Task Force OMBRA
(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 (pending)
This 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. Not perfect though, and of course the story doesn't conclude in this book. 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. 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 am a veteran, but from many decades ago and with a very short term served, and I never saw combat. I don't know modern weaponry and tactics, but I feel certain Ochse does. 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.
I am anxious to read the second book, Grunt Traitor, as well as wondering to whom the title is referring, but other things will come first. I've got another NetGalley title I'm obligated to review, along with another pending approval, plus so many others I've promised myself would be the next in line. I'm also anxious to re-read many books Ochse mentions here, including Haldeman's The Forever War, and I had already planned a re-read of David Gerrold's Chtorr series due to the pending release of the fifth book. I will get back to Mason and OMBRA and the Cray, hopefully soon, but can't specify when just yet. Stay tuned.
PS: For any producer thinking of adapting this for film or TV, please don't cast Steve Buscemi. Make it Sean Whalen instead.
The second book 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 out that 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.
I believe that Ochse has said the third book would be Grunt Hero, but I don't know if that will conclude the series or if there will be more. 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.
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