Title: Sixteenth Watch
Author: Myke Cole
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication Date: March 10, 2020
Genres: Science Fiction
Part near-future work of militaristic science fiction and part love-letter/homage to the women and men of the Coast Guard, Sixteenth Watch is an interesting read that’s both familiar and original at the same time.
Before I get into my review, I do have one complaint, although it’s more about the marketing and less about the writing. The cover blurb is a deceptive tease, focusing entirely on the opening prologue and the two closing chapters, while glossing over the bulk of the story. Even then, those chapters are less about preventing an “all-out war on the surface of the Moon” and more about postponing it, while Captain Jane Oliver is less “the only one who can prevent it” and more a woman in the right place at the right time.
Between those chapters, Sixteenth Watch is a training montage, a high-tech gameshow, and a public relations spectacle. With American and Chinese tensions simmering (apparently, they’re the only nations to have staked a claim, which seems odd) between mining settlers on the surface of the moon (why feuding nations have chosen to park on each others borders is never explained), the government is concerned the Coast Guard are the wrong force to maintain law and order and are proposing to usurp them with the Navy (it seems neither NASA nor Trump’s Space Force have a role to play). To do that, however, they must first win the tide of public opinion by pitting the forces against one another in Boarding Action, a military game show in a militarized prime time entertainment culture (a curious social evolution that’s a bit terrifying, but never really explored).
For me, there were three aspects of this that kept me reading, despite any misplaced expectations or unanswered questions. Number one is the freakin’ Moon! There’s so much science fiction out there focused on colonizing Mars, building orbiting space stations, and sending out huge generation ships, it was ridiculously exciting to go back to the Moon. It’s a simple setting, but Myke Cole makes the most of it, capturing the feel of low gravity, the silence of space, and the dangers of no atmosphere. The kid in me was smiling just as much as the science fiction geek.
Number two was the action – the intricacies of maneuvering, boarding, and battling in an environment where there is no up or down, traditional weapons either don’t work or don’t work as expected, the bulkiness of a spacesuit so easily disguises friend from foe, and a battle call . . . is like screaming silently into the void. I enjoyed the action, and felt Cole did a solid job of making it all sound professional and accurate, without weighing it down too much with acronyms or command structures. There were a few moments that left me scratching my head because of odd decisions or the lack of consequences for major mistakes, but nothing that had me rolling my eyes thinking something was over-the-top.
Number three is the characters, particularly Captain Jane Oliver and her XO, Wen Ho, whose friendly dynamic is what drives the novel. Not only is Jane a female action hero, she’s a mature female action hero, a woman with significant baggage and a troublesome reputation. Haunted by the death of her husband on a mission they led together, she is probably over-sensitive to how people see her, but realistically so. She’s not your typical protagonist looking to avenge a death or prove herself to the world – she only accepts reassignment back to the Moon because it means being reunited with her daughter. As for Ho, he’s the typical loyal sidekick, but he’s also the voice of reason who keeps Jane grounded.
The pacing here was decent, a little slow in the middle, but moving quickly enough to keep me reading. I was entertained and engaged, and anxious to see how the story would develop. Sixteenth Watch does end rather abruptly, however, first with the climactic battle that ends too soon, and then with the epilogue that leaves a significant plot point hanging.
Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀