[I was sent an ARC by the publisher, via Netgalley, in return for a fair and honest review]
I have never served in the military, and it seems increasingly unlikely that I ever will given my advancing age, advancing stomach size, and an variety of fears that can probably be encompassed under the general term of ‘intense cowardice’. Only being a civilian, therefore, I’m extremely aware that I can only have the vaguest notions of what it is like to serve in the armed forces: the experiences to be had in visiting countries overseas and becoming immersed in different creeds and cultures; the horrific and unpredictable effects of being in combat; and, perhaps above all others, the fundamental nature of the intense camaraderie that forms between soldiers serving together in a unit, a brotherhood (and, increasingly, sisterhood) that is formed through sweating and bleeding and fighting together. As a result of this, there is a fundamental gulf – a social and cultural disconnect – between civilians and veterans, and there are relatively few ways that this can be bridged by veterans in an attempt to communicate their experiences to the rest of society.
The written word is one of those bridges, and active and former soldiers have written books for millennia in an attempt to convey their world view, a tradition that carries on to this day: one need only wander into any bookstore, new or second-hand, to see row upon row of books by veterans of conflicts, particularly modern-day ones like Iraq and Afghanistan. However, I hope that it is not too controversial a point to highlight that not all of these books are actually good – that while they attempt to convey a viewpoint, many are not really that well-written or engaging, often despite the assistance of ghost-writers or editors. As such, it is always something to celebrate when you come across a piece of military fiction that has been written by a veteran or serving soldier who is also skilled as a writer. The latest example that I have come across is Burning Sky by Weston Ochse, an author that I’d been aware of previously, but never quite had the time to pick up any works that he had written. However, when Netgalley advertised that Mr Ochse had a new title out, which was categorised under ‘military horror’, I knew that I had to request an advanced review copy in order to read and then review it.
The story of Burning Sky intrigued me, telling the tale of a group of former US Army veterans who have become private contractors – a Tactical Support Team in modern parlance – and returned to the Middle East in order to earn more money and try and change their fortunes for the better after being scarred – physically and mentally – by years of combat abroad. But when a supposedly simple mission – escorting a general officer on an ‘off the books’ mission deep into Afghanistan – goes terribly wrong, the TST return home to the United States only to find themselves plagued by problems that go much further than the physical and mental toll that comes with being a veteran. A horrific shared dream haunts them whenever they sleep, and team leader Bryan Starling – nicknamed Boy Scout – finds that complete strangers seem to know him intimately, and claim that he has met them before, and often done terrible things to them that he knows with utter certainty have never occurred. It’s an interesting idea that immediately hooked me from the very first page, and before long I had been drawn into the pages of a tense, atmospheric and action-packed military thriller that slowly but surely morphs into a novel of cosmic horror.
When I started to read Burning Sky I assumed that I would be looking at a fairly ‘conventional’ horror novel with a military theme – perhaps some kind of ‘creature feature’ that saw the TST members hunt down some occult or extra-terrestrial threat in the deserts of Afghanistan. But as I read on, it rapidly became clear that although there were elements of this, it was actually so much more than the sort of pot-boiler that often litters the genres. Instead, what Mr Ochse offers up is an open and starkly honest portrayal of the mental and physical costs of fighting in a modern conflict, which in turn becomes subtly integrated with elements of cosmic and body horror as time goes on. Boy Scout and the rest of his team have been scarred, and even broken, by what they have seen and endured in the Middle East, and there’s some absolutely first-rate characterisation as Ochse introduces each member of the TST to the reader and highlights how they have reacted to coming back to home soil, managing to deftly maintain the balance between not sanitising the effects of the war and also not falling into stereotypes and tropes. To take just one example, Boy Scout has become a problematic alcoholic upon his return, and fallen into a distinctly violent and disreputable job, but Ochse readily generates sympathy for him without belabouring the point. Each of the characters in Burning Sky is fully fleshed out and realised, and none can be described as two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. Even when, later on in the novel, characters native to Afghanistan are introduced, they remain interesting and even vibrant personalities that have obviously had thought put into them by the author.
Excellent characterisation is allied with some brilliant writing, and a plot that moves along at a steady pace, tension and atmosphere rife; but just when you think you have a handle on the book, Mr Ochse introduces those horror elements into the mix and hurls you into an increasingly taut and unsettling plot. People that Boy Scout see begin to have static-filled, glowing faces that are genuinely disturbing in the way that Ochse describes them, and you can almost physically feel the character’s reality begin to distort as they try and figure out why things are happening to them. Indeed, one of the main themes of Burning Sky seems to be the nature of reality for a veteran, and how a universe already frayed by the costs of combat and other human-made horrors can be far too easily snapped entirely by the introduction of occult elements.
It’s rather difficult to try and discuss the latter half of the novel without introducing massive spoilers to anyone reading this review, so I’ll have to try and talk in generalities. However, the nature of the enemy that the members of the TST discover is both fresh and engaging, and Ochse expertly blends together Western military expertise with Middle Eastern mythology and cultural details to create a unique backdrop to the novel when the TST return to where it all began for them. By the half-way mark, the plot has begun to twist and turn until it has worked itself into non-Euclidean shapes, and such is Ochse’s skill as a writer that even I as the reader became suspicious of everything that the characters were encountering, sharing in their paranoia about the nature of their reality and what level they were truly operating on. Truth in Burning Sky becomes an entirely subjective and worryingly malleable thing, and there are layers to the plot that means careful re-reading is needed to draw out all of the subtle implications and themes that Ochse has seeded the book with.
Burning Sky is a fantastic novel that I enjoyed every minute of reading – engagingly written, sharply plotted and laced with both cosmic horrors and the entirely human-made horrors of modern war. I firmly believe that it represents the pinnacle of the military horror genre, and will be difficult, if not impossible, to surpass.