Review: “Master Sergeant,” Mel Odom

Pros: Good basic plot, world, and characters
Cons: Oh god the details
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Mel Odom’s Master Sergeant: The Makaum War: Book One introduces us to Master Sergeant Frank Sage. He’d rather be on the front lines of the war between the humans and the Phrenorians, but instead he’s been sent to the weird world of Makaum. Before long he figures out that there’s plenty of action where he is. There’s an uneasy truce on the planet between the human military, the corporations, and the Phrenorians, all of whom are trying to win over the populace. Makaum has a ton of great resources, but it’s also pretty tricky. The plants seem to be nearly sentient, the animals are more than a little dangerous, and the settlers themselves have displayed some unusual adaptations to the world. They can shape the living plants into nearly any form they want, including entire homes. As for Sage, he’s spending his time hunting down illegal drug labs and stirring up deadly conflicts with the corps.

 

I’m going to be up-front about a major bias of mine. In 2014 I read Tanya Huff’s Confederation series, and that series has enough similarities to Odom’s work to invite comparison. Huff’s work is so good, though, that Master Sergeant almost can’t help but look anemic beside it. The basic setup is interesting. The plot of trying to eliminate drug labs and the ways in which that fits into the larger war appeals to me. I like the ways in which the settlers have adapted to Makaum. Unfortunately, it’s in the details that Odom’s book suffers.

The pacing gets derailed in odd places. One paragraph of high-octane action stops in the middle to describe how a nearby fruit tastes. Then Sage takes time out of the pounding violence to ruminate on local marriage customs. It brings the whole thing to a screeching halt for no good reason, and it jerked me right out of the story.

As in Huff’s Confederation novels, the Makaum War’s alien enemies are basically insects. Odom tries to get into their heads by giving them PoV sections. Unfortunately this makes the aliens seem more human and much less alien. Maybe this was deliberate, but I very much prefer Huff’s ability to let the aliens feel alien. Speaking of characterization, many of the characters lack depth. The major antagonist, for example, comes across as a cartoonish villain. As for Sage himself, he’s actually a bit of a male Mary Sue character. Everyone either crushes on him or hates him. He’s supposedly smart and capable, but… Well, as an example, early on in the book he does something rash that’s pretty much guaranteed to get him killed by one of the corp’s thugs. Then he’s oddly surprised when, in fact, he nearly gets killed. I’m pretty sure the author didn’t mean him to come across as completely and utterly naive, but that’s how he seems in that circumstance.

Some tech details didn’t add up for me. There are huge powered suits that some of the characters use in battles–this probably shouldn’t surprise anyone since such things are all the rage right now. The powered suits in Odom’s book sprawl helplessly on their backs if knocked over, unable to defend or right themselves (that seems like a pretty huge design flaw). They’re similarly vulnerable on soft ground, and yet the military apparently deployed them on a jungle planet. That seems like a poor idea at best.

Early on we find out about Makaum’s dangerous fauna and nigh-sentient flora. I therefore expected them to have a real role in the story, but instead they primarily acted as background detail. It’s a waste of one of the few things that could make this book stand out from others of its genre.

I could go on with a bunch of smaller issues, but I’m trying to avoid nit-picking every last thing. It suffices to say that the details feel careless and often don’t quite add up right.

I don’t think I’ll continue to read other books in this series, but now I’m desperate for more Confederation novels!

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