Fans of a certain age will remember the UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-COM series with a certain degree of fondness. Released in 1994 the original put you in control of a squad of X-Com operatives fighting to save the world from alien invasion combining a mix of turn based strategy, base building and resource management that proved addictive. Flash forward to 2012, that generation that enjoyed the game were now making games and we got a reboot of the beloved franchise. The streamlined and refined XCOM felt familiar but lacked some of the depth of its inspiration. This didn’t stop it from being a hit with fans which led to the February 5th release of XCOM 2. The problem though, XCOM 2 takes place in a very different world from what I left behind at the end of my XCOM game and Greg Keyes (Locus award winner and author of stories set both in the Skyrim and Babylon 5 settings, as well as his own original series The Kingdoms of Thorne and Bone) was handed the task of bridging that gap. Be warned, proceeding much further will contain some spoilers. I’ve tried to keep things as vague as possible but read on at your own peril.
In the fiction of the upcoming game, as well as the novel, XCOM never made it past the opening salvos of the war. They were able to weather the first few battles but soon the Council started turning on them and they were blasted into oblivion. Scattered to the wind over the next 20 years humans were cowed by their alien benefactors moving into “New Cities”, given gene treatments to help cure them of all their ills and found themselves living in apparent luxury. Those who didn’t want to live as kept pets were allowed to remain free living in settlements but devoid of even the basic modern convenience this was a hard life full of disease and danger. All of this happens before the book even starts and is fairly well communicated in the opening chapters.
The book is framed by a prologue and an epilogue told from the perspective of Central Officer Bradford, a broken man he did not take the fall of XCOM or the loss of the Commander well and has been living off the grid and spurning the advances of resistance cells. His prologue serves to give you the gist of the 20 years leading to the opening of the novel. From there it switches to the first of three parts telling the story of a young resistance fighter named Amar (or K.B. among his squad mates). Not entirely green Amar is still fairly new but very early on suffers the loss of a friend and has to come to terms with the shifting roles in his squad. Amar is a fairly effective entry point to the story, he is worldly without being overbearing and innocent without being naïve. He introduces us to the world in more depth where we find out the resistance (or Natives as they refer to themselves) have been fighting a guerilla war. Much of this comes from the perspective of educating Lena a “New City Girl” who his squad rescued from smugglers.
Over the course of the first part of the story (called Natives) we have an emotional journey where Lena and Amar come to terms with where they stand and the nature of the world all under the auspices of a secret mission for an operative of the resistance known as Sam. The motivations never seem forced and for a book based on a strategy video game (not exactly known for in depth world building) it is surprisingly lived in. My only minor qualm is you seem to have a fair amount of mobility in this post invasion world with different nationalities scattered across the globe.
After a tense first part of the novel we start to see the formation of connective tissue between the old game, the book and the new game with Part 2 called The Elpis. Here we meet Doctor Shen and his daughter Lily. Doctor Shen served as the chief engineer during the first game and Lily is set to serve as the chief engineer in XCOM 2. They are living aboard a submarine named the Elpis (the ancient Greek word for the personification of hope) they are working to rebuild XCOM and with the information that Sam was able to bring back they are well on their way to achieving that. Setting off south for a distant island the mostly uneventful journey allows Lena and Amar to form a bond beyond that of reluctant guide and New City Girl with an agenda. We eventually encounter another blast from the past Doctor Valen the lead scientist from the original XCOM. It’s clear there’s a bit of bad blood between the two doctors but that doesn’t prevent them both from working together to retake the planet. How they plan to do it is with a massive downed alien vessel. Using Sam’s data recovered from XCOM backups they pinpoint the location of the large ship and begin to prepare for a recovery mission. Unfortunately things go side ways and Amar’s squad looses not just their commander Thomas (a seasoned XCOM veteran) but also the island base and their ride. This is where we see Amar start to come into his own, taking command of the squad he gets them to safety and the mission is back on track.
This brings us to part three, The Avenger. The squad journeys through the Indian subcontinent to begin operations restoring the massive downed Alien vessel. We are able to watch Ammar and Lena grow and assume new roles within the nascent XCOM revival. Lena begins working as an assistant to Doctors Shen and Ammar assumes the role of the new Commander of the XCOM squads. The progression of the characters feels neither forced nor artificial. Keyes does a good job of building realistic and believable motivations and none of the characters feel setup as victims or plot devices. During this third part of the book we move from a rather idyllic start to a rather dark ending but one with hope. A recurring theme throughout the book, there is always reason to push forward. Ammar’s strengths are tested, not just physically but spiritually and emotionally. We see Lena’s true devotion to her companions and we see humanity at its finest pulling through and working together.
We begin to close the story with one of the most powerful wartime poems in history In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. The poem resonates with the rest of the story drawing together the sacrifice of the soldiers who fell before and the generation who stand behind them ready to shoulder their burden when the time comes. Wrapping up with an epilogue we are brought back to Bradford who insists on simply being called Central and allusions to the opening moments of the new game.
A tight and powerful read, Keyes did a terrific job of fleshing out the world of the game and providing some guidance as to where the characters we knew from the prior entry will be at the start of the new game. There are certainly mysteries left to puzzle out but one thing is hammered home, this is not a story of one man and one woman or one squad but the story of those who came before and those who will come after. This is communicated in a way that doesn’t seem heavy handed or dogmatic in its presentation. My only complaint is at times Keyes (an anthropologist by education and a linguistics buff by hobby) uses language in ways that feel slightly slanted in the setting. Not entirely unbelievable but a little wooden and somewhat forced. This is fairly rare though and often the core of the characters carry you through without it being distracting.
For fans of military sci-fi or the XCOM series this is a must and I’m glad to have read it prior to the release of the new XCOM game.