Smith

I thank Gollancz for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Gollancz

Price - £10.99 paperback £5.99 kindle eBook

Published – Out Now

It is the kind of dirty, violent work the Bastards were made for. Protect a bunch of colonists in the Epsilon Eridani system, whose moon has become a death zone as megacorp-backed mercenaries fight a brutal proxy war. Just the kind of fight the penal mercenary legion likes.

But a hundred headless corpses are hard to explain, even for the Bastard Legion, and soon they are on the run, abandoned by their allies, and hunted by their most dangerous foe yet…but Miska’s going to play them at their own game.

Warning - some mild spoilers for previous books

As already outlined here and also here I’ve really become a fan of this series about a former govt agent who has decided to become a space mercenary with a largely unwilling prison of 6000 of the worst criminals co-opted into her service. The two pervious novels for me importantly delivered the two things I really want in a long-running series – the development of characters and the universe they live in and variation in the type of stories. I’m really pleased to say that the third book may be my favourite and points to several potential avenues for the Legion to now march down with all guns blazing.

This time rather than a heist or a space station the action moves to an exotic tropical moon.  This allows Smith to explore how warfare operates in this universe of planetary powers, corporations and the people trying to live in peace/for a living.  Mercenary companies are usually hired to do the heavy lifting (fighting) to settle any disputes; while its dangerous work all the usual crews know the rules – once captured your team are treated well and returned to base. Everyone gets paid and its lucrative work.  But add in the unconventional Miska and her desire to win rather than play by convention ruffles feathers and a lot of these crews feel a group of prisoners both poses a threat commercially (they’re cheaper) and violent prisoners are not soldiers and are bound to stray from the rules.  Miska soon finds her companies name being used as a byword for torture, brutality and bloody horror.

So this novel comes with at least three plots; the colony war itself that brings into it questions of the strange companies that have decided to turf the colonists out which means we get lots of jungle-based warfare not just with the troops fighting hand to hand but this time large powerful mechs (yes this time we have giant robot fighting!!). This time Miska must learn to command rather than fight and this leads her into opposition with the mysterious Colonel Duellona and the mysterious powers that back her and finally the running theme that somewhere within the Legion her father’s killer is lurking and potentially ready to strike again.

What struck me in this was the various plotlines are really well balanced and complement each other giving the reader time to digest the wider dynamics in play. The fight scenes give energy but allows for the consequences of Miska’s unconventional warfare to play out for good and for bad in the political sphere.   A large group of prisoners can overpower a corporation, but can they win the war of good PR against one of the richest corporations in the galaxy?

Smith is one of the most energetic SF writers out there at turning complex tactics and battles into extremely enjoyable action sequences.  They deliver a delicious banquet of hi-tech and sometimes hand to hand combat and every fight within the series so far offers something new.  On a character level we see Miska learning she cannot just react and fight in every war and now she is forming her own hierarchy of the semi-trusted prisoners. Watching them all develop their power bases poses both internal threats but are also a fun diversion to see for example how the Mafia would deal with a corporation!! In this adventure we have disgraced investigators doing her intelligence work but most interestingly and horrifically Miska unleashes her Nightmare Squad - essentially the most violent (or even serial killers) as one of her last resort attacks.  There is still an ambiguity to Miska that despite a desire to help those in need she clearly still enjoys watching this group cause havoc.  Having such a lead, you’re never too sure what she will do is a pleasant surprise when so often in military SF there is a tendency to the hero doing the predictable.

The most tantalising element in the story that has slowly built up and now signals the Legion has more battles to come is the increasing prominence of the Small Gods. Nanotech AI created in an Earth torn apart by war that is in hiding in Mars and possibly finally sees an opportunity to win even more power. The series is definitely now more than the sum of its parts and points towards a larger conflict to be explored in future volumes…

 So, I think this is one of the most interesting SF action series now out there and I’m now very invested at seeing where Smith is going.  Its violent, funny, clever and doesn’t go for the obvious and even a simple jungle planet hides more than few surprises.  If you are looking for a new series of British SF, then please start joining the Legion unlike the foreign one it’s not easily forgotten!

PS - be remiss of me to also highlight this book is the first I’ve seen with its own music video! Click the link below

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