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Saturday, May 24, 2014


Author:  G. T. Almasi
Plot Type:  Alternate History;  Urban Fantasy UF     
Ratings:  Violence5; Sensuality2; Humor—3 
Publisher and Titles:  Random House: Del Rey
          Blades of Winter (8/2012)
          Hammer of Angels (2/2014)
          Legion of Scorpio (working title)    

     This post begins with an overview of the world-building and continues with reviews of the first two novels in this series.    

     In this alternate history, four world powers (called the Four) emerged victorious from World War II and divided most the world amongst themselves: the U.S.A., Greater Germany, National Republic of China, and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (aka Russia). Germany rules all of Western Europe (including Great Britain) and parts of the Middle East. China has power over South Asia and Indonesia, except for Japan and South Korea, which are ruled by the U.S. Russia controls Eastern Europe, Northern Asia, and the rest of the Middle East. Here is the Map Key:
     Dark Blue: U.S.A.
     Light Blue: U.S.A. Allies
     Dark Green: Greater Germany
     Light Green: Germany Allies
     Red: National Republic of China
     Pink: China Allies
     Brown: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
     Orange: Independent    

     In real-life history, the Cold War existed between Russia and the U.S. in the decades after WWII, but in this mythology, that period—from 1948 to the present—is called the Shadowstorm, a time of insidious covert and overt spying among the Four powers. Each country has its own elite forces who have become a shadowy, but violent, part of life. In each book, information related to the world-building is occasionally inserted into the story line in the form of historical summaries, pertinent reports and memos, and sections from a technical manual of defense technology. 

     The Shadowstorm is not a war of armies; it is a war of stealth. Led by the Germans, the Four have used biotechnology to develop teams of superspies, covert agents who are highly trained and technologically enhanced. These superspies are called Levels. There are seven common types of specialists within the Levels: Infiltrator, Protector, Interceptor, Vindicator, Malefactor, and Liberator. (Brief descriptions of each level can be found on page 21 of Blades of Winter.)

     The series heroine is Alixandra Janina Nico (aka Alix, aka Scarlether field name), who begins the series at age nineteen as an ExOps Level 4 Interceptor, but by the end of book 1, she has been promoted to a Level 8. An Interceptor carries out "short and medium-length insertions, usually on foreign soil. An Interceptor typically works with an intelligence-enhanced partner known as an Information Operator [IO]." (Blades of Winterp. 21) Although Alix is small in stature, she is a quick learner and a tenacious fighter and has risen through the ranks of the Levels very quickly. As Alix says, "I took to guns the way a senator takes to interns." (Blades of Winterp. 129) She has spent the past eight years in Expo's youth training camp, Authentically Gifted Operatives General Education (AGOGE, nicknamed Camp A-Go-Go). Alix's father (Philip Nico, field nameBig Bertha, nicknamethe Beast) was the highest ranked Level (20) at the time of his capture and presumed execution by the Germans eight years ago. Now Alix is poised to match or even exceed her father in skill and courage. As the series opens, Alix lives in Crystal City, Virginia (near Arlington) with her mother, who works in Administration at ExOps. 

     Each Level has had a number of Mods and Enhances. Here, Alix explains: "Mods are generally hardware, like my electrohydraulically accelerated joints or the nano ligaments that hold my limbs together while I leap tall buildings in a single bound. Enhances tend to be soft upgrades centered around my augmented nervous system. The heart of this system is called a neuroinjector, which manages the flow of drugs that help me react quickly and deal with stressful situations without losing my mind." (Blades of Winterp. 9) Here, Alix describes her knees: "My knees look perfectly normal if you only take a quick look. A closer inspection reveals that there isn't any skin there, only flesh-colored metal and plastic. My ankles and elbows are the same way…." (Blades of Winterp. 10) Alix carries a smartalmost sentientgun that can adjust the caliber and speed of bullets depending on her situation.  

     In the U.S., the Levels work for the Extreme Operations Division (aka ExOps). As Alix explains, ExOps "is a non-public-facing U.S. intelligence agency that specializes in, well, extreme operations. Missions range from high-security black bag jobs to whacking well-protected people. When one of the aboveground U.S. agencies needs an especially nasty job done, it calls us." (Blades of Winter, p. 7)     

            NOVEL 1:  Blades of Winter            
     As the series opens, Alix's father has been dead for eight years, and she is trying to live up to his reputation as the toughest, most deadly Level in ExOps. She maintains an arrogant, confident outlook and is sure of her abilities as an assassin and spy. One day when a Level 12 calls in sick, she finagles her way into taking his "Creep 'n Peep" assignment, even though she is only a Level 4. That assignment is to covertly follow a target who is a former Russian Level, now retired. As Alix sits across a restaurant from him and his companion, the companion begins to shoot at her. Eventually, this supposedly simple observation job turns into a major shoot-out between Alix and the companion's support team, which includes a helicopter and ground support. After Alix escapes and returns home safely, the repercussions of her escapade ripple through ExOps because her involvement in this supposedly simple assignment uncovers a major conspiracy with far-reaching causes and effects.

     Both the mythology and the plot are extremely complex, but if you just follow Alix and trust her reliable narration (in her cocky, arrogant first-person voice), she will pull you though to the fiery conclusion. Alix and her IO, Patrick (aka Trick, field name—Solomon), travel back and forth between the U.S., Paris, and the Middle East as they try to determine why some mysterious, but inept, Russians are trying to kill Alix and how her father's final assignment is involved in this current brouhaha. In battle scenes, Alix is kind of like a superhero from the X-Men pantheon with her powerful weaponry, enhanced senses, and prosthetic limbs. She leaps; she slashes; she shoots; she jumps off buildings; and she blows things up—all with astonishing speed and accuracy. Nearly every assignment ends with Alix being hospitalized for horrendous injuries, some of which require new prosthetics to replace human parts that get mangled or blown off. Through it all, Alix is like the iconic Energizer Bunny: she just keeps going and going and going.

     Alix and Patrick are not only partners, but lovers. They are extremely close and have even developed their own sign language that they use during their various capers. On and off the job, they "comm" (communicate through surgically implanted phones) each other constantly. Patrick is the brains—the tech wizard, so to speak. He frequently stays off-scene, guiding Alix through cities and/or buildings by using schematic information so accurate that it shows blueprints of every building Alix enters. He follows her GPS signal through the building and directs her where to turn, where to hide, and where her target is located.

     A second male character also plays an important role: Raj, a Level 9 Vindicator who carries some major weaponry. At first, Alix and Raj are antagonistic towards one another, but by the end of book 1, they have become allies. As Alix explains their early relationship, "We were both hopped-up, psychotically competitive youths with more pride than sense." (p. 17) Will Raj develop into a love interest? It's too soon to tell.

     Eventually, the plot branches into two related story lines, a German cloning operation called the Carbon Program and an oil-related scheme being perpetrated by the Blades of Persia, an anti-German group in Saudi Arabia. Spies, counterspies, terrorists, traitors, rebels—this book has them all.

     Alix is a terrific character (if you can just get past her egotism). As she suffers through one bloody, violent battle after another, she develops PTSD and begins to rely more and more on alcohol and drugs to keep her calm and steady. Alix has promised herself that she won't become alcohol and drug-dependent like her father, but already she is slipping into his way of dealing with the high stress of being a Level. By the end of the book, she is having frequent nightmares and, even worse, hallucinating—seeing enemies who aren't there—and she's afraid to admit to her superiors that she needs treatment. All she can think of is finding out what really happened to her father and taking down the villain who set him up to be captured. The villains in the story are numerous and complex. Some do what they do for personal reasons having to do with events of the past, and who is to say that they are totally wrong in what they do. Others are more traditional, one-dimensional bad guys who are in it for the power or because they want to cover up their bad deeds while still maintaining their positions of power. The author does a great job with the difficult first-person voice. Alix is quite a character, and her narration is just as hyperactive as her fighting skills. To give you an idea of her voice and tone, she describes her escape from hordes of enemy soldiers in a violent and bloody car chase through the middle of Riyadh as "the Slaytona 500 we just smeared across the city." (p. 327)

     This is the beginning of what looks to be a great seriesfull of fast-paced excitement carried out by interesting characters. Almasi's alternate world is meticulously constructed and well-explained. I'm looking forward to book 2.

     WARNING: The review of Hammer of Angels (below) contains     
     SPOILERS for those of you who haven't read Blades of Winter.     

            NOVEL 2:  Hammer of Angels            
     The second book begins three months after the end of book 1. By now, Alix has gotten used to the fact that her new partner is a clone. She was shocked to learn that her previous partner was also a clone. There are actually three "Patrick" clones, each with a different middle name. Her first partner (and lover) was Patrick Allan Owens, who was killed in book 1. Her current partner is Patrick Brandon Owens. The third brother is Patrick Charles Owen, and he currently works in Japan as a strategic analyst. The three were part of an early American cloning program, but when that program was defunded, the three boys were raised as identical triplets by a childless couple. After her initial shock at meeting Patrick Brandon, Alix decides to call him Brando (because of his middle name and because he loves The Godfather). She tries to keep her grief for Trick in check and eventually forms a close (very close) relationship with her new Patrick, whose field name is Darwin.

     Life has been full of shocks for Alix lately. Her fatherpresumed dead for eight yearsis alive, but in the hands of the Germans in a cloning facility. Jakob Fredericks, the American traitor who sold him out is now the top advisor to the U.S. president (Reagan) and can't be held accountable for his actionsmostly because he has so much dirt on government higher-ups that they're afraid of him.

     In Blades of Winter, Alix and Patrick created some major problems in U.S.-German foreign relations when they were instrumental in the destruction of a cloning laboratory in Zurich and a terrorist base in Riyadh that was masquerading as a research facility. These two events caused massive property damage and the loss of many lives, including a large group of German youth who were supposed to have cleared the laboratory building before a missile struck it. Now, Germany is threatening to withdraw from the North Atlantic Alliance and join the Pan-Asian Pact, which would pit Germany, Russia, and China against the U.S. Not to worry, though, because the government has come up with a cunning plan called Operation Angel (an acronym for Affected Naturalization of Germany's Enslaved Labor). The goal of this operation is to "temporarily destabilize the Reich by instigating a revolt among the slave population in Europe, beginning in England." (chapter 4) In this alternate world, the Nazis did not kill millions of Jews in concentration camps. Instead, they forced all Jews to have the Star of David tattooed around one of their eyes and then enslaved them. As part of the Operation Angel plan, teams of ExOps agents will infiltrate Europe, connecting with underground Jewish resistance groups to assist in instigating widespread revolts against the German government. Then, when the German government asks for U.S. aid in quelling the rebellion, the U.S. will offer assistance if and when Germany rejoins the North Atlantic Alliance. When Germany follows through on this, the U.S. will then withdraw its covert agentsall without Germany realizing that the Americans were the true instigators of the rebellion. Truly a cold-hearted planone that uses the enslaved Jews in a bait and switch scheme that will leave them without support when the U.S. gets what it wants from the German government. (Don't worry, thoughlike all government plans, Operation Angel doesn't work as expected.)

     Alix, Brando, and Raj are sent to England as one of the ExOps teams that will begin the rebellion. Alix is now a Level 9, just like Raj, and she is the team leader. From this point on, the plot plays out as a series of quick and dirty battles in which the ExOps team always slaughters the German soldiers, sometimes getting injured, but always recovering in time to for the next fight. After causing as much trouble as possible in England, Alix and Brando head for France to meet up with a new resistance group. When you get to the CORE report on their French contact, Garbo, be sure to read it carefully to learn just who Garbo really is. While in France, the group picks up a new sidekick, but I can't give you any information about him without a spoiler. Just be prepared for a shocker when you learn his identity. In addition to attacking German government facilities, Alix and her team also destroy a lot of property belonging to members of the Purity League, a thuggish group of anti-Semitic bigots who long for the days when Hitler was still in control.

     During one of their raids, Alix has another "conversation" with her father, whom she now knows is still alive. These spiritual conversations began in book 1, when Alix's gun began speaking to her in her father's voice. (The gun is named Li'l Bertha because it had belonged to her father, whose field name was Big Bertha). Problematically, Alix is also having horrific nightmares and is seeing hallucinations more and more frequently. During her adventures in this book, she even spaces out a few times, losing mental contact with reality in the midst of battle (not that it slows her down much).

     This is a comic-book of a plot, with one battle after another filled with disintegrating bodies, gushing blood, spurting brains, broken skulls, severed limbs (and heads)you get the picture. But since the action moves at breakneck speed, the gory scenes fly by too quickly for you to dwell on the carnage. Also, each battle is very different from the previous one. In one situation, Brando turns into MacGyver as he makes smoke bombs out of Coke cans, ping pong balls, and a bit of gun powder. In another scene, Alix and another agent kill two boatloads of enemy attackers by swimming out to them underwater armed only with knives. This is like every action movie or action comic you ever sawa riveting series of unbelievable exploits carried out by one young girl and her loyal and lethal buddies. Eventually, Operation Angel is so successful that it develops a mind of its own. As Alix says, ExOps is "a million-dollar murder machine designed to help topple whole governments," (chapter 5) and she's not wrong in the case of Project Angel.

     With its insanely fast pace and unkillable super-heroine, this book is a page-turner that you won't want to stop reading until you get to the last page of the requisite showdown scene and the tear-jerker of a reunion that follows. Almasi is a skilled writer who has come up with a terrific heroine and a great supporting cast of characters, each of whom has his or her own well-defined personality. I recommend this series for all of you who love action-heavy plots and don't mind a big dose of blood-and-guts annihilation. It even has some dark humor as Alix and her team engage in noir repartee during and in between battles.

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