Myke Cole's "military fantasy" Shadow Ops series has been unpredictable all along. In Control Point, he told the origin story. In Fortress Frontier, he narrated a quest, while in Breach Zone, he zoomed in on a single battle. With his latest installment, Gemini Cell, he does something really unexpected: a romance.
Some spoilers ahead...
Granted, this is a book containing Navy SEALs, reanimated zombies, rival sorcerers, secret military operations and a whole lot of gunfire, but it's a romance nonetheless. And, that's a good thing.
In his past books, Cole has jumped from character to character, often playing with some really cool ideas and worlds: the secondary world of the Source in Control Point and Fortress Frontier are wonderful to behold, but early on, it was clear that these were world-and-idea books, rather than character books. With Gemini Cell, Cole has nailed the characters better than ever before, weaving together a heartbreaking story of a Navy SEAL and his wife as they're separated by death.
Gemini Cell also contains an excellent story that looks deep into something the military community faces each day: the prospect of losing a loved one to combat operations far from home, and coping with that loss in the days, weeks and months after the fact. Jim Schweitzer is a SEAL on the top of his game: when he and his team are deployed out to a cargo ship, they find something unexpected, and shortly thereafter, Schweitzer is attacked and killed in his home.
Normally, that would be the end of his story, but he's awoken soon after: a Middle Eastern sorcerer has resurrected Jim's spirit along with a malevolent Jinn, as part of a new military program taking advantage of a magical awakening in the world. Schweitzer's new job is to go where others can't: where the cost is too high to send in even Special Forces soldiers. His wife, he's told, is dead, along with is infant son. The only way to avenge their deaths, he's told, is to cooperate and help them figure out who's responsible.
On the other side, Schweitzer's wife Sarah has been left behind. She and their son survived the attack, only to learn that Schweitzer had been killed. Worse, she never got a chance to see the body, while the Navy quietly shuts her out. Her world, supported only by one of Schweitzer's teammates, Chang, is one that I've heard much about throughout the War on Terror. The military remains a close-knit community to support families while their loved ones are deployed, but when there's a death in the family, there's an awkward reshuffling and an almost closing of ranks. This isn't universal, to be sure, but it's not unheard of.
With Gemini Cell, Cole is telling a unique story from the experiences of the War on Terror, and it's a novel that can be read independently of the rest of his Shadow Ops series (chronologically, it takes place before the events of Control Point, Fortress Frontier and Breach Zone). The experiences of US Service Members is a story that's largely overlooked outside of military circles, and the struggles that families face after a decade and a half of overseas combat operations is a toll that is tragic, damaging and long-lasting. It's a unique story that shows that the experiences of these families are vastly different than their counterparts of earlier wars.
It's a story that needed to be told. Lingering under this novel is a real horror for many families: the unseen psychological effects of war. Schweitzer is literally damaged from his experiences, held together by magic and craftsmanship from the Gemini Cell's agents. Imbued with a Jinn, Cole uses some neat tricks to show off the real differences in warfare: on one hand, there's the highly trained professional in a modern army, while on the other, a dark spirit who's only frame of reference is the masculinity-driven acts of organized violence. Schweitzer is at war in his own body; not just for his soul, but for the person he once was and for the person he wants to be.
On top of all this, Cole seems to delight in busting genre conventions: this novel, after all, is primarily a romance: the story between Sarah and Jim is the central pillar of what motivates each character. Say all you want about the theoretical differences in warfare between ancient and modern times, the morals of warfare and its effects: what drives Gemini Cell is their strong pull to one another. It's an epic story: pulled apart by war, a couple overcomes an impossible gap in their relationship to once again reunite. Cole pulls it together wonderfully, and he illustrates both Jim and Sarah with a wonderful amount of complexity and depth to each.
As the latest book in what's sure to be a longer-running series, Cole has resisted the temptation to spin out sequel after sequel featuring the same characters fighting many of the same battles. Gemini Cell, like its siblings, demonstrates the complexity of the world in which Cole can tell numerous stories, each unique, thought-provoking and entertaining all at once.