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Burning Sky
by Weston Ochse

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I expected there to be a science fiction or horror element to this novel, but was surprised it was more mystical/supernatural. However, verification of that element didn't appear until approximately halfway through the book. Until then, there were a few puzzling clues that indicated something strange was going on, but I suspected it would be more like lost memory, possibly hypnotic control. It was actually both, but not in the way I was thinking.

Burning Sky starts on a dusty plain in Afghanistan, where a TST (Tactical Support Team) is escorting an officer to a meeting. Bryan Starling, call sign Boy Scout, leads the TST. He wonders why they are so far from any military installation, and why they didn't come by chopper instead of a ten hour trek in Land Rovers. Another vehicle approaches their position, the general confirms it is whom he is meeting, and he walks to the rendezvous. Then a flying object approaches, which they initially think is a missle, but that notion is dispelled when it stops dead mid-air. The other SUV opens fire, but is destroyed by a blast from the mysterious object, which then turns and targets the TST convoy. Starling thinks the craft is shaped somewhat like a medieval knight's shield, but it's hard to tell since it is surrounded by a shimmering aura. What is it, an experimental weapon? If so, what is its origin? It is certainly beyond the capablility of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or any other force they've encountered. They respond with RPGs and automatic rifle fire, but the scene ends without a resolution to the confrontation.

Flash forward to Starling back in the States. He wakes on the floor, in a pool of his own vomit, surrounded by empty pizza boxes, beer and liquor bottles, with a cockroach chewing on his eyelashes. He has gained a lot of weight, and has apparently been on a long alcohol/drug binge. His stupor is interrupted by a phone call, and after a curt exchange he realizes the caller is Larrson, who has another assignment for him. Who is Larrson? Is he a former comrade-in-arms? All of the other TST members had been identifed by name and call sign, although the general was only referred to as Alpha. Why does Larrson want Starling to go to an address in Koreatown, and why does he assume Starling will know what to do when he gets there? Why does the woman at that address, Joon Park, say Starling has been there before, multiple times, when Starling has no memory of it? He asks what has happened those other times. She says sometimes he has beaten her, sometimes kicked her when she was on the floor, and at least once she thinks he killed her. ?!?

Is Starling in some type of simulation, or a drug-induced reverie? Joon is able to convince him that what Larrson wants is to take her son, a quadriplegic, and return him to his father. I won't tell you the reason the father would want to take on that responsibility, just that it is reason enough for Starling to decide that he will do the right thing. He won't hurt her this time, he will help her. He knows if he doesn't make the rendezvous Larrson will send others to get the boy, and likely kill him and Joon. He enlists the aid of McQueen, one of his former team, now a bouncer at a gay bar in LA. After several confrontations/escapes from Larrson's henchmen, they realize the situation warrants hooking up with other former comrades. They find that Laurie May (aka Lore, call sign Preacher's Daughter) has been having some weird experiences of her own. Do they relate in any way to what has been happening to Starling? They are able to rescue Dakota Jimmison (aka Dak, call sign Narco) from an Arizona prison work detail. When they realize they have all been having the same recurring dream, they think it has something to do with what happened in Afghanistan. They are all wanted now, so it takes Narco's contacts and inside maneuverings from Oscar James (Oz, call sign Criminal) to get them forged papers and transport. Criminal has a cushy job on a base in Doha, Qatar, which he doesn't want to leave, but someone else draws up papers that transfers him to Boy Scout's team. No one has seen or heard from Sara Chavez (call sign Bully), but they don't think they have time to track her down, so they're off to Afghanistan.

Not even to the midway point. I have to refrain from revealing too much, but I feel I must talk about certain things, even if it scares off potential readers. Boy Scout and his team do find Bully again. They do discover the reason for the shared dream. They realize what has been happening to them is a simulation, or more accurately, a fugue state. In some ways it reminded me of Christopher Nolan's Inception, a potentially never-ending dream within a dream. Elon Musk is not the first person to speculate that we are all in a simulation. I'm left pondering if everything in the book is part of a simulation, including the opening and closing scenes. Ochse has written other works of straight military fiction, some non-fiction, as well as horror. The previous trilogy that began with Grunt Life was a standard science fictional one, a military campaign against an alien invasion. Things are quite different here, depicting a foe on a transcendant spiritual plane, and that's where he might lose the interest of some readers. If so, that would be a shame. Ochse is a soldier himself, in fact recently returned from another deployment in Afghanistan. He knows the soldier's life, the weaponry and tactics. I know most of his work will be especially relevant to other soldiers, but this work transcends that, reaching toward more esoteric heights. The old saying is "there are no atheists in foxholes." Surely being perpetually confronted with the prospect of imminent death has resulted in many soldiers' spiritual musings. Here those musings are related to Middle Eastern concepts and beliefs, which were concurrent with, or pre-dated, possibly even influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

This is highly recommended. I'm willing to follow wherever Ochse leads, and I need to track down some of his earlier work. Yesterday I rated this 5 stars at Amazon and Goodreads, and also mentioned that the author might be surprised about other books I thought of while reading. One of them was still very much fresh in my mind, since I had read Joe Haldeman's Hugo and Nebula winner Forever Peace for the first time last week. What I'm referencing is only the part about the Jupiter Project and the speculation as to what might happen if it was completed. Another book I thought of is Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, still one of the best books I've ever read. It is all about the vastness of the cosmos, the wide range of species that dwell on various planets of the far-flung galaxies, and the possible discovery of the ultimate creator of it all. I've typed several other sentences, edited them, then decided to delete them as too spoilery. I'll leave it as an exercise for other readers to figure out why those books came to mind. Is there an ultimate beginning point to the universe, or an ultimate end point, or is it a perpetual motion machine, destined to repeat forever? Is everything Boy Scout experiences part of the fugue? Will he ever escape it? I don't know yet, but I'm anxious to find out. If you're not into such musings, if you only want military action (there is plenty of that here) this might not be the book for you. If you're game for things beyond the material world, even as a mere thought experiment, there is much here to satisfy. It has prompted me to do more research into Zoroastrianism and other spiritual disciplines, which I hope to do before the announced sequel, Dead Sky, is released.


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