Having thoroughly enjoyed Jess Anastasi’s Atrophy (book one in her Atrophy series), I’m keen to read more of her work, so while I wait for the next Atrophy book to appear, I decided to pick up War Games, which is the fourth and final novel centring around the UEF battleship Valiant Knox. I haven’t read the previous books, and the author includes enough information here for newbies to be able to work out who is who and how they relate to each other; although I suspect I’ve probably missed some of the explanations and backstory to the war going on between the UEF and the CSS – and I admit, I wouldn’t have minded a glossary of the acronyms!
CAFF (and this one is in the book! – Captain of the Fighter Force) Theresa Brenner is discovering that her recent promotion is not all it’s cracked up to be, as she is spending more time behind a desk shovelling paperwork or on the deck of the Valiant Knox giving orders than she is actually flying with her fighter squadrons. But her wish to be out in the field is granted in the worst possible way; one of her pilots, Sub-Officer Shen, is shot down during a skirmish with the enemy, and ejects from her fighter, leaving her stranded on the nearest planet, Ilari. Knowing that if Shen is captured, she’ll be tortured in a CSS rededication camp, Bren (as she prefers to be called) immediately applies for permission to mount a rescue.
Commander Yang (hero of Escape Velocity, book one in the series) is reluctant to give the order; he’s just received information that the situation on Ilari is being further complicated by the newly emerging rebel forces, and that operating behind enemy lines is more dangerous than ever. But Bren is adamant – even going so far as to say she’ll go to look for Shen herself – when help comes from a most unexpected (and unwelcome) quarter.
Colonel Cameron MacAllister is one of the men in charge of UEF’s base on Ilari. A consummate soldier, he’s a born leader and is widely liked and respected by all – except Bren, who blames him for her brother’s death a decade earlier. He has been charged with a covert mission; accompanied by a small team, he is to head behind enemy lines and meet with one of the rebel leaders – and he offers to bring in Shen if he comes across her. But this isn’t good enough for Bren, who promptly announces her intention of going along. Cam, who has never forgotten the almighty screw-up Bren’s brother caused ten years ago, doesn’t like it one bit, but when Yang approves, he realises he’s stuck with her whether he likes it or not.
So, we’ve got an enemies-to-lovers story wherein said enemies have both made judgements of each other based on incorrect perceptions. Bren believes MacAllister’s poor leadership and judgement got her brother killed (needless to say, that wasn’t the case) while he worries that she may be as reckless and heedless of orders as her brother was. Their earliest interactions are full of seething resentment which rides atop an undercurrent of unwanted attraction, until gradually, Bren begins to see a different side of Cam and wonders if she could possibly have been wrong about him all these years, while Cam is surprised to discover that Bren is quick, gusty, clever and capable; in short, completely unlike her brother!
Their relationship is a fairly slow burn, which works given their situation – they can’t just pop off for a quick make-out session in the bushes! – and the author builds the sexual tension between them pretty well, gradually revealing more of them to each other and strengthening their emotional connection as the story progresses. There’s a last-minute attempt to wring every drop of tension out of the romance when Cam jumps to a conclusion about Bren that seems rather at odds with his renewed opinion of her, but the main reason I couldn’t grade the book more highly is that the storyline – and the action scenes in particular – were just… flat. I don’t have anything against predictable storylines, provided there’s something else about the book that compels me to read it, and I know this author can write tense, exciting action scenes; but here, I found myself waiting for those heart-pounding moments of anxiety for our heroes – that never came.
I said in the introduction that I was confused by some of the acronyms – and that’s probably my fault because I haven’t read the other books. But with that said, if you’re writing and marketing a book as essentially a standalone (which is very common with series in the romance genre), then things like that should be made clear. So I looked at some reviews of the other books in the series to confirm that UEF stands for United Earth Forces and to discover that CSS stands for Christ’s Sunday Soldiers. And as I read, I realised I’d missed a big chunk of plot; the reasons behind the war are not discussed in War Games, and as I read other reviews to find out about the acronyms, I learned that the CSS is a fanatical group of fundamentalists who want to wipe out the use of modern technology. Which made no sense; how they could espouse that cause while fighting a war against an army that had so much technology at its disposal – after all, they couldn’t just chuck a wooden spear at a spaceship and hope to do damage! They had to fight fire with fire, which meant the use of the very technology they so hated.
Admittedly those are things I found out after I had finished the book, and my grade does not take them into account. But I believed them worth mentioning as it’s now clear to me that anyone thinking of reading War Games might want to consider backtracking to book one, as it appears that readers will get the most out of the individual stores by reading the whole series in order.
In terms of this book however, I can’t deny that I came away from it somewhat disappointed overall. It’s most certainly not a bad book by any means; it just didn’t grab my attention and keep me glued to it the way I’d hoped it would.