They’re lying to you. Whoever wrote the back cover copy and the PR blurb-age wants you to think that Gemini Cell, the fourth in Myke Cole’s “Shadow Ops” series (and a precursor to the first three books) is a military sci-fi novel, and it’s easy to see why. It’s full of Navy SEAL tactics and discipline, military procedure and weaponry, terrorism and counterterrorism, special ops, and a whole lot of things getting blown up.
But at its heart, it’s a love story. Not a romance, but a true love story. The love of country from one who has chosen to give their lives for its welfare. The love of a band of brothers, thrown together and reforged as a fighting unit, committed to the operation and to each other. The love of a father for his young son. But especially, the love between two people that transcends separation, even death.
But the things-getting-blowed-up parts are pretty good, too.
Myke Cole definitely knows what he’s talking about when he writes about fighting forces. He’s currently a lieutenant with the United States Coast Guard Reserve and works for the NYPD, commanding a boat squadron responsible for search and rescue and maritime law enforcement in the waters around New York. He has served in Iraq, two tours as a security contractor and a third as a Department of Defense civilian. His military voice is authoritative and genuine. So are the fantastical aspects of his story – and the love story, as well.
In Gemini Cell, we are introduced to Petty Officer First Class James Schweitzer, Navy SEAL and consummate warrior. His sniping ability is keen. He’s well liked by his commanders and the men in his squad. He has a four year old son and a pink-haired, tattooed artist wife who takes no crap and yet still exudes a strong femininity. They are deeply in love.
But in life, bad things still happen to good men, and Jim inexplicably is attacked in his own home by some very bad guys out for revenge. After heartbreakingly watching his wife and son cut down, he himself is overpowered and a bullet to his head ends his life. But not his story.
Jim is raised from the dead to become an operative of the top secret project, Gemini Cell, which uses the occult – magic – to partner his enhanced commando body with an ancient warrior spirit: the jinn, Ninip. With an Egyptian sorcerer as handler, and driven by rage and despair at the decimation of his family, Jim uses his fighting know how and military discipline, coupled with the jinn’s supernatural power, to strike against international threats from those who are also looking to exploit the resurgence of magic in our world (the Reawakening of the “Shadow Ops” series).
Yet despite death and reanimation, Jim cannot be separated from his basic humanity, that which made him the man he was. Even as his body is driven to do unspeakably brutal things in the name of national security, and his mind is tortured by the memory of his wife and child, he chafes against being treated as a singular fighting machine and begins to question the purpose and motives of those who control his destiny.
I will admit that the whole “reanimated dead soldier as a super soldier” had me worried at first; there’s so much that can go wrong with such a potential trite concept. And, not having read any of Mr. Cole’s “Shadow Ops” books before, I didn’t know what to expect. But so many people whose opinions I respect had gushed over this book, I felt I had to check it out.
I’m happy to report that all those accolades were correct. Gemini Cell is exceptionally written, gripping, exciting, and compelling. The military operations feel authentic, the emotional turmoil resonates without becoming cloying. The central love story, the one that anchors the book, is handled with sensitivity – just enough sentimentality to make it relatable without going over the top and stopping just short of becoming maudlin. It’s not often that a love story can be this powerful without it being overwhelming, or dissolving into an unpalatable syrup.
But what impressed me the most in Gemini Cell was Jim’s struggle to come to grips with his reanimation, and the continuing conflict of sharing a consciousness – and a body – with a brutal, literally blood-thirsty entity with its own motivations and wiles. In lesser hands, this juxtaposition of modern soldier with ancient jinn might have become a boring litany of discipline versus slavering, but author Cole manages to give a depth to both entities as well as their connection, rather than simply pitting them one against the other, and blessedly without the cop-out of a coerced harmonizing. Folded in with this conflict is a riveting vision of the afterlife and the challenge of retaining a sliver of self when so much has been taken – all masterfully done in Gemini Cell.
It’s not often that you get a hard core military thriller (and there’s plenty of hard core blood and guts in this novel) with fantasy overtones that ingratiates seamlessly with the story, as well as an emotional core that gives all of us a touchstone to anchor ourselves to. But all of these come with this novel.
Seeing the success of Gemini Cell, and given that the other “Shadow Ops” novels delve even deeper into a magical Reawakening replete with superheroes and the supernatural, I think I may just have a few more trips to the library coming up, and a whole new literary obsession to explore.