Operation Mongolia (S-Squad Book #8)
Severed Press can always be relied upon to serve up a variety of different titled across a number of genres, many of which feature cryptids in one form or another. By far my favourite of their series, and indeed their authors, is veteran horror author William Meikle and his long-running S-Squad series. As of the time of writing this review, the ninth title in the series has just been published, and there’s a damn good reason for that: Mr Meikle is able to blend together imaginative cryptids, pulse-pounding action and surprisingly deep characterisation in order to deliver consistently high-quality thrillers pitching his band of sweary Scottish squaddies against various horrifying mythical monsters. I’ve been reading and reviewing the S-Squad series since this blog began, and recently realised that I had managed to miss the publication of the last two titles in the series. Given that I was able to make use of Amazon UK’s offer of a free month of Kindle Unlimited, it seemed like the ideal time to read and review the latest adventures of the long-suffering S-Squad.
If I’m being completely honest, ‘long-suffering’ is an incredible understatement, given just how effectively the veteran Special Forces squad has been put through the wringer over the course of the series. If there’s a cryptid, monster or over-sized predator that can possibly be imagined by Mr Meikle, then Captain John Banks, Sergeant Hynd, Corporal Wiggins and various comrades have shot, stabbed, exploded and otherwise fought and killed them. Whether it’s giant isopods, oversized snakes, twelve-foot spiders or even honest-to-God trolls, the plucky soldiers have fought them all, often only surviving by the very skin of their teeth. Operation Mongolia, the eighth book in the series, sees the squaddies travel to the Gobi desert to extract a pair of stranded archaeologists; but of course, what should be a simple mission is made infinitely more complex and deadly by what lurks just under the surface of the desert, hunting them through the sand and dust.
Despite the protestations of one of the archaeologists, resulting in a quietly amusing scene where the man is unceremoniously restrained and dumped onto a camel, the early journey by the squad and their wards is uneventful. This gives Meikle time to describe the starkly beautiful terrain in the Gobi Desert, utilising his formidable writing skills to bring the desert to life; his ability to make each geographical setting feel distinct and real to the reader is one of the many subtle yet distinct elements that makes the S-Squad titles so engaging. But just when it seems like it might be an uneventful mission, the advent of an extremely rare yet incredibly powerful rainstorm in the region leads to the men seeking shelter. But a camel suddenly dying inexplicably during the rainstorm, and then its corpse appearing to bulge, stretch and then deform itself while the squad shelter from the rain, signifies the arrival of one of the most terrifying enemies the Special Forces operatives have faced yet in the series.
Fleeing from both the rain and the unusual circumstances around the death of the camel, the small group discover an isolated monastery set upon a large outcropping of rock, occupied by a group of silent monks. Worryingly, the interior of the monastery has large frescos that illustrate some apocalyptic scene from centuries ago – with the holy site surrounded by worm-like creatures. After being delivered a cryptic warning, alongside a terrifying demonstration of what they’ll be facing, Captain Banks is forced to depart the strange site and continue on with the squad and their passengers, only to be relentlessly pursued by the creatures awoken by the rainstorm and hungry for prey. Soon the squad are engaged in a tense cat-and-mouse game with the worms brought to the surface of the desert, with Meikle delivering pulse-pounding, gun-blazing action as the soldiers find themselves frantically seeking the shelter of hard, rocky surfaces that the worms can’t break through and try and devour them.
While anyone looking at the front cover, or read the back-cover blurb, for Operation Mongolia won’t be surprised by the general nature of the monsters S-Squad end up fighting, as always Meikle has a few tricks up his sleeve to ensure he delivers some distinctly unique – and genuinely unsettling – foes for the squaddies and their passengers. His descriptions of the worms are unsettling in the sheer size and variety of the creatures, as well as the way he portrays their slick skin, and horrifying mouths full of ivory-white teeth sharp enough to shred flesh in an instant. Their ability to rear up from the sand without a moment’s notice, accompanied by a sort of electrical discharge from their bodies that can disable radios and even cause tachycardia, makes them a hugely challenging foe of a kind the squad haven’t faced before. And while the larger worms are fearsome, it’s their small kin that really made me grimace, the tiny worms making my skin crawl in the manner they were portrayed, and particularly what they did to their unfortunate victims; I fear that I won’t ever be able to look at a poor, innocent earthworm in exactly the same way ever again after finishing the novella.
Of course, as I’ve mentioned above, it isn’t just the imaginative use of terrifying electrical worms, artful descriptions of the terrain, or the smoothly-paved, well-written action that makes Operation Mongolia such a first-rate cryptid title. The real heart of the novella, and indeed the series as a whole, is the relationship between Banks, Hynd and Wiggins and the organic way it’s developed through the series, to the point where all three men feel like fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional people and not just the standard, generic British/American special forces soldiers that usually appear in these genre stories. The banter between them feels real and genuine, not the forced, clichéd camaraderie of bland characters, and quietly demonstrates to the reader just how long they’ve been serving together, and the intense bond that’s come about as a result. The fact that all of the squaddies are Scottish also gives them a certain distinctiveness, one that Meikle uses well to make each man stand out to the reader; this is particularly the case in Operation Mongolia, as a period of enforced inactivity allows one of the archaeologists to talk to them and discover their backgrounds. There’s even a gentle moment of tongue-in-cheek humour that had me chuckling, when Wiggins complains to the archaeologist about the number of cryptid-related missions they’ve been on, to the point of the whole squad becoming ‘monster magnets’
Operation Mongolia is easily the best title in the S-Squad series so far, and provides another piece of evidence that William Meikle is the undisputed master of the Cryptid genre despite his many competitors, both those published by Severed Press itself, and those from various other publishers. Not only is Operation Mongolia full of tightly-written, smoothly-paced action that sees the veteran Special Forces operatives of S-Squad fight off waves of horrifying worm-like creatures, it also benefits from Meikle’s wonderfully creative imagination that conjures up such vivid descriptions of the Gobi desert, as well as his unique take on the desert-based worms themselves. And of course Banks, Hynd, Wiggins and their comrades form the heart of the novella, and the series as a whole, giving the reader a band of plucky, sweary, human characters to root for that stand head and shoulders above all others in the genre. Long may they continue to be ‘monster magnets’ for Mr Meikle and his fearsome imagination, and I look forward to reviewing the recently-published ninth book in the series – and hopefully many more to come in the future.