I enjoyed Relaunch Mission, the first book in Robyn Bachar’s Galactic Cold War series, set in a future in which the Cold War never ended and which follows the adventures of the members of the crew of the privateer ship Mombasa. I somehow missed the second book, Contingency Plan, but decided to pick up this third instalment anyway; although I would probably have benefited from reading the previous book, the author includes enough information about what happened there for me not to have felt too lost.
Because this is the third in a series with an overarching plotline, there will be spoilers for the earlier books in this review.
When End Transmission opens, we find Mombasa’s chief engineer Maria Watson and ship’s surgeon (and the captain’s brother) Tomas Nyota at a small lab at an ex-mining facility attempting to analyse the tiny Project Compliance prototype they managed to get hold of at the end of book two, a mind control device developed by the Soviets that they plan to implant (secretly) among the population. The task is proving frustratingly difficult; there’s to be no way to open it up and it’s resistant to scans – and as it’s the only one they have, they can’t do anything that might risk destroying it. While Tomas and Maria are arguing about different approaches, alarms start blaring out and on contacting the Mombasa are told to get back fast – there’s a fleet of ships from the Soviet Navy about to arrive. Before Maria and Tomas can make a move, there’s an explosion at the facility that sees Tomas injured by falling debris and cuts off their route to the Mombasa. Their only option now is to escape aboard the Tiger Shark, a small ship (formerly property of the Soviets) docked at the opposite end at the base.
Having patched Tomas up as well as she can, the pair make their way to the ship and have to fight their way through enemy ships and a minefield in an edge-of-the-seat sequence that sees them finally get away by the skin of their teeth, but not without damage to the ship. The Tiger Shark needs repairs and for that, they need to find a safe port where they can get what they need and lie-low while Maria fixes the ship as best she can. On the run from the Soviets and the Alliance – which has labelled the Mombasa crew as wanted terrorists – Maria and Tomas have only each other to depend on as they race against time to find out more about Project Compliance and make their way to their rendezvous with the Mombasa.
End Transmission is fast-paced and action packed, and as I’ve said before, has the feel of a TV show with its fast edits and non-stop action. There’s no doubt the author knows how to keep things moving and how to write an action sequence, but the trouble is here that there’s just too much going on. I lost count of the times Maria and Tomas were shot at, blown up, beat up, drugged and had to get themselves out of really tight corners in the first half of the novel alone – and in practically every case, they were saved thanks to Maria’s trusty tablet, Tabby, who, it seemed, was programmed to do everything from analyse a toxin and prepare and administer an antidote to setting off explosions, car alarms and connecting with pretty much any security, navigation, communication, power and other computer network imaginable. Tabby really is a deus ex machina, a device that can do practically anything when our heroes are backed into a corner or need important information.
Reading through our review of Contingency Plan, I note the same issues with the romance as I had in the first book – and I’m going to say the same thing about this one, which is that the romance is very much secondary to the plot and is sadly underdeveloped. Maria and Tomas spend the first two thirds of the story getting on each other’s nerves, and although there’s an undercurrent of attraction between them, it’s fairly slight. Then when they finally get back to the Mombassa, they go from ‘you’re hot but you annoy the crap outta me’ to ‘let’s have sex and get it out of our systems’. It’s a common trope to be sure, but not generally one I like all that much, because of course it never works and I often feel it’s just a way for authors to shoe-horn in some sex scenes their characters aren’t otherwise ready for; they haven’t really built a relationship and can’t (for some reason) say, ‘hey, I like you so let’s shag’ so there has to be all this ‘I want you but can’t admit it, so let’s shag and then I can walk away’ nonsense.
While there’s an attempt at character development at a deeper level, we’re told rather than shown what makes these two tick. Maria comes from a very traditional background and her family thinks she should be getting married and having babies rather than working as an engineer, and Tomas suffers PTSD as a result of horrific wartime experiences and is a recovering addict who screwed up his marriage and still battles his saviour complex. Once they’ve both admitted these hang-ups to each other, they agree to try to do better – or ‘reprogram’ their behaviours as Tomas suggests wryly – but it’s all quite superficial and actually, the vibe they give off is more that of affectionately exasperated siblings than a couple who are romantically involved.
End Transmission ties up the overarching plot of the series – the search for the mind-control weapon and its destruction – neatly, and delivers a quick (if not especially believable) HEA for Tomas and Maria. It’s a fast, easy read, and I liked the worldbuilding and political background to the story but I never got caught up in it or became invested in the characters. The lack of depth I mentioned in my review of Relaunch Mission was more of an issue for me here, I suspect because the characters were pushed from one perilous situation to another so quickly that I didn’t have time to take in what had just happened before the next thing went wrong. I was also annoyed by the frequent use of Tabby the get-out-of-jail-free tablet and had to raise an eyebrow near the end, when a character is critically injured one minute, and able to run, shoot a gun and then man a weapons system aboard ship the next.
If you’ve been following the series and want to know how it all works out then you may want to pick up End Transmission for the sake of completeness, but I can’t really recommend it otherwise.