[Please note that the author sent me a review copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review]
Never in my time as a book reviewer, or indeed just as a general reader, have I ever been simultaneously excited and apprehensive to read a book. Dead Sky is the follow-up to Weston Ochse’s 2018 bestseller Burning Sky, a Military Horror novel that I described in my review as representing “…the pinnacle of the military horror genre, and will be difficult, if not impossible, to surpass…” In preparation for receiving the review copy of Dead Sky, I went back to read Burning Sky, and even after a year away from it, reading some absolutely fantastic Horror titles, it still stands out as one of the best pieces of Horror fiction I’ve ever read. It’s a superb blend of fast-paced action, chilling supernatural, reality-bending horror, and a starkly honest portrayal of the very human horrors of PTSD, as can only be described by a veteran-turned-author. It’s also a perfectly self-contained novel, with a distinctly downbeat and ambiguous ending, and that was where my feelings of apprehension came from. Intellectually I knew that Burning Sky was simply the first book in a planned trilogy, but I genuinely had no idea how author Weston Ochse could possibly continue that story, and also maintain the incredibly high standards he had set in the first novel. So it was a sense of intrigue but also trepidation that I cracked open Dead Sky and dived back into the world of Boy Scout, former Special Forces operator and Private Military Contractor.
There will be relatively little description of the plot of Dead Sky in this review, nor that of Burning Sky, and purposefully so, because to do anything other than sketch out the narrative in general outlines would be to ruin the superb work Mr Ochse has put into the characters and world-building. I hope it suffices to say that Boy Scout and his team of operators, while working in Afghanistan, encountered a number of supernatural objects on what should have been a standard protection job. Despite returning to the United States, they gradually realised that they were now enmeshed in a reality-bending, potentially-apocalyptic scenario that had been in process for centuries, and struggled to escape from it. Now, having returned again to the United States, Boy Scout is forced to not only deal with the guilt of several of his closest friends dying, but also the fact that a number of entities – ‘travellers’ in the parlance of the novel – have merged with his very soul as part of his overseas experiences. Their memories are chaotic blends of combat and grim hardship, becoming additional, unwanted burdens that only exacerbate his pre-existing PTSD; and to make things worse, one of them is powerful enough to take over his body, with violent and near-lethal effect. With the aid of a former nun, herself once possessed by a demon, and a secretive US Army intelligence unit with unclear motivations, Boy Scout and his last few friends struggle to purge the travellers from his soul, and figure out why they’re still being pursued by their enemies.
As with Burning Sky, the plot in Dead Sky is fast-paced, supercharged and entirely devoid of padding. The focus is entirely on the characters of Boy Scout, Preacher’s Daughter and McQueen, and while Boy Scout is the protagonist, I’m once again struck by the fact that the latter two characters are so well-realised that they could easily be the protagonists in their own series, given the amount of care Ochse has taken in crafting and then developing them throughout the two books. Once again we as the reader are drawn into the tight-knit world of military veterans, and especially Special Forces operators, and the unshakable bonds drawn up between them regardless of gender or age. The relationship between the three, and the way it contorts, cracks but reaffirms itself under the immense pressure that Ochse places onto the team, is one of the most rewarding and engaging parts of Dead Sky. And while the three operators dominate the novel, the supporting cast of characters that Ochse brings in are just as fleshed-out– particularly Charlene, the mysterious psychic Boy Scout repeatedly encounters, and the team’s nemesis Farood, the leader of the Dervishes pursuing them across Los Angeles. The fact that Ochse can make these characters just as memorable as the protagonist speaks volumes about his skill as a writer, as well as his ability to transfer his military experiences onto paper.
The supernatural elements that came into the last third of Burning Sky are now front and centre in Dead Sky, which allows Ochse to significantly develop and expand on them; and there are some genuinely fascinating ideas to be found within the novel. Boy Scout is already a damaged individual, dealing with the experiences of being a combat veteran who’s served for decades, but now he’s forced to deal with the intense, fragmented and often traumatic memories of the travellers who have merged with him. It can really only be described as PTSD from hell, and Ochse wields it superbly – and sensitively – to bridge Boy Scout’s entirely human-made trauma and the increasingly supernatural-focused plot. Slowly but surely, Boy Scout is forced to grapple with the concept of warfare on an entirely different plane, one in which a single mistake can be fatal to more than his physical form, and where he has to learn an entirely new set of skills. Slow, intense scenes on the astral plane are blended with fast-paced and violent action scenes set in the real world, and Ochse uses them to invoke a real air of mystery as to what is happening to Boy Scout and his team. It’s obvious that Ochse has put a huge amount of thought into this concept and done his research, ensuring that the astral plane scenes are both entirely logical within the Dead Sky universe and really cool as well, bringing a whole new dimension of action and fighting to the series.
But while excursions into the astral plane, daemons, whirling dervishes and out of body experiences are integral parts of Dead Sky, it’s impossible to get away from the fact that the core of the novel – and indeed the series as a whole – is the struggle by Boy Scout to deal with the mental and physical damage that comes from being a veteran. PTSD is a convenient label to use, and indeed is invoked throughout the novel by Boy Scout, but barely begins to cover what Ochse carefully, intimately and openly examines throughout Dead Sky. He has a superb ability to lay bare the realities of the scars – both obvious and hidden – that returning veterans have, and also the complete inability of civilians to truly understand. Not just the more well-known things like PTSD, flashbacks, tremors and the like, but also things I hadn’t considered; the suffocating feeling of being around people you don’t truly know or trust, or the panic that can break out when you’re hyper-aware of a situation but not able to be in control, or see what’s going on all around you.
When I finished Dead Sky, I felt like I had a greater understanding of these issues than I had gained from any number of real-life biographies and history books written by veterans – all the result of Ochse’s unique ability to merge his experiences with the skills of a superbly-talented writer. Even the fight scenes in the physical world are all the more brutal and striking for the understanding Ochse brings of the results of those fights, so often ignored or glossed over in the genre. Broken limbs, dislocated joints leading not just to temporary incapacity for a few chapters, but permanent crippling and maiming that will remain with an individual for the rest of their suddenly-restricted life. I felt strangely humbled by the end of Dead Sky, given a glimpse into Mr Ochse’s experiences as a veteran even as he weaved a complex, multi-layered and often deeply emotional story that drew on those experiences and also his phenomenal and fertile imagination.
To say that I read Dead Sky doesn’t seem to be a sufficient way to describe this novel – experienced seems to be more accurate, yet somehow still lacking. It is complex, multi-layered and genuinely soul-searing in its raw honesty and emotional engagement. Boy Scout may well inhabit a supernatural world full of Matrix-style fighting and super-cool astral plane experiences, with dervishes and psychics and ultra-secretive intelligence units that hint at a wider world not yet fully revealed; but he must still fight as a soldier, live as a soldier, and suffer mentally and physically as a soldier. And those experiences are the heart of Dead Sky and what makes it such a remarkable and unforgettable novel – one which has built upon its predecessor in every possible way, and therefore done what I thought impossible: surpassed it as the pinnacle of Military Horror. Dead Sky to me is not just a good novel, or a great novel – it is vital reading for anyone who wishes to read or write in the Military Horror genre, or indeed the Horror genre as a whole. I understand there is a third novel to come, to close out the trilogy. I have no idea where Mr Ochse will take Boy Scout and his few remaining comrades – but I will be there every step of the way.