There’s a giant Troll on the cover of Operation: Norway, the seventh title in author William Meikle’s S-Squad series. Like, an honest to god, mythical Troll, the kind that you read about in mythological and folklore books. It looms over the S-Squad members with an expression that says, to put it lightly, that it is not happy to have been disturbed by them. The bullets striking the stone-like skin of the Troll don’t seem to be doing anything other than annoying it; and this certainly seems like something that should be avoided at all costs if the Squad want to survive longer than the next thirty seconds or so.
If I make a big deal of what’s on the excellent cover art provided by publisher Severed Press, it’s because until this entry in the series, the S-Squad have generally been fighting cryptozoological beasts; mammals or reptiles or insects that have grown to ridiculous sizes and are aggressively violent, but are still variants of some natural species. Yes, okay, there was that trip to Antarctica with the frozen undead Nazis and the UFOs, but was more non-euclid than anything, and anyway it was all Winston Churchill’s fault when you think about it carefully. The point is, Mr Meikle has never had the S-Squad come up against something from mythology before, so I was eager to see how Captain Banks, Sergeant Hynd and Corporal Wiggins would deal with this.
At first, Operation: Norway seems like it’s going to fit into the usual S-Squad mold – our sweary Scottish squaddies turn up at a deserted, long-abandoned scientific research station. The writing is still up to Mr Meikle’s very high-quality, particularly his captivating and engaging descriptions of the barren, icy scenery, but the plot falls into the comfortable rhythm of the series. There’s some abandoned buildings, some of them destroyed, and skeletal remains that indicate it wasn’t abandoned because its occupants had wanted to leave under their own duress. There’s even the central Meikle trope of the abandoned diary, handily left behind so that the protagonists can learn some of the backstory for the ruins around them. Just after some key discoveries, the titular monster attacks – and I settled in for what I expected to be a tense game of cat and mouse between an enraged Troll and S-Squad.
And I couldn’t have been more wrong; if I’d been a betting man, I’d have lost a lot of money on assuming how the rest of the novella would proceed. Without wishing to spoil a genuinely enjoyable set of twists and turns, suffice to say that Mr Meikle completely defied both my expectations, and the tropes of the genre, by doing something very unexpected. The action is curtailed suddenly, the setting changes completely, and an entirely new dimension to the appearance of the Troll is introduced. Even the occasionally over-used diary trope is used sparingly, making it that much more effective, and instead there’s a focus on the humanity of the Troll which dives into its tragic background and the notions of vengeance, forgiveness and even redemption to a certain extent. There are ruminations on the unforgiving, violent and often short lives of soldiers, as well as the burden of command and duty – no matter how long ago something occurred.
It’s completely unexpected, especially in the seventh book in a long-running series, but it works amazingly well. The narrative and plot benefit from the characterisations and fleshing-out of the key S-Squad members that Meikle has achieved in the previous titles, particularly Captain Banks and Sergeant Hynds; and there’s also enough action and gunplay to be found in the brutal and surprisingly emotional finale to satisfy fans of that particular element of the genre. Operation: Norway is a surprise in all the best ways, Meikle throwing genre conventions to the wind in order to produce an outstanding action-horror title that takes the reader on a whirlwind journey in a number of different and unexpected directions.