Blades of Winter

During the Spring of 2016, I read a back issue of Analog (November 2014). The Further Reading section of the magazine suggested several novels including G. T. Almasi's debut Blades of Winter. Analog's description of the book interested me enough that my brain filed the title and tucked it into the fleshy folds of my brain. Nearly a year later, I was browsing the fiction section of my bookstore when I saw the title again, emblazoned across the image of a redheaded young woman, stylish and sexy in her black leather outfit, perched on a rooftop in Paris with her assault rifle. I felt that brief electric surge of recognition and knocked the book into my shopping basket.

Blades of Winter is the first installment of the Shadowstorm series. Through some awkward blocks of exposition, readers are informed that this is an alternate history. Hitler's Germany was one of four victors of World War II along with China, Russia, and the United States of America. The victors carved up the world, creating large swaths of territory operating as vassal states of these major powers. Do you recall the real nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia after World War II? In Blades of Winter, the new world powers engaged in an arms race like no other, involving human cybernetic modification. This is the adventurous aspect of the novel that most interested me. As the story opens, we are introduced to protagonist Alix Nico, a nineteen-year-old Level 4 Interceptor as she gets herself into some bad trouble in New York City. This opening scene is --if I may be blunt-- badass and a wonderful introduction to the setting and our hero. The author does a great job of dangling carrots, enticing the reader to charge forward so they can learn the truth about whatever Alix just did and how she possibly could have accomplished such an impossible feat. It reminded me of the first time I watched Neo dodge bullets in The Matrix.

Alix is a member of ExOps, an American shadow organization populated by skilled military operatives who have undergone invasive surgeries to enhance themselves with advanced cybernetics to increase their field effectiveness. The other major powers have their own organizations though, so Alix and her colleagues enjoy no significant advantage on the field of battle. ExOps agents are sent into the field in small strike teams. Team members are awarded levels commensurate with their experience and operational success and earn cool titles like Infiltrator, Vindicator, and Liberator that describes their battlefield role. How would you like to have Vindicator on your business card? Alix is young and brash, constantly pushing the limits of her ability, often endangering herself and her team much to the chagrin of her superior officers. Her behavior is understandable though, as her father was the most talented ExOps figure in history until he disappeared. Alix has big shoes to fill and a legacy to live up to.

For the vast majority of the novel, I enjoyed the experience but in the early chapters, I found myself criticizing the author's writing in isolated pockets. At one point, Alix is under enemy gunfire and has taken cover behind a "crate of stuff". Stuff? I was irritated that Almasi cheated me out of a better picture of the situation by plopping a nondescript "crate of stuff" in the scene. Similar descriptions are used elsewhere, but I finally understood what was happening. It was not Almasi being lazy, it was narrator Alix being a teenage superspy concerned more about being shot than reading the shipping label on the crate of stuff to find out whether she was hiding behind a box of teddy bears or replica 15th century Ming Dynasty vases. Alix cares about survival, earning more powerful and cooler cybernetics, and taking out the bad guys. She does not care a lick about what is inside the crate of stuff behind which she is hiding. Once that realization clicked, I instantly forgave Almasi for what I had decided was bad writing and gave him credit for character development.

Throughout Blades of Winter, readers are treated to a globetrotting adventure as Alix and her team are deployed to exotic locations in an attempt to unravel a conspiracy that may reveal the true fate of Alix's father. The info-dumpy alternate world history blobs aside, Almasi does a good job of setting the tone and style of his novel through the use of chapter interstitials such as of newspaper articles, data files, and operation reports. These brief excerpts provide useful information and are a welcome break in the fast and frantic pace of the story.

I do not often read action novels like this, but I found myself enjoying Blades of Winter and plan to seek out the second volume of the series, Hammer of Angels. It is popcorn cinema in print form and just as I leave a fun action film feeling entertained, so did I feel as I read the last page of Blades of Winter.