After an all-too lengthy hiatus, our Book of the Month Club is back. Let me get the ball rolling by offering up my thoughts on this month’s title…
The year is 2108, and the North American Commonwealth is bursting at the seams. For welfare rats like Andrew Grayson, there are only two ways out of the crime-ridden and filthy welfare tenements, where you’re restricted to two thousand calories of badly flavored soy every day:
You can hope to win the lottery and draw a ticket on a colony ship settling off-world, or you can join the service.
With the colony lottery a pipe dream, Andrew chooses to enlist in the armed forces for a shot at real food, a retirement bonus, and maybe a ticket off Earth. But as he starts a career of supposed privilege, he soon learns that the good food and decent health care come at a steep price…and that the settled galaxy holds far greater dangers than military bureaucrats or the gangs that rule the slums.
Military SF in the vein of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War but minus Scalzi’s trademark humor and colorful characters. To be fair, Scalzi is in a class all his own and the comparison is perhaps unfair, but Terms of Enlistment invites it on the similarities of its narrative elements and the strength of its highly detailed, wholly involving extended action sequences. In the case of the latter, it brings to mind another stylistically similar, equally engaging military SF series: David Weber’s Honor Harrington books. Kloos is at his very best in the heat of battle. Whether its street-level urban combat, engagements against aliens on off-world terrain, or space-based skirmishes, he does a masterful job immersing the reader in the various conflicts. And the fact that these varied conflicts comprise fully the last two-thirds of the novel makes for some very compelling reading. However –
Getting there is a bit of a chore because the first (battle-free) third of the book, from our hero’s introduction through his military training, is frustratingly deficient in characterization. We are introduced to our protagonist, Andrew Grayson, his motivations for enlisting (to escape a life of Earth-bound poverty), his relationship with mother (he loves her) and father (he hates him), but aren’t offered much beyond these fairly broad strokes. He undergoes intense training, meets a fellow cadet, tries his best not to fall in love, misses her when she’s assigned to a different branch – but it’s a lot of surface with little depth. And consistently serious. Just a touch of humor would have gone a long way towards humanizing these characters and making them more appealing. The same goes for the supporting players, cadets and veterans mostly distinguished by their physical traits, who come and go with no real consequence. It’s hard to grieve for someone you never really knew, and just as hard to root for someone you fail to connect with. As a result, the horrors of war depicted later in the book don’t resonate as strongly, landing more on the side of viscerally alarming than emotionally impactful, while the chapters dedicated to Andrew’s time in training feel like a long rev in low gear. But –
When Andrew is finally stationed Earthside, things really pick up, and not just in terms of the action. Beyond the life or death stakes are the moral implications of urban warfare against one’s fellow citizens and the ethical grey zone of collateral damage. I say “ethical grey zone” because, at one point in the novel, Andrew uses lethal – it could be argued excessive – force to take out an enemy sniper, killing many innocents in the process. In his mind, he was justified. His superiors, however, are somewhat less inclined to forgive his actions slide because of the optics are so bad. It’s an interesting issue that gets resolved all too quickly and Andrew is shipped off into space to continue his service. It feels like a missed opportunity and emblematic of the book as a whole. Kloos is a terrific writer and the pieces are there for a riveting, deeply resonating masterpiece of military SF, but Terms of Enlistment never rises to its full potential. Once we’re into the meat of the story, it’s fast-paced and absorbing, but never poignant or thought-provoking.
Overall, an enjoyable read but not one that stayed with me.
So, what did you all think? Let’s discuss.