Rick Shelley

Ace Books / 281 pages / May 1998

ISBN: 0441005268

Lon Nolan was all set for a life in the military, following in the family tradition. The government of the North American Union was all set to welcome him and the rest of the Academy’s top cadets to the Federal Police. Solution: concoct a plan to get him expelled, then ship him off to sign on with a mercenary outfit on another planet.

Will the mercs make his life a living hell? Will they try to break the “college boy” who dares to join their ranks? Will he never fit in? Will the mercenaries’ new contract be the walk-over it seems? Will there ever be a subplot?

In a break from the usual military sf — from such masters as David Drake and S.M. Stirling — all of these questions can be answered with a simple “no.”

The plot of Officer-Cadet is something of a straight line, marching resolutely toward the established goal, taking no time to explore side roads or linger for emotional interruptions. Actually, there may well have been more rest breaks on the Bataan Death March. And detours.

Stepping into the first rumblings of a civil war, the Dirigent Mercenary Corps arrive on Norbank, prepared to put down the rebel forces threatening the capitol city. And they go about doing that. And readers will be kept posted on every minor detail… of every minor detail. Anyone familiar with police procedurals and their concentration on the process of investigating a crime will recognise this novel as, perhaps, a new branch of the genre: the military procedural.

Nolan and the rest of his battalion find themselves outnumbered and out-gunned, but they fight on. Whewee! They fight on and on and, surprisingly, on. Though their geographical route involves a few twists and reverses, the story line and the characters move grimly, resolutely to the finish.

And that’s about it.

For fans of military sf, there should appear to be some missing aspects. Every novel focusing on armies or mercenaries leaves the reader with some disturbing questions. Is the barbarism of battle justified by the greater good represented by the “heroes”? What causes are worth killing for? Are atrocities inseparable from the acts of war? No concrete answers are ever given; readers are left to wrestle with these and other dilemmas on their own.

Shelley has taken the harrowing mental debates from his tale.

Every officer is every inch the gentleman. There are no bullies, no psychos, no blood-thirsty berserkers. Not even any good-natured ribbing/hazing. Such a unit is theoretically possible, but no screening process is that good.

Hardware buffs will probably leave disappointed if they are hungry for new technological marvel; these armies stick almost exclusively with projectile weapons.

Is it a bad book? No, it is as accurate as a novel can be about a war that hasn’t taken place. Is it boring? Certainly not. In fact, if a reader is in the mood to read a soldier’s journal, this is the one to choose. Because, a journal is more or less what Officer-Cadet turns out to be. It is the diary of an officer-in-training who spends little time on the whys and concentrates on the hows.

A straight arrow on a straight line.