Review: “Operation Grendel,” Daniel Schwabauer

Rating: 4 out of 5

Daniel Schwabauer’s military science fiction novel Operation Grendel is really intriguing, and it has a fascinating ending, but I can’t make the timeline of events that are critical to the ending make sense. If I could, this would easily be a 5/5 instead of a 4/5.

Military journalist Corporal Raymin Dahl is sent to accompany Captain Ansell Sterling on a diplomatic mission. The grendel wars started 28 years ago, and now the military is trying to negotiate a cease-fire. They’re even willing to give up their “edge” worlds in return for that peace. Grendels all wear a “symbo-collar” containing an “AI wyrm.” It’s an AI that’s integrated with the person’s mind. No one who’s had a symbo-collar put on them has ever defected from the grendels–and no one knows why. When Captain Sterling gets critically injured in an attack, he makes Dahl put on his comms, which contain a non-integrated AI–an AI that can’t get at parts of a person’s mind that they don’t choose to share. He insists that Dahl pretend to be him and take over the peace talks. Unfortunately, the local militia doesn’t think very highly of the idea of turning their world over to the grendels, so they come after Dahl and the marines who arrive to escort him to the talks.

I like the characterizations a lot. Dahl has led a complicated life, and we get to see bits and pieces of that along the way. His relationship with his famous military officer father didn’t go so well, and his relationship with Ivy didn’t end well. He seems to live a relatively solitary life. He’s written a bunch of puff pieces that seem to be slanted in the favor of the edge world militias, which doesn’t make everyone happy with him. His journey to taking on this monumental mission–one that could save millions of lives–has very unexpected consequences.

The pacing is on point with multiple ambushes and tense treks through dangerous areas. I had no trouble sticking with this story. However, I’m having difficulty writing this review because there’s one gaping apparent plot hole that is driving. Me. Insane. (I try to kind of explain it in the spoiler section marked below without totally giving it away. I think I succeeded.) I want the series of events to make sense so much, because it’s really neat. But I can’t get it to line up right, and that’s distracting me from thinking about the rest of the story.

I really like this unusual military SF story. It’s absolutely intriguing and unusual!

SPOILER WARNING: There’s a huge twist at the end that makes you re-think a whole lot of stuff. I thought it was utterly fantastic, but the more I think about the timeline of the book, the more confused I get. The twist-instigating event seems to have taken place at the time when Dahl first started working at the news syndicate–I think. If that’s so, the meeting between Sterling and Dahl and some of their interactions at the current time don’t make sense to me. But if it happened later, Dahl’s interactions with Ivy in the present wouldn’t make sense. There seems to be a rather big plot hole here. This is driving me kind of insane because I actively want the story to make sense because the idea is really freaking cool.

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