Audiobook Review: First Light by Linda Nagata
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Genre: Science Fiction, Military
Series: Book 1 of The Red
Publisher: Audible Studios (June 30, 2015)
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Narrator: Kevin T. Collins | Length: 13 hrs 35 min
If ever you hear someone say women can’t write military science fiction, please do me a favor and smack them over the head with this book. First Light is the excellent, smart, and action-packed introduction to The Red series, originally indie-published but re-released again recently by a major publisher along with an audiobook – because it is JUST. THAT. GOOD.
Seriously, it doesn’t get more edge-of-your-seat than this near-future thriller, which seamlessly blends advanced technology and military action with political drama. In First Light, readers get to meet protagonist Lieutenant James Shelley in an explosive introduction. Stationed in a remote military outpost deep in the Sahel, Shelley and his team work round-the-clock to enforce the peace and gather intelligence in the area, aided by a cyber-framework that keeps them all wirelessly linked. But that was all before the devastating airstrike.
Shelley barely makes it out alive, saved by the mysterious power of precognition that he possesses, a phenomenon not even the top military scientists can explain. The attack, however, had cost him both his legs, forcing Shelley to agree to an experimental cybernetics program involving synthetic legs and a permanent monitoring “skullcap” implanted in his head. Very Robocop-ish stuff. While recovering, Shelley is hit with another whammy: all throughout his assignment in Sub-Saharan Africa, he and his team had been recorded for a reality TV show. The lines begin to blur for Shelley as tough questions come to the surface. What is real and what is artificial? Who or what is this voice in his head, and is it as benign as it wants him to think? Hidden forces are steering humanity towards an unknown agenda, and for whatever reason, Shelley is at the center of this storm.
There’s so much happening in this first volume, sometimes it gets hard to tease apart the threads. The story’s first act transports readers to its not-too-distant future, describing the soldiers and their state-of-the-art military tech which includes everything from combat armor to surveillance drones. Shelley and his team are hooked into the central intelligence network at all times, physiologically and mentally monitored and even altered by their gear. A process even kicks in for soldiers on the same squad which makes them regard each other as close as siblings, encouraging familial bonds of loyalty while at the same time removing distractions which might be caused by any sexual desire.
But the technology is also far from perfect. It is not uncommon for soldiers like Shelley to become “emo-junkies”, becoming overly dependent on the processes of the skullcaps they wear. You can never be sure whether or not the emotions you feel are really yours, or if they are being controlled or altered by the skullnet. This question of “what’s real vs. what’s not” is a recurring theme that pops up throughout the novel, in many different contexts. War is also introduced as something prevalent and inevitable, a powerful driving force behind the economy. Soldiers are treated like property in this world where reality TV shows can be made of their lives without them even knowing about it, while rich CEOs of big defense contractors play games of political chance using the world as their game board.
This is actually a major premise in the second half of the novel, broadening the scope of the story to tackle conflicts with more significant and far-reaching consequences. The sequence of events that make up the climax and the ending of this book had to be one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had with an audiobook. My heart was pounding the whole time as I listened, and you probably couldn’t have convinced me to take off my headphones even if the house was on fire.
I only have a minor gripe specific to the audiobook, and it is related to the narrator. Kevin T. Collins’ performance was good, and I love his enthusiasm. But this also means he sometimes overacts, his voice bordering on frantic. Good for when we’re in those tense scenes, but very distracting when we’re not.
Nevertheless, this book has my full recommendation, especially for fans of military science fiction. It’s certainly the best of this genre that I’ve read in a good long while. First Light is engaging, intelligent, and full of thrills. It’s been getting all kinds of attention lately, and now I understand why.