(It’s late, I’m just back from vacation, and this review is nearly 4,500 words. Just to warn you: I’m not proof-reading this.)
Earth is small and insignificant. Humanity doesn’t matter.
This series is set about a hundred and fifty years in the future. Earth has been forcibly pulled into a vast and cold Galactic Empire, where all the power and decision making exists at the center of the galaxy. Earth is a backwater on the frontier, marking a sharp divergence from typical science fiction, where humanity is the center of the universe. Here, we’re just mercenaries for a larger and far more powerful group of alien civilizations with which we don’t really even have contact. In the Empire, every world needs a trade good, and huamnity’s only valuable commodity is violence.
These books are military science fiction, in the vein of Starship Troopers or The Forever War. And while they undoubtedly owe a great deal to the Vietnam-era novels of yesteryear, there’s an unmistakable relevance to more modern conflicts. Beyond the cold, distant power forcing people to give their lives on an alien world for Imperial financial gain, high level corruption permeates the government. It’s kind of hard to not think of recent American administrations.
Which isn’t to say these books are necessarily a dig at the US government. I don’t get that impression. And I can’t really even begin to guess at the politics of Larson. But I don’t think these are really trying to copy the writers who no doubt influenced BV Larson. They feel more contemporary than that.
I haven’t been able to find out much about the author, but these books feel pretty authentic (I say as a civilian). I don’t know if he was ever in the military, but he had to have at least done a good bit of research. My dad was a lifer in the Army, and I’ve known a lot of veterans, and the personalities in these books feel like military people to me. They way they interact with one another, and the way they look at life just feels authentic.
Overall, I found these books to be both engaging and familiar without getting stale. It’s not necessarily that there’s a formula to these books, but Larson knows what he’s doing. And the dude writes. He’s a workhorse. His first book was published in 2010, and he’s since written more than fifty books. That’s….impossible to comprehend. I don’t know what the overall quality is of his work, but they’re all as good as these books, that’s phenomenally prolific.
Steel World(2013) – 4 stars
James McGill is in college, but his parents have lost their jobs and are out of money. So he does what any decent human would do: join the military to fight for the Galactic Empire. Among the many limitations placed on worlds by the Empire is that every planet in the empire is allowed one trade item. If member worlds can’t find a trade good, the planet will be cleansed of life. For Earth, that item is mercenaries. The money these military units bring in is used to buy (among many other things) technology that returns soldiers to life. These soldiers join legions, which are set up to mirror the Roman military. McGill joins Legion Varus, named in honor of Publius Quintilius Varus, the Roman general who died with three Roman legions at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
So there’s a lot of death in these books. Characters die so much in these books, it almost has an Edge of Tomorrow feel to it. While I don’t particularly have a problem with this element of the story, it basically makes death a meaningless component to combat. It happens all the time, and everyone returns to life, so it doesn’t matter. And I’m kind of disappointed that the impacts of this isn’t really explored. I mean, it’s certainly talked about: soldiers are less concerned with restraint because they know that they’ll get revived if their lines get broken – but the psychological impact of so much pain and death isn’t touch on. At least not in the first couple books.
McGill is a mostly likable protagonist. He’s a bit of a cad and driven less by his intelligence than his…baser instincts. This does get a bit old after awhile – I mean, how many times do these women have to get screwed over before they tell him to go to hell? But I, at least, am not terribly fussed about it. Results may vary.
Steel World is rich in raw minerals, and is inhabited by an advanced race of dinosaur-like beings. They’ve paid to have Legion Varus come in an suppress an uprising at a mine, but it quickly becomes apparent that something far larger and more dangerous is taking place here.
Dust World (2014) – 3.5 stars
This go ’round, McGill and company have been sent to find the human colony that left earth a mere handful of years before contact with the Galactics. Under Empire rules, members aren’t allowed to colonize the galaxy. Doing so results in pretty much the only punishment Galactics have: extinction. Naturally, Earth wants to locate this colony, so they send Legion Varus to locate them and ensure that the Galactics never find out. The colonists are entirely ignorant of the existence of the Empire, so they don’t even know that they, by being on another planet, are in violation of Galactic law, and therefore threatening the existence of humanity itself.
Following the events of the last book, Earth has lost its contract on Steel World – which was far and away the most lucrative planet Earth had dealings with. So the Earth economy is sliding into a recession, and everyone blames Legion Varus for screwing up a good situation. But no one really knows what happened there, only that Varus was the last legion on the planet. Since McGill was at the center of events, he’s receiving some flack for the fallout.
When Legion Varus arrives on Dust World, they discover that there are actually two worlds in this star system: the titular one and another one covered by tropical oceans teeming with life. It doesn’t take them long to figure out that the ocean world is home to a highly advanced squid-like species that has been enslaving the colonists. These beings serve as the primary antagonists in the book (though the colonists aren’t entirely happy to be reunited with Earth), and are more threatening than the Saurians from Steel World.
The formula for these books is pretty clear at this point: Legion Varus is going to be sent into a terrible situation that no other legion can deal with. McGill is going to fall into the center of the action, do something stupid that gets him into a lot of trouble and puts the existence of humanity at risk, but he’ll do something miraculous to fix (or at least cover up) the problem. He’ll get chewed out, but promoted. And he’ll sleep with every woman he comes across (and they’re all beautiful). These books are entertaining, and the world building is pretty interesting, but I’m not a huge fan of the formula. And the women seem to only exist for McGill to have sex with.
Tech World (2014) – 3 stars
Legion Varus has been sent here as punishment for McGill’s actions in the last book. While, overall, Earth is in a far better position within the galaxy thanks to McGill and Varus (they’ve been upgraded to Enforcers from Mercenaries, bringing both higher status and more wealth), McGill has a tendency to piss people off. He goes off script and can’t follow even the most basic of orders. That the end result is typically beneficial to the legion and Earth is often secondary.
Tech World is a cush job, and Legion Germanica has held it for a number of years. Used to being in situations where they’re risking permanent death on almost every mission, Legion Varus is pretty out of their element here. Germanica provides Varus with a guide, Adjunct Claver, to the planet, and he quickly reveals himself to be an unreliable and traitorous heel. He’s a good foil for McGill, though, because they’re kind of two sides of the same coin in many ways.
Things quickly go south on Tech World, as the population rises up and starts rioting. It’s worse than it sounds, though, because there are millions of citizens involved in the riot, and it seems like they’re being controlled by an outside force.
We’re three books into this series, and while I do find it entertaining and interesting, there has been no growth or even substantial change in McGill. In the beginning, he was a reasonably likable man-whore. Now, he’s less likable, but still a man-whore. And with the same women. The women in these books all have a thin personality over the exact same core: they’re all beautiful and seem incapable of resisting McGill because…..he’s the protagonist and they were written to want him, I guess. I don’t buy any of the relationships. They want to have sex with him because they’re supposed to.
There’s a scene in As Good As It Gets that I think about far more often than I probably should. A female fan stops the Jack Nicholson character and praises him for his portrayal of women, asking him how he writes women so well. He says, “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” It’s a great line. I mean, insane and sexist – but witty. It’s always stuck with me, though, because it gets to a fundamental issue in entertainment (how women are handled by mostly male writers) and handles it as a joke (women are insane, ha ha).
I don’t think anyone is going to ask BV Larson the question this character asked Melvin Udall in As Good as It Gets, but I’ve always felt like it’s a question every writer should ask themselves. And not just specifically about female characters (though, they probably deserve some special attention, because I think we, as a culture, as prone to seeing women a certain way, it’s long past time we revisit those expectations), but about all characters.
The characters in these books are like alien races in Star Trek: they represent a facet of humanity (greed, recklessness, ambition, violence, intelligence….). But, that’s just not how people are. People are rounded, and complex. Even the simplest among of us have depth. The characters in these books don’t. McGill is a reckless cad who plays by his own rules. Galina Turov (the highest ranking main character in the legion) is ruthlessly ambitious and….has a killer ass. Veteran Harris (McGill’s direct superior for much of the series) is professional, skilled, competent and doesn’t like McGill. Carlos Ortiz (McGill’s best friend) is a loudmouth who annoys everyone.
These aren’t characters, they’re embodied character traits.
And the women are even less well-rounded than the men.
Probably a 4-star book, but the poor characterization is just too noticeable to ignore.
Machine World (2015) – 3 stars
The squid-like alien race from Dust World are shaping up to be the main antagonists for the series (apart from the empire itself). As the Galactic Empire is starting to unravel, it’s withdrawing from the frontier, leaving Earth to fend for itself. The squids, or the Cephalopod Kingdom, border Frontier 921 (of which Earth is a part), and Legion Varus has been sent to a planet just a few light years away. The planet is mineral rich, and inhabited by native machine life. But the machines aren’t really the problem, here. The squids want this planet because of its high mineral content and its proximity to the Empire’s border.
So Earth wants it, too.
But everything kind of comes together, here. Adjunct Claver (now a renegade, fleeing permanent death and acting entirely on his own) is seeking revenge against McGill and Legion Varus for ruining his plans on Tech World. It turns out he may have been behind the events of Steel World, as well, and now that Earth has been upgraded to enforcers, the Saurians from Steel World have finally gotten their wish and are serving the empire as mercenaries (which was what they wanted in the first book).
Saurians, squids, Adjunct Claver….this book pulls everything together.
Its too bad the characters haven’t progressed as well. The only difference is that McGill is focused less on Natasha, and more an Anne Grant, with Turov still hovering in the background, and Della still pops up every now and then.
Reading through reviews on Goodreads, it seems like I share the general consensus of these books: they’re pretty entertaining books for what they are, but the women are poorly constructed and frustrating. How seriously you take that pretty much dictates how you rank the books. If that’s a deal-breaker for you, don’t bother reading these books. If you can take questionable characterization for a good story, then these books might be worth it for you.
I will say, it doesn’t seem like many women read these books. It’d be nice if you could see the demographic breakdown for ratings like you can on IMDb. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if these books (which have ratings between 3.97 and 4.50) if they were rated significantly lower by women.
So, in between books four and five, I’ve taken a break to do a little research on BV Larson. The main thing I wanted to know was if he has a military background, because that feels like the most authentic part of these books.
He started writing in the 90s, as a teen, and despite a few successful short story publications, didn’t have much success. But he kept at it, and in 2010 began self-publishing previously rejected books on Kindle. Since then, he’s purportedly gone on to sell more than a million copies of his books, has 18 professionally made audiobooks (all on Audible), and is published in four languages, all while still being mostly self-published. By any estimation, he’s been a success. He’s a college professor, as well, but hints that he only keeps his day job because he has “a lot of kids and payments.”
It’s worth noting that I’ve never heard of him, met anyone who’s heard of him, and he has no reviews on CBR (not that we’re the barometer by which literary success should be judged, being the small community that we are).
But there are a couple things I found that jump out at me. First, he’s tried getting professionally published and either not been successful (prior to his indie success), or hasn’t been happy with the royalties he was offered. This seems odd, to me, so I decided to do a little back of the envelope calculations.
Now, I freely admit to being wholly ignorant of the economics of book publishing – but I imagine there’s a world of difference between between self-publishing your book on Kindle and signing a contract with a publishing house. Let’s imagine two authors that sell 10,000 copies of their book, one independently published on the Kindle, the other published through a large firm. According to Larson, the standard royalty rate an author is likely to receive is 7%, but he (if I’m understanding him correctly) gets 70% from his Kindle sales.
Ok. Let’s assume he’s selling his Kindle books for $1.99 (that’s actually a few dollars off his sale price, but I think most indie authors can’t sell their books for $5.99, and when you consider Kindle Unlimited, he’s not making that much off each download). A 70% royalty from that would be just shy of $14,000. Now let’s consider what similar sales from a traditional publisher would be. I’m obviously talking out of my ass a bit, here, but if an author is likely to get 7% from book sales from a traditional publisher, and he sells 10,000 copies of his book, I’m guess he’d still make more money. According to this article, 2014 book sales were 23% e-book, 42% paperback, and 25% hardback (I guess the other 10% is audiobooks?). I think it’s safe to assume those numbers have shifted a bit since then, so let’s assume 30, 38, and 22, respectively. I’m going to guess at average prices here, we’ll go with the same 1.99 ebook price, 6.99 for paperback, and 28.99 for hardback. If 10,000 books from a traditional publisher are sold, and the author gets 7% of sales (25% for ebooks), that nets the author slightly less than $8,000.
Well. Color me shocked. $14k is definitely better than $8k.
But – does Larson have to pay out of his own pocket for the book cover, audiobook, editor, and everything else that goes into making and marketing his books? I mean, how much work would I have to do to get my book noticed by the market after I’ve written it, and how much of my own money would I have to spend to put out a quality product?
I don’t know. But Larson apparently still think he’s doing better than he would’ve been without a big publisher.
The second thing that jumped out at me was that Larson considers himself an entertainer, first and foremost. His sole purpose in writing these books is to create something that people enjoy. Now, I don’t have a problem with that – good for him. As a reader, I’m drawn more towards entertaining fiction than I am cerebral, literary fiction. But his insistence that he isn’t “expressing himself” in his writing seems…well, like something that shouldn’t be bragged about. As I a reader (and I recognize that not everyone is this way), I may want something entertaining, yes, but I also want something reflective of the world around me. And I specifically want to experience the world through the eyes of the author. It’s nice to turn everything off for a little bit and disappear into fantasy, but I’m still doing so with the understanding that the world I’m disappearing into was created with a certain vision. What Larson seems to be saying is that he doesn’t have any coherent vision – everything is created in service to the entertainment value he thinks it has, which means nothing is sacred.
I find that sad, and it explains why these books – as entertaining as they are – always feel a little empty to me. I guess Larson isn’t putting anything of himself into them, they exist strictly to entertain, to occupy the reader’s time effectively. Let me repeat: that is a worthwhile goal – but that doesn’t mean it has to be the only goal. Plenty of authors entertain through the lens with which they see the world. I don’t think Stephen King is less entertaining because he so ably packages his worldview for public consumption.
I read in another interview (which I can’t find, unfortunately) that Larson sought to write books that would appeal to young (25-35) men, because he felt that they were an untapped market. I don’t think I’m misrepresenting what he said. And maybe we can give him some benefit of the doubt here, and say that he seemed to be saying that he never felt, at that age, that books were written for him. They were written for a literary elite, or for a younger audience, or whatever. I didn’t get the impression he’s part of the incel, gamergate, or the Hugo Award controversy from a couple years ago (led by Larry Correia and Vox Day), but it had the flavor of those arguments.
Although I don’t specifically think Larson is an alt-right wacko, there’s no denying that the women he writes are problematic and (four books into this series) there appears to be no improvement.
Death World (2015) – 3 stars
Death is such a throw-away part of these books. Characters die, get revived, and die again in an endless cycle, making it impossible to really care when they are backed into a corner, surrounded by impossible enemies. So what if they die? They’ll catch a revive and be back in the fight. On its face, I don’t have a problem with the creative choice, but it does limit the amount of drama these books can have. Why should I care that someone just got eaten by a giant alien dinosaur? They don’t actually die. It’s just another day at the office. That death is so commonplace, moreover, results in very little exploration of what death means for the characters. They still experience having their body ripped apart by hordes of ravening monsters. Those memories stay with them. But they aren’t changed because of it.
If Larson was more interested in writing a good book (rather than just an entertaining one), some interesting things could be done with this universe he’s created.
McGill and Co. are on a heavily forested planet this go ’round, chasing a ship that was responsible for a devastating terror attack on Earth that killed upwards of 30,000 people. They encounter a new (this is par for the course) species which threatens all of humanity. The overall story has advanced to the point where humanity is no longer an irrelevant species in some backwater on the frontier of the galaxy. They’re now a moderately powerful species on the frontier of the galaxy. The Galactics still don’t really care about Earth, but they’ve been granted a modicum of control over their region of the empire.
In Death World, the legions have been sent outside of the empire for the first time, and they learn more about the burgeoning threat that is the Cephalopod Kingdom.
Home World (2016) – 4 stars
Well, so much for characters being killed off for real. As it turns out, McGill’s parents weren’t killed in the last book. Good for them, but that’s a bummer. I was beginning to think there was some real danger in these books.
And then….there kind of is. I mean, not for the main characters. They’ll just get revived, or end up not really being dead in the first place. But Home World is a departure from the formula of these books. Instead of traveling to some distant planet to fight some terrible enemy, the enemies have come to Earth. The Cephalopod Kingdom has finally taken the fight to humanity.
While the book is filled with all of the same problems I’ve had throughout this series, this is probably the best book I’ve read so far – if for not other reason than the plot wasn’t quite so predictable.
Rogue World (2017) 3.5 stars
Here’s the book:
James McGill is on Earth, as his previous campaign has wrapped up (against all odds), thanks to his ability to bullshit himself out of any situation. Hes’ in the shed in his parents back yard (which he’s converted to a home). Someone (probably a woman) sneaks into his shed. Maybe they try to kill each other, maybe they don’t. Either way, they have sex. Then something happens, and McGill has to report for duty – which everyone else has done, but he hasn’t been paying attention to communique’s from Central, so he’s late. There’s a special mission he needs to go on, because there’s a new threat targeting Earth. Maybe the Galactics have learned of some crime humanity has committed. Maybe the squids are back. Whatever it is, Legion Varus is on call, and McGill will be at the center of it. And he’ll be having sex and will be full of shit. Eventually, after everything has gone wrong and at there have been a few double crosses along the way (and Claver!), McGill will luck/bullshit his way to victory and acclaim! But not without being threatened with permanent death first.
That’s pretty much every book.
It’s kind of disappointing to return to the formula after Home World, which has been the book least like the others in the series.
McGill and Co are sent to Rogue World, a former planet in the Cephalopod Kingdom peopled by the human hybrids responsible for most of the squid tech that was so advanced. The humans of Dust World who were being captured and turned into slave soldiers were also, apparently, being turned into slave scientists. They are supremely intelligent, and have tech on par with the Galactics. The Galactic battle fleet has been sent back to Earth’s region of space in response to the expansion of Earth’s influence since the collapse of the Cephalopod Kingdom after the events of the last book. Varus has been sent to quell Rogue World, which has rebelled against human control.
Blood World (2017) 4 stars
Fatigue has set in. I’m 4,000 words into this review. I’ve read more than 3,000 pages (or 100+ hours of audiobook). And all of these books are the same. The story progresses, don’t get me wrong – but the characters don’t. James McGill is the same roguish slut he was in the first book.
And it’s just….tiring.
This go-round, Legion Varus is sent to Rogue World – home of the pseudo-humans previously enslaved by the squids to be used as soldiers in the Cephalopod Kingdom’s armies. Now that the Kingdom has collapsed, Earth needs to pad its ranks with quick and ready soldiers.
McGill’s family has never been a big part of the books, but it’s weird to me that his daughter (Etta) and her mother (Della) are virtually completely excluded from these books. Like, why even introduce the if they don’t play a role in McGill’s life?
Dark World (2018) 4 stars
Earth needs a forward operating base to build a fleet. As their sphere of influence expands to cover more worlds, they are struggling to protect what they’ve conquered. Dark World is chosen because it has a large, advanced space dock. In this book, McGill becomes a kind of mentor to a roguish young man. That’s a pretty cool little twist to the story, even if it’s not overly developed.
TL;DR: These books are a space opera in which no one actually dies (permanently), and the main character is a pathological liar who cares about only two things: fighting and sleeping with hot women. I hate James McGill, the protagonist. I kind of hate all the characters, actually. But, somehow, I kind of like these books. They are fast-paced, and the story is interesting – even if the books tend to follow the same formula.