by Theron Martin,


volume 4

86 novel 4
Lena has finally caught up to Shin and met him and the other surviving members of Spearhead Squadron in person, and now she will be serving as their commander in a new Federacy Strike Package whose roster primarily consists of former 86s using the Juggernaut-based Reginleifs. Their stationing in the Republic is an exercise in mixed emotions for Lena, who can't separate herself from her roots in the Republic even though she deplores the horribly racist attitudes that still remain in many of her fellow Alba, and she has trouble understanding why Shin and other 86s are so apathetic to it. Shin, meanwhile, is mystified about why Lena is bothered by it; the 86s who know her know she's not a “white pig,” so why should anything else matter? Those issues – and the growing attraction between them that everyone around them notices even if they don't – remain unresolved as the Eighty-Sixth Strike Package assaults a Legion production base that has sprung up in the underground commercial/transport up of the Republic's old capital of Charité, which was lost in the Legion invasion months earlier. But even veteran soldiers and meticulous planning doesn't prevent the nasty surprises that the Legion has in store for them.

With the fourth volume, author Asato Asato finally pushes the story beyond where the first volume ended, in the process entering a new stage: one where Lena and the 86s (most especially Shin) have been reunited and are now working closely together in a literal as well as figurative sense. He also moves the story from one which is a struggle for survival to one where the human forces can opportunistically go on the offensive – though the revelations which come towards the end may call into question how long that will remain true.

The first 40% or so of the novel's 231 pages deal with non-combat matters, including the organization of the new Strike Force and how the characters are relating now that they are finally interacting directly. Some of this is fare that might be seen in any military story, such as how 86s commonly determine leadership within their units the old-fashioned way: by fighting ability, which comes into play when the female 86 who served as the leader of Blody Reina's unofficial knights challenges Shin's right to be Lena's direct subordinate. Enough byplay between Lena and Shin is also provided to suggest potential future romantic developments, though both are much more oblivious to it than their compatriots. The steps in that direction aren't big, but at least the possibility now exists.

However, the bulk of this part focuses on racial issues, which are nearly as pervasive here as they were in the first novel, but with a different angle. One of the main points this part seems to be emphasizing is that once racism and dehumanization of a people takes hold, reversing it can be awfully difficult. Our own world has shown that learning to accept people once regarded as subhuman can take generations. Within the group, conflict arises not over Lena being a “white pig” but instead more over her seeming need to apologize for her people and be considerate about what the 86s have suffered. She doesn't understand that 86s like Shin are inured to the crap to the point that they don't care, and they see her as needlessly fretting over things that aren't her fault. Likewise, conflict also arises over the wholly different mindsets that she and Shin have: she cannot fathom not having attachments to one's home country, whereas 86s like Shin cannot fathom having such attachments. All of this back-and-forth over this topic in the early going bogs the story down at first, but a return to it at the end crystallizes the point that the first part was ultimately trying to make: though Lena may seem to have caught up to Shin, she really hasn't. It's a strong note for the novel to finish on.

Most of the final 60% of the novel involves the kind of content where Asato's writing shines best: the detailed progression of the mission in the Charité Underground Labyrinth. The Labyrinth itself, which is a sprawling underground commercial complex and rail center, is the kind of facility that might be the setting for Generic Sci Fi Shooter #4,239, but Asato keeps things lively by providing a myriad of twists and discoveries which lend an element of mystery to the proceeding and, when taken together, point towards unsettling developments within the Legion. Naturally this includes the appearance of a wholly new type of Legion unit, as well as the broadened and revised use of a long-standing gimmick and the suggestion that there might be a guiding will behind everything the Legion does rather than just machine logic. It also goes to some horror-grade dark places, though not anything worse than what was described in the first volume. In all, an excellent balance is kept between action and discovery elements here, and there is no shortage of credible threat factor.

The novel opens with a glossy page detailing the structural breakdown of The Eighty-Sixth Strike Package; this is a welcome feature, as details about this are scattered throughout the text. The trifold glossy following it features most of the core cast members on one side and an expanded version of the cover art on the other. A character summary is also provided and various black-and-white illustrations and pages featuring tech items are scattered throughout. Art quality is in line with efforts seen in earlier novels.

I wasn't sure about this novel at the halfway point, but the second half is handled very well and the ending helps it recover from earlier weak points. Overall it remains an engaging continuation of the story.

Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+

+ Well-handled action component
Earlier parts bog down a bit

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Story: Asato Asato

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