Logically, I shouldn’t have liked this book as much as I did. It’s fairly standard military science fiction of the hard boiled variety, focused on one Lt. James Shelley: squad leader of an exoskeleton wearing, perpetually video conferenced, grenade chucking bunch of yahoos. Nothing too unusual there, right? And yet somehow, the damn thing hooked me straight out of the gate and demanded that I tear through it at pace – which I have now done.
Partly it’s because I like Nagata’s writing style. She employs a stripped down brand of 1st person present tense prose that is perfectly suited to the narrative she’s telling. There are also a few interesting ideas underlying the plot, such as an all-pervasive AI that (gasp) wasn’t born in a secret military lab, but out of some marketing data-capture algorithm. I also enjoyed the Dragons: private defence contractors that create and subsequently outfit the world’s wars, and basically own it as a result. And finally, we have the action. There’s nothing particularly ground breaking about the various melees, battles and occasional nuclear explosions that permeate the narrative, and there is some repetition, but it’s all pretty damn fun just the same.
No book is perfect, however, and this one is no exception. First of all, the pacing is a bit weird. Things go from frenetic, to slow and measured, and back to frenetic so abruptly that it can feel like you’re reading a couple of books spliced together. The character motivations are also fairly weak. Granted, most of Shelley’s suspect decisions are blamed on either the aforementioned (and very bossy) AI, or the mood control yarmulke the army makes him wear. But I got a little tired of this hand wavy approach to stripping the characters of their agency.
Happily, Shelley is so generally likeable that I didn’t really mind. His girlfriend Lissa isn’t given nearly as much to do, but she manages to support her BF to the last without being a total sop herself, which is better treatment than she would have gotten from some other military sci-fi novels I could name.
So in summary, The Red: First Light is a book that knows what it wants to be when it grows up, and gets straight down to business without any dicking about. A solid airplane or vacation novel.
Weird factor: C