Doomsday Recon is a story of Cavalry Scouts lost in a nightmare land of Mesoamerican myth and folktale come true. Beset on all sides by demons and monsters, a desperate struggle for survival is thrust upon them. Cut off from retreat or resupply, the Scouts will have to learn whether there is anyone you can trust in the Land of the Black Sun, or perish.
This is the latest entry in the sub-genre of adventure stories that WarGate Books specializes in: the infinite taco machine. The basic premise of each story is that a military unit finds itself in another world, but somehow also there is a machine or artifact of power that allows them to continue to function by supplying them with modern weapons and ammunition.
The tone of the infinite taco machine stories vary broadly. The first, Forgotten Ruin, is full of gonzo dark humor. Peter Nealen's The Lost borrows from the fatalism and stoicism of the Norse, Doc Spear's Warlord is Barsoom with a heavy dose of the harsh psychological toll of being an elite soldier. Doomsday Recon is brutal, unrelenting horror.
It spun, and backhanded Pierzchala with the M2. I saw the receiver of the Browning contact my platoon-mate's body. Time compressed into an instant and yet stretched out for eternity as I listened to the terrible cracking of bone and ripping of flesh.
... and then Pierzchala was simply--gone. Vanished in a cloud of red mist.
I learned later that parts of him flew as far as two hundred meters into the jungle. It's a moment frozen in my memory, a prelude to the many horrors yet to come that would be branded on my consciousness. I can still see this moment--hear it, smell it. Taste his blood spatter on my lips.
We get to experience a dawning sense of horror and unreality through the eyes of Specialist Nephi Bennett. Doomsday Recon is told from Bennett's point of view, although in a more traditional first person past-tense narration style, as opposed to Forgotten Ruin's pseudo-memoir style. I find Talker hilarious, but the way Talker goes off on tangents drives some people nuts. Bennett as narrator is less likely to get in the way, although Bennett is just as central to the story.
Something the keen-eyed may have also noticed about Bennett is his first name. Nephi is an uncommon first name. You are only likely to have encountered it if you live somewhere with lots of adherents of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, popularly known as Mormons. Nephi is one of the key characters in the LDS scriptures, and thus you have a pretty good clue as to the religion practiced by someone with that name.
I thought briefly of the friar the queen had mentioned, which led me to thoughts of my own religion. One I hadn't exactly been keeping all that closely. I hadn't even so much as thought to pray this entire time. Not once. But now, I was.
Religion is something that matters a lot in most WarGate Books, and it matters here. Without some kind of anchor, the endless war of all against all in the Land of the Black Sun is too horrible to endure, the temptation to silence your conscience in the name of survival too strong, leading men down dark paths as their sanity and their probity ebbs away. Yet, even in a land dominated by Tezcatlipoca and Mictlāntēcutli, there are still small glimmers of hope.
What I take to be one of the themes of WarGate Books is that God's power and love still operates even in the most terrible and hopeless of circumstances. Military science fiction often works in a low mimetic thematic mode, showcasing the horror and absurdity of war from the point of view of the men who fight. This means that good men will die for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that the best laid plans will not only fail, but inadvertently aid the enemy's goals due to incompetence or the fog of war.
All of that is on display in Doomsday Recon. And yet, not everyone who falls into this world created to be an endless cycle of conflict and death is content to feed that cycle. Like the fat Friar Batista, plucked from Nueva España and deposited in a land of waking nightmares, he is full of Christian joy, and proceeds to do exactly what he would have been doing in his own world: spreading the Gospel.
The Land of the Black Sun is fertile soil for Batista. Thus, when Bennett and the Cavalry Scouts first encounter other humans, they find that they are militant Catholics. The central moral conflict of Doomsday Recon is not about violence or war per se. All of these books feature military men solving problems the military way: with extreme violence.
The moral conflict is: whom will you serve? Will you serve the lord of this world, or strive against him? Thus while the dominant thematic mode is of realism in the portrayal of war, the structure of the story is that of a romance, a sequence of marvelous adventures. There is a hero, and there will be be a quest. There is even a princess.
One of the things that the infinite taco machine allows is for the mode of heroic action to be more like that of a romance, while still keeping a plausible semblance of realism about war. Modern weapons and tactics give our heroes the edge enjoyed by the characters in a romance, but they otherwise remain much like you and me.
I will also insist that Doomsday Recon is a comedy, in Frye's sense.
Also there is a general distinction between fictions in which the hero becomes isolated from his society, and fictions in which he is incorporated into it. This distinction is expressed by the words "tragic" and "comic" when they refer to aspects of plot in general and not simply to forms of drama.
--Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism, First Essay
When the hero is destined to marry the princess, even a Sugar Skull Warrior Princess, then in Frye's terms he is being integrated into his fictional society, and it is thus a comedy. Although I will admit that calling Doomsday Recon a horror comedy is likely to give the wrong impression.
Especially since another key aspect of the book is about maintaining your humanity in the midst of madness. When you find yourself in a place that is only too happy to reward your worst impulses, how do you practice extreme violence without losing yourself? I expect Bennett will find out.
I was given a review copy by the publisher.