Task Force OMBRA
by Weston Ochse
(Click subsequent titles to skip to that part of the review)
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: Grunt Life / Book 2: Grunt Traitor / Book 3: Grunt Hero
Grunt Life is the first novel in an exiting new series about an alien invasion. A second title has already been released, and I have it, with at least one more promised. This is the first book by Ochse I have read, his previous titles being either straight military fiction (or non-fiction), or a combination of military and horror (the SEAL Team 666 series). Task Force OMBRA combines military with an alien invasion scenario. It's gripping, at times horrific, a well-told adventure. The story doesn't conclude in this book obviously, and there are a few minor faults. One of the things I can criticize is the same as with a lot of stories written in first person. The reader's knowledge of the situation is limited to what the narrator knows or is willing to tell. In this case, the narrator's knowledge is also limited by what his superiors are willing to reveal, or even know themselves. Everyone is working from insufficient information.
Benjamin Mason is an Army Staff-Sergeant, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Kosovo before that. He's on leave in Southern California when he decides he needs to complete a task he has attempted several times before. Suicide. He suffers from PTSD and survivor's guilt, haunted by the deaths of several of his comrades. His plan is thwarted by a man he nicknames Mr. Pink, since he resembles Steve Buscemi's character in Reservoir Dogs. Apparently Mason's intentions had been anticipated, because Mr. Pink is not successful in talking him out of jumping off a bridge, but a strategically placed net catches him when he does. Mason's death is faked and he is recruited into a secretive operation based in an underground bunker in the middle of Wyoming. Mr. Pink is not military or government, but rather a private industrial contractor who had been trying to warn of an impending alien invasion, but his warnings had been ignored.
The pace of the story is not consistent, but it is appropriate for the various scenes. It is fast-paced when necessary for the action, but it slows down and is methodical in the prepatory phases. Mason and the other recruits are tasked with reading a lot of books about military strategy, as well as watching movies and documentaries, a high percentage of which are science fiction stories of alien invasions. Since so little is known of the aliens, known as the Cray, it is hoped that the grunts will be able to think on their feet and improvise when confronted with unprecedented events. Mr. Pink and his forces have investigated several cases of alien infiltration already, but the actual full-force invasion catches them off guard. It is later speculated that the Cray may not be the ultimate threat, possibly only a slave species sent as a first wave. Are their mounds also their spacecraft, or were they deposited here by some other force? I don't think even Mr. Pink knows, and if he does, he isn't talking.
I'm not conversant on modern military weaponry and tactics, but I know Ochse is. None of the descriptions of armaments are overwhelming, just enough to paint the picture and give the reader a good idea of what the grunts have to work with. Unfortunately, most of them are inadequate for the task. It takes individual initiative, along with blind luck, to succeed against the smallest of the Cray's installations, at Bomo Ng'ombe near Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. The Cray are insect-like, some with wings, some without, and their installations resemble termite mounds. Huge termite mounds. A victory at the end of this book is just the beginning though, there are hundreds more mounds around the world, including at all major population centers. Even if humanity can prevail, it will be a very long time for recovery.
The battles against the Cray are intense and bloody. They are exciting, but not the best part of the book. That would be the look into the psychology of the soldier. At one point Mason says that many soldiers (or maybe just him?) fight more for the love of their comrades than any sense of duty to nation or family. He is just a Corporal in this new regiment, and at first he resents that and dislikes the Sergeant placed above him, but later learns to respect and even like him. Sergeant Olivares tells Mason there are three basic types of soldier; leaders, followers and killers. He classifies Mason as a killer, and by that he doesn't just mean someone good at killing, but also someone good at getting others killed. We get to see the fear and anxiety this causes Mason, since he still feels guilt for fallen friends, including one during an early contact with the Cray. And yet Olivares also loses a man in the next encounter. Does that make him a killer too and not a good leader? No, it's just war, people die, it's not always someone else's fault. This is not just a story of alien invasion. It is also the story of the internal struggle of Mason and the other soldiers, trying to figure out if anything can redeem them from the mistakes they have made in the past. Mason might not be a good leader, but he is intelligent, and his quick thinking (along with a surprise strategy from Mr. Pink, which I won't reveal) saves the day.
PS: For any producer thinking of adapting this for film or TV, please don't cast Steve Buscemi. Make it Sean Whalen instead.
Grunt Traitor is just as good, if not better than the first. Ben Mason continues to be a strong protagonist, and I think even non-military readers can find a lot to like about the character. Yes, he's made mistakes in his past, and continues to make mistakes; he is only human. One of his major mistakes is mis-judging his own abilities as well as those of others, in both negative and positive ways. His strongest trait is loyalty, both to his fellow grunts as well as to the task of eliminating the alien threat.
He is even loyal to Mr. Pink, as a person, even though he doesn't agree with all of his tactics, but he does know they share the same goals. That doesn't mean he is loyal to OMBRA, although he does realize they are a means to an end. Even though he does show some traitorous tendencies here, he's not the only one, and his failings are not always his fault, since he is occasionally under the aliens' control. At least two other people could be the ones the book's title refers to. I won't detail that since it would be spoilery, so just take my word for it that the book is well worth your time to figure that out on your own.
Most of the action takes place in and around Los Angeles, where the Cray have established two enormous mounds. Other alien species of flora and fauna have also been introduced, and the mean temperature has been rising all over the world, leading OMBRA scientists to speculate the Cray are 'terra'-forming Earth to make it more compatible for the aliens, although they are still not sure if the Cray are the dominate species. As in the first book, Mason frequently mentions books and/or movies that he had to read/watch during his training, or in some cases ones he was already familiar with. In much the same way, I was reminded of a few similar stories, primarily Gerrold's Chtorr series, along with E.E. Knight's Vampire Earth novels. In all three of these scenarios it is speculated that even if Earth is successful in throwing off the yoke of alien domination, human morality may not survive the conflict due to the harsh decisions they have been forced to make. Due to the tactics that lead to success in L.A., several other mounds have been destroyed around the world, but there must be hundreds more, with the possibility of even more alien encroachment beyond that. If it is to be just a trilogy. it is likely the next book will be either much longer, or else non-stop action, but I won't be surprised if we get a fourth (or more). I just hope there's not too long a wait.
The wait was longer than I would have liked. The second book came out in July 2015 and I reviewed it a couple of months after that. Grunt Hero is due out next Tuesday, April 25, 2017. I was highly anticipating it of course, pre-ordering the paperback last July, but the long wait was shortened a bit due to a prompt last week from the author that an e-book version was available from NetGalley. The fact that I got it early and free does not affect this review at all. The entire trilogy is recommended even to those who might not ordinarily like military SF, due to the strong character development and insight into the psychology of a soldier, as well as the true meanings of patriotism and heroism. I've endeavored to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, so this section will have to be brief again. The following are just highlights, there's so much more action and exposition to explore, with many surprising revelations along the way.
Ben Mason was battle weary and disillusioned with OMBRA and Mr. Pink. He knew information was being withheld that would have made his task simpler. For a time after the L.A. encounter he lived in a reclusive commune near Mt. Shasta, even reconnecting with an old girlfriend. Tragedy struck there too, and at the start of this book he had traveled north to St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. He learned to hunt seal and polar bear, forging a strong friendship with the native Merlin, attempting to block the horrors of the Cray and the manipulation of OMBRA out of his mind. Fate had other intentions. First, several Cray, much larger than any he had seen before, land on the island, and although they are killed, there are also casualties among the natives. Mason assumed the Cray had tracked him down and came for him personally, but shortly afterwards a contingent of OMBRA troops arrive, and he learns that they and the Cray were actually on the way to a crash site of an alien craft on the nearby Russian coast. There had been speculation that the Cray were front-line shock troops using Earth merely as a staging ground in a larger war against another alien species. This seems to be confirmed with what is discovered in Russia, but could this other species be an ally for Earth or another foe?
Mason does rejoin OMBRA, reluctantly at first, then taking command of the unit because most of them are very young and inexperienced. They may have many Cray kills to their credit, but they are otherwise ignorant of proper military techniques and tactics. From St. Lawrence Island to California's Death Valley, from a secret base in Utah to the plains of Odessa, Texas, and finally to Sydney, Australia, Mason and his troops encounter more hostile Cray, rival forces from the New United States of North America, as well as the mysterious Khron, who have been battling the Umi (their word for the Cray) over many millenia and many light years. Along the way, Mason loses more comrades and is injured himself, but he's never down for the count. The Khron are arrogant, wanting humans to follow their lead, but Mason is able to convince them their way hasn't worked in the past and won't work now, for reasons I won't reveal to avoid spoilers. He is the one to plan the tactics against the Umi in Sydney Harbor, as much through intuition as direct knowledge. He is the hero remember, so his tactics are successful, but there's still a lot of story if Ochse chooses to follow Mason a bit farther. He decides he wants to leave Earth with the Khron and fight the Umi wherever they find them. In that sense it might be the conclusion of this particular trilogy, but the implications of all the other revelations about the Khron, the Umi, and humanity, could fill several more books, and at times I hoped this one had been longer to explore some of that in more detail. Still satisfying though, and recommended.
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