When I first saw a teaser that Myke Cole had written a science fiction novel about the U.S. Coast Guard in space I knew I wanted to read it. I’ve only read one other book by Cole, The Armored Saint, and I loved it. I was curious to see if he could recreate the same level of pathos present in that book in Sixteenth Watch, or if instead we’d get an entirely different feeling given the setting and plot. Either way I was excited to begin this read.
“The Coast Guard must prevent the first lunar war in history.
A lifelong Search-and-Rescuewoman, Coast Guard Captain Jane Oliver is ready for a peaceful retirement. But when tragedy strikes, Oliver loses her husband and her plans for the future, and finds herself thrust into a role she’s not prepared for. Suddenly at the helm of the Coast Guard’s elite SAR-1 lunar unit, Oliver is the only woman who can prevent the first lunar war in history, a conflict that will surely consume not only the moon, but earth as well.” – Goodreads blurb.
If you don’t know anything about Myke Cole it’s important to note at the outset that he is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran. His experience and knowledge of the Coast Guard and the U.S. military definitely add to the detail and realism of the novel. There can be little doubt that his experiences played into the influences behind the book.
The plot centers around an inter-service rivalry between the Navy/Marine Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard over security of U.S. helium-3 mining operations on the moon with the added stakes of a shooting conflict with China. This is a conflict with the potential to go nuclear and spread to Earth. The Coast Guard sees itself as the service branch best suited to carry out this mission as it is currently more of a law enforcement action, but increasingly is forced to take a back seat to the more powerful and robust forces of the U.S. Navy and Marines. The Navy’s increasingly belligerent actions seem sure to bring the tensions with China to a head and the Coast Guard leadership feels only they can diffuse the situation, if only they can convince the American people and the political powers that be of the case.
Cole seems very aware of how little people really know about the Coast Guard or that they are actually a branch of the armed services. He knows most people probably see the Coast Guard as just a beefed up police force on the water. His characters are very aware of this too. This awareness is built into and at the heart the conflict within the narrative. This tension drives a lot of the plot as the Coast Guard and Navy keep butting heads.
The other major source of narrative tension stems from the event years prior that killed the main character’s husband, a lunar riot that got out of hand between American and Chinese miners where the military forces of both sides nearly got into a shooting war. The fallout and loss from that episode hangs over the characters and influences everything they think and do.
All of that intraservice rivalry and interpersonal dynamics in an inhospitable environment create what has the potential to be a powder keg ready to explode on the moon with the fallout descending to Earth. The book is set-up to be an action packed space story weighted with dramatic tension. And it almost lives up to expectations.
I’m a fan of military science fiction/fantasy and military fiction in general. When you go into this kind of read you do so knowing you may be getting a lot of military lingo, especially abbreviations and and acronyms. If you don’t like this in your reading be warned Sixteenth Watch is filled with it. Thankfully for me this isn’t a a negative at all but I know some readers really get turned off by it.
While I enjoyed the characters they were not very complex. We see everything through the point of view of Admiral Jane Oliver. She’s career Coast Guard, her husband was killed in action serving with the Navy, and only one of her children speaks to her. She constantly battles feelings of internal regrets and external political maneuvers while trying to prove more to herself than anyone else that she is capable to do the job she’s been given. Yet, for all that I didn’t feel like we get a deep dive into her character. Everything stays at a surface level or just beneath. I never felt the emotional tug with Oliver and her arc wasn’t developed very much.
Since it is a single POV story the focus is unsurprisingly on Oliver. While the other characters are diverse, Cole only scratches the surface on what drives and motivates them. And while I enjoyed some of the banter in the dialogue (especially between Oliver and her Executive Officer) there just isn’t a ton of depth to the characters. This means the book has to lean more on it’s pacing and action in addition to the plot to grab my attention.
The pacing and action were fine. I know that sounds almost negative so don’t take it that way. By fine I mean just that, not slow but not too fast, not too little and not too much. I never felt bored with the read and it kept me swiping the pages to get to the end. The action scenes were well written and there were no points in the book in terms of action where I was like “nah, that’s a bit much to accept.”
The plot was also fine. Again I don’t mean that to sound bad even though I know not raving about it tends to lend a negative vibe. In this case the idea of the intraservice rivalry with the weight of possible war with China played out on the moon with boarding actions and firefights in space is pretty cool and exciting and is what drew me to the book. But a few things detracted from the story. The first is that the event the characters are working toward and that drives much of the narrative seemed a bit contrived. I won’t reveal what it is here but I was like “eh…it seems a stretch this would work.” The second thing is that the notion the Coast Guard will best the Navy in their rivalry, both in deeds and in the minds of the people, seems like a little bit of wish fulfillment. The third was I knew early on how the plot would work itself out. Not every little detail, but the major plot points and the general context of the climax in particular. I also felt the book ended without seeing everything through to the end. Not a cliffhanger, but a plot hole left unfilled.
In the end I enjoyed Sixteenth Watch for what it is, something akin to a summer action movie. It contains action, thrills and pacing to keep you in your seat (turning the page) but without expectation of a deep exploration of character or theme. It’s a story you can count on to keep you entertained and will fill that need for a little science fiction action and conflict, but without emotional investment.
Thanks to Angry Robot and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
3 of 5 Stars
Author: Myke Cole
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication Date: March 10, 2020