Giant spiders. Why did it have to be giant spiders? I’ve been fine so far with all of the cryptozoological creatures and beasties that author William Meikle has unleashed against his poor battered squad of sweary Scottish special forces operatives – Nazis, giant snakes and even reconstituted neolithic animals – but I absolutely loathe spiders even in their normal size. So when I heard that Mr Meikle’s latest adventure for Captain Banks, Sergeant Hynd and newly-promoted Corporal Wiggins would involve them journeying to Syria and fighting off gigantic spiders, I was a little bit nervous. That nervousness wasn’t helped by the particularly evocative – and worryingly realistic – piece of cover art provided by publisher Severed Press for Operation: Syria; a rather menacing-looking spider towers over a member of S-Squad in a pose that doesn’t appear friendly in any way.
Steeling myself as best I could and trying not to think about my arachnophobia, I jumped into the story. After the bloody events of the past few titles in the series, S-Squad have gained some new recruits, and just in time, because they’re ordered into Syria to rescue some British archaeologists caught between some rebels in the desert. For any other special forces team, this would mean a perilous mission fending off heavily-armed rebels. But for Captain Banks and his men, it inevitably means that Mr Meikle has used his prodigious imagination and passion for cryptozoology to come up with some cryptids that the squaddies will have to take on with a plentiful array of guns, knives and explosives.
As always with Mr Meikle’s S-Squad titles, the pace is whiplash-fast and you’re never more than a few pages away from some human vs beastie action. After a tense and atmospheric drop into the Syrian desert at night, the squad begin to get the idea that something strange is going on, and probably has something to do with a certain eight-legged species. Giant webs, corpses wrapped up and stashed away for later consumption, and signs of a fierce firefight but no corpses all point towards yet another difficult mission for the veterans of S-Squad. And just to keep things interesting, Captain Banks has to deal with a sudden and volatile hostage situation in addition to lethal arachnids.
As always best part of novel are the creatures themselves, Meikle using his considerable skills as a horror writer, and his detailed knowledge of cryptozoology and love for classic B-movies to conjure up a distinctly terrifying species of giant spiders that rapidly become a challenge for the Special Forces squaddies. There’s a palpable sense of menace to the spiders when they first make their appearance, and that’s only ratcheted up further as the squad make their way into the creatures hunting grounds, discovering macabre scenes depicting the fates of local residents and rebel groups alike. There’s even some unexpected historical context to the spiders and their unusual size, which would make a cool spin-off by itself.
The action scenes are as intense and smoothly-written as always, peppered with nice touches, details like the squaddies wearing earplugs to save their hearing from brash gunfire. And where previous books in the series have only had a few beasties for the squad to worry about, here there are hordes of arachnids, on a scale that brought to mind the Whiskey Outpost scene in Verhoven’s Starship Troopers; they’re strangely (and delightfully) malicious as well, proving to be a tenacious and deadly foe for S-Squad as they attempt to evacuate the hostages. The characterisation continues to be top-notch; the veterans still have that enjoyable rapport between them, and the new recruits become three-dimensional characters that distinguish them from most soldiers in this genre, who tend to be cardboard cut-outs waiting to be killed by the Monster of the Week. There’s even the welcome addition of a hard-as-nails female character in Scot Maggie Boyd, one of the few surviving archaeologists, who’s also able to fight alongside the S-Squad as they try and make their way to an evacuation point to be rescued. The end of the novella has an intriguing and open-ended future for Maggie, and I wouldn’t mind seeing her appear again in a later S-Squad title.
What I like most about the S-Squad series, and which Operation: Syria epitomizes, is the passion to be found on each novel. This is exactly the sort of series that Mr Meikle could be writing essentially on authorial auto-pilot, churning out a brainless and shallow title every few months, perhaps even contracting out to some guest authors the publisher has lined up. Instead we get works that Mr Meikle obviously has a great deal of fun devising and then writing, and that comes across in the general tone and feeling of the books. We, the reader, are never taken for granted and I for one deeply appreciate that. Filled with the series signature blend of sweary Scots, tightly-written action scenes and terrifyingly realistic cryptids, Operation: Syria is another winner for William Meikle and publisher Severed Press. As long as Mr Meikle can continue to deliver fresh titles that refuse to fall into the laziness and stale writing that plague this type of title, I have no doubt that the S-Squad series will continue to flourish.