TLDR: The witty, grizzled, brilliant hero of this military sci-fi is so complex and real, you can’t wait for the facts of his mystery to smack him across the face.
I picked up Planetside in part because I know the author through social media and #Pitchwars, and in part, because with my own science fiction debut coming out in a few months, I have a hunger for more action-packed spaceship stories. Michael Mammay is a veteran himself, so I knew that Planetside was going to be one of those deeply authentic and visceral military sci-fi books that grab you by the throat and pummel you into the alien dirt as characters you care about fight for their lives and watch everyone die horrible deaths around them.
I was bamboozled.
Planetside is not just a hard-hitting action book. It has action in spades, but it’s got more than tactics and strategy. Planetside is both a brilliant political thriller and a missing-person mystery dressed in the trappings of a military science fiction book. The book is as much about solving a deeply unsettling mystery and unraveling conspiracies as it is about staying alive in an active war zone.
The summary: Colonel Carl Butler is pulled out of retirement to track down a missing politician’s son. The kid was injured in battle on wartorn Cappa, was evacuated, and then never arrived at the hospital. Butler is a proven veteran with connections in the command, so it should be easy for him to suss out what happened to the missing soldier. These common trappings fall away, though, as soon as Butler arrives on Cappa. No one will cooperate with his investigation, everyone seems to have their own motives, and even the war itself reflects new light as Butler investigates what happened planetside.
The book it fast-paced and efficient, using each scene to convey staggering amounts of information in a way that is both clean and convoluted. Every time Butler (and the reader) learns something new, the mystery deepens, and facts that were taken as given are turned on their heads. It’s an incredibly accessible story, but remains unpredictable.
The main reason for this is because Mammay invests so much in his characters. Carl Butler is a grizzled war veteran who is both professional and slightly irreverent. (Okay, maybe more than slightly, but he knows his job, respects the military, and always, always nods to the chain of command as he slides past it to do what he needs to do.) He has a dry sense of humor, a head for complicated situations, and a strong moral compass —if he could only find North. He is the kind of hands-on guy who wants to be thrown into the action, in part so he can piss off enough people to get at the truth. In fact, that’s his favorite way to uncover truths: by messing up badly enough that the facts smack him across the face.
And that’s not to insinuate that Butler is in any way an incompetent or unintelligent character. He is incredibly intuitive, intelligent, and empathetic. He knows when people are lying to him, he knows how to work people to get at the truth, and he draws connections between disparate pieces of information so well, it’s a wonder he didn’t launch himself into his own detective agency. The man knows how to get to the root of the matter.
Still, his mistakes are what make him so relatable, and the story Mammay weaves so good. Butler is smart, but so are the people who surround him. He is so busy sometimes drawing conclusions and tracing patterns in the truths and lies that surround him, that he forgets that everyone around him has agency, too. A less effective writer would allow Butler’s brilliance to take center stage and have him tying up loose ends by the middle of the book. Mammay is more than happy to remind his hero that the world is full of brilliant people, and their aims don’t always line up with one’s own. Butler has to contend with the fact that he’s not always the smartest person in the room, and without all the facts, it’s easy for his antagonists to get the jump on him.
I really don’t want to spoil the ending, but I will say around the end third of the book, Planetside seems to be rolling downhill, gaining momentum and heading for an explosive ending. Butler finds himself in a terrible situation with absolutely no good way out, but he faces it head on in one of the more daring decisions of his career. It’s a decision that is hard to applaud but equally hard to question; Butler is a man who chooses a course and follows through, ready to face the consequences no matter what. It’s both admirable and infuriating and everything I want in a complex hero.
I couldn’t wait for the sequel Spaceside, so it’s a good thing I had both on hand before I even started the first book. I should have the review for the sequel up within the next day or so, but check out below for a cocktail pairing for Planetside.
Continue below for the Pairing for Planetside:
Let’s be clear: Colonel Carl Butler drinks whiskey: straight or with a splash of water to open it up. He doesn’t take the time to mix things up with other liquors, bitters, or anything. The idea of mixing up a cocktail is anathema to the whole idea of drinking for the good Colonel. But if I just wanted to suggest liquors to pair with your book, I’d hand you a bottle of MacCallan and let you have at it.
That’s not what I’m about here. I’m specifically into cocktails, traditional, unique, craft, whatever. I want you to try something more complex than what the characters themselves would drink. So, my message to Colonel Butler? Branch out. And maybe slow down.
For this pairing I went with something classic with something a little more complex, a cocktail that complements Butler’s blunt brusque initial manner but is softened by his general desire to do the right thing. The Rob Roy combines the straightforward scotch whiskey with sweet vermouth and a splash of bitters for a drink that is both well-rounded and classic, but lets face it, it’s not got the complexity of a Manhattan. (Don’t worry, Butler gets there in the next book!)
.75 oz sweet vermouth
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Pour ingredients into a shaker with ice and shake. Strain into highball or rocks glass. Garnish with brandied cherries.