The first time I read about the concept for this story I was intrigued: a battalion of soldiers fighting on the Somme, during WWI, is mysteriously transported on another planet, where they find themselves fighting another kind of war, against a hostile environment and predatory creatures. So, when I signed up at NetGalley and started browsing around, one of the first titles I saw was the omnibus containing all three novels in this series, and requested it right away – luck was with me, because I was swiftly granted the book.
The first thing I noticed, as I started reading, was the amount of research work that must have gone into crafting the background for the story: the details of trench life, warfare and of the day-to-day hellish existence of those soldiers are quite sharp and contribute to create a very clear image of the living conditions on the battlefield. Sometimes those details can be overwhelming, what with unusual terms and military jargon, but once the reader gets into the “vibe” of it all, it helps the immersion in the story itself, even when it shows the most unsavory aspects of it all.
It’s a known fact that life on the front is no walk in the park, but what WWI soldiers had to face was particularly awful: those young men had left home driven both by patriotic feelings and the desire to find honor and glory, sometimes even to escape dreary lives, but what they found in reality was worse than a nightmare. The trenches meant dirt and mud, rats and body lice; cold, discomfort and unpalatable rations, and this was just the setting, because the constant shelling, the sorties that meant heavy casualties, the awareness of an enemy always ready to pounce and the horrid consequences of wounds, given the poor level of medical treatment, were enough to sap even the strongest of characters.
All this is rendered with stark realism, from the observation of the soldiers’ reactions during an attack or of their rare moments of quiet, when they find in shared camaraderie and in news from home a way to forget the cruel reality of warfare. Also quite real is the huge divide between the troops and the officers (some of them men as young and inexperienced as their underlings, but denied the luxury of showing fear and uncertainty) because it mirrors the social barriers that were in force at the time.
With these premises, I should have enjoyed the book – or rather books – quite a bit, but unfortunately the rich setting was offset by a characterization that was not as carefully rendered as the background. I’m aware that a plot-driven story must focus more on events than on the figures peopling them, but still I need some fully-fleshed characters to enjoy it: with the exception of Private “Only” Atkins, whose back-story is detailed in some depth, the other individuals are painted with such broad strokes that I found it difficult to care for them. Even the evil officer Jeffries, despite the satanic rituals and bloody trail of corpses behind him, failed to appear like a believable menace, and instead looked more like the proverbial mustache-twirling bad guy than a flesh-and-blood person.
Once the soldiers found themselves transported into an alien world, I would have expected more of a reaction after the initial shock and disbelief had been processed. Instead these men choose to stay in the trenches, carrying on with “business as usual” while waiting for an unlikely rescue: no sense of wonder, no desire to know what had happened to them. Yes, there were forays to procure food and water, but the men showed no inclination to understand the world they had been brought to, or to look beyond the restricted confines of the corpse-riddled section of mud they had been transported with. A further point of puzzlement came from the liberal use of ammunitions and explosives, with no one mentioning the dwindling supplies or the fact that they could not be replenished. Worse still was the lack of perceivable reaction to the heavy losses suffered from the hostile environment: it was a jarring contrast with the realistic portrayal of the soldiers’ behavior in the first part of the novel.
My suspension of disbelief was stretched even thinner at the first contact with the planet’s indigenous dwellers: both the humanoid-looking ones and the insectoid “master race” spoke fluent English, with mannerisms and frames of reference not unlike those of their unexpected visitors. That was indeed my turning point, the factor that brought me to finish at least the first book of the omnibus, The Black Hand Gang, but to go no further: when I lose faith in a story, in its ability to take hold of my imagination and carry it elsewhere, it means that something vital is missing.
I don’t mean to say that this is a bad book, but it does not fulfill my own requirements for a compelling story. At times it reminded me of those ‘50s or ‘60s movies, where characterization and believability were sacrificed in the name of moving the action forward at a fast pace: here some of the narrative choices were quite over the top, especially while picturing the consequences of meetings with the local flora and fauna. Nothing wrong with that either, but not exactly what I look for in a book. Clearly not my “cup of tea”.
My Rating: 5/10