Book Review: The Bastard Legion #1 by Gavin G. Smith

The Bastard Legion: Book 1

Genre: Sci-fi
Pub Date: 2017
Publisher: Gollancz
Length: 336 pages
Kindle Edition: £2.99

Synopsis

Four hundred years in the future, the most dangerous criminals are kept in suspended animation aboard prison ships and “rehabilitated” in a shared virtual reality environment. But Miska Corbin, a thief and hacker with a background in black ops, has stolen one of these ships, the Hangman’s Daughter, and made it her own. Controlled by explosive collars and trained in virtual reality by the electronic ghost of a dead marine sergeant, the thieves, gangsters, murderers, and worse are transformed into Miska’s own private indentured army: the Bastard Legion. Are the mercenaries just for fun and profit, or does Miska have a hidden purpose connected to her covert past?

* SPOILERS*

This is book 1 in a trilogy, and the first novel, by Gavin Smith, that I have read. Will I be buying the rest? Read on…

But first, I want to tackle the ‘problem’ of men writing women. There has been much discussion across the media platforms about the, oft hilarious, but mostly irritating; to women, way that male writers portray female characters.

There seems to be some kind of gulf between male experience of how women behave and think, and what they lay down on the pages. Surely every single one of these men cannot be singletons, can they?

For as long as novels have existed, male authors have managed to write hilariously inaccurate descriptions of female characters. Indy100 – indy100.com

There have been occasional landslides of Tweets when another male writer is ‘revealed’ to have little working knowledge of how women perceive themselves.

the latest author to scale the whole mountain of male writers who get carried away when describing women, particularly their breasts. The Guardian: ‘A nice set of curves if I do say so myself’: a Twitter lesson in how not to write women‘ – theguardian.com

And the responses range from friendly micky-taking to total outrage. ‘Why can’t men write women?’ Goes the cry. Who are these men writing for? Not me.

‘She was 40 but could have passed for a year younger with soft lipstick and some gentle mascara. Her dress clung to the curves of her bosom which was cupped by her bra that was under it, but over the breasts that were naked inside her clothes. She had a personality and eyes.” The Guardian: All cleavage and clunkiness – why can’t male authors write women? – theguardian.com

Enter (into my sphere of reading), Gavin G. Smith. As I write this, I cannot recall a single moment in The Bastard Legion where Smith portrayed his MC in derogatory terms – I think she looked in a mirror once, and ran her hands through her short hair once or twice– that’s it. So what does Miska Corbin look like? Smith hasn’t given us an abundance of description. We know she has ‘dirty blonde hair’ with shaved undercut, she’s short, and she has ‘elfin’ features. He mentions her breasts once, and that’s only because one of her ‘crew’ is staring at them when he thinks she isn’t looking, and because he is a young man, a prisoner in a previously all male environment and probably hasn’t seen a female for a long time – unlucky him that he got Miska!

For me, Miska Corbin is an example of a female MC successfully written by a male. You see, women and men feel the same things, we all get emotional, and men don’t always express anger, and conversely, not all women cry. I felt that Smith had written a human being. Of course there has to be some physical description, we, the readers want to see what the writer sees, and he uses an economy of description that allows us to visualise her very nicely, thank you, without being a complete and total douche-bag slavering over his own creation.

Corbin comes from a military family, she was a marine; as was her father and her sister, and so trained in all kinds of weaponry and combat techniques. She’s also a hacker, a good one. And finally, she has a slightly unstable personality which means that she may, or may not, decide to blow a person’s head off – literally!- depending on her mood and what occurred prior to the current encounter.

I like her. I want to be her. She is Ripley for a new generation, with a sense of humour; if a little warped, and takes no shit from anyone. She is a great tactician and even in the direst situations, is capable of keeping her cool. So what’s her weakness? you may ask. Her dad.

Gunnery Sergeant Jonathan Corbin is dead and Miska, his youngest daughter, is determined to find out how/why/who. But Corbin senior’s death hasn’t prevented him from being a prime player in the story. He is a huge influence on our MC, and in Book 1 her raison d’etre. Her relationship with her father might be deemed unhealthy, but Miska Corbin seems to have unhealthy relationships with everyone she encounters.

When we meet her, she has turned pirate. She has stolen a maximum security prison barge – think of those great 19th century hulks in the Thames, then imagine it four hundred, or so, years in the future, and in space, with weapons, now you got it. There are six-thousand prisoners on board, from car thieves to gang leaders, rapists and murderers, some so dangerous that they are kept in some sort of suspended animation. How does one small female maintain control over this motley crew? Explosive collars! How frackin’ cool is that?! Smith sticks our heroine (is she though? Really?) in this high-risk situation, but needs a way to force all those men to do her bidding. Threat of instant death is a great inducement to do as one’s told. And if one’s head pops off, well then, one less mouth to feed. With the aid of her fathers hologram, mechanoid guards and VR environments, Miska begins to train her own personal army.

I find it a really interesting premise – take a bunch of violent criminals and make them into a formidable fighting force. There is potential danger from the men she now lives on board with, there is threat from the Corporation that hires her to do a dirty clean-up job, and from the unknown killer, or killers, of her father. Miska Corbin is a walking magnet for endangerment. You’re never sure who might turn on whom, how far will a bunch of mercenaries go to ensure their own heads remain firmly fixed to their necks?!

It is action packed. And I mean, all the time, action, (maybe a little too much?) even the moments when she is netrunning with her enhanced abilities. This area of the story I found less easy to follow – but I have the same problem playing Cyberpunk TTRPG. She meets a human shaped virus, has her skin flayed by gritty sand, and when Smith writes, ‘she dropped a number of heavily occulted hacks,’ I couldn’t honestly swear that I totally understood what that means.

I’ve read reviews of books that compare them to TV shows or films. I’m not sure I like this habit. Some reviews of The Bastard Legion claim it was like Suicide Squad or Killjoys crossed with The Expanse. I hated Suicide Squad, thought it was poorly written, clichéd, weak. Loved the other two. The Bastard Legion is the first ‘military in space’ story I have ever read; I’d not heard of this sub genre before. It is not poorly written, clichéd or weak. Smith’s writing is strong, it has the feel of a chunky, persistent force, prodding and driving you forwards. The prisoners aren’t just faceless men, they are nuanced; some more than others, not all bad – sort of, and in a couple of instances come across as more sane and less violent than Miska.

It’s a pretty unique idea; stealing a prison and all the prisoners in it, and turning them into a well-oiled fighting machine, and I think that’s getting harder in sci-fi writing as technology in our world continues to advance, the writers have to up their game. Smith has a great premise and compelling main character; even though she ought to be locked up herself, who has some complicated relationships going on. Not just with her dead father – she and her sister really don’t get on, why does she give more slack to the prisoner Torricone? And what’s with the angelic, technologically enhanced Ultra?

There’s a lot going for The Bastard Legion – the mercenaries as well as the book – and I will definitely be purchasing # 2.

I’m giving The Bastard Legion

4 stars

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Published by

Alexandra

Writer of fiction, sci-fi, horror and more. Painter of magic realism. Grower of cabbages and currants.

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