The Fortress in Orion: Things go too smoothly in this space-opera heist

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Fortress in Orion by Mike Resnick science fiction book reviewsThe Fortress in Orion by Mike Resnick

The Fortress in Orion is the first book in Mike Resnick’s DEAD ENDERS series. Colonel Nathan Pretorius is a decorated hero in the Democracy’s twenty-three year war with the Traanskei Coalition. Just as he is recuperating from his last mission, Pretorius is given a new assignment, one that seems impossible. It means infiltrating the heart of one of the Coalition’s best-defended fortresses and substituting an imposter for an important Coalition member. Early in the book, the odds of success are given as three percent. Later, they rise to six or seven percent.

Despite the military costuming, The Fortress in Orion is basically a heist or a caper story. Instead of The Dirty Dozen, think A-Team, Ocean’s 11-13 or Leverage. Pretorius assembles the generic heist team: the Strong Man, the Safecracker, the Acrobat, the Master of Disguises. In this case, the Master of Disguise character is actually non-human. All the other team members are human, or, as they are named in Resnick’s universe, Men. The Safecracker is, naturally, a computer hacker extraordinaire, and Pretorius adds an empath, who comes in handy as they try to figure out who is buying their con.

The book is short, about 300 pages, and the caper is easy. Pretorius and his team have a few dust-ups on frontier planets where they stop to refuel, gather information and steal things, but nothing serious. They land without any problem on the fortress planet and hole up successfully in a spare room while they set up their equipment. They carry out the mission and go home. There are one or two glitches but, basically, I’ve had Christmas shopping runs with more tension.

Although this is a heist, and Pretorius “breaks the rules” by assembling a non-military team, everyone agrees that he is the boss and, therefore, the only one who can have an opinion. The members never gel as a team, but they never squabble; they ask Pretorius leading questions so he can show how clever he is, but they never challenge him. Pretorius’s special trick is never to tell anyone the details of his plan, because the situation may change at any time. When Pretorius does use a contingency plan, the contingency plan never needs tweaking; everything flows smoothly.

Resnick’s universe, with a few exceptions, is quite fun. I liked the travelogue aspects as we see various planets, like the one with the fur-bearing species that is hunted for its pelt; the “hunt” seems pretty evenly balanced once we see one of the creatures. Toward the end of the book, there is a riff about the medals of the person they plan to kidnap. That riff went on for a few pages and it was quite funny.

I didn’t deeply dislike The Fortress in Orion, but the relative ease of the mission, the blandness of the characters, and the lack of narrative drive meant that this would have been an easy book to put down. There is a character whose conflict could really have upped the suspense: Djibmet, who has turned against his own people and is helping the Democracy. Djibmet is vital to the mission, and as the story progresses he is forced to interact with military members of his own race. Djibmet is not military; he is a businessman. Scenes where he is forced to impersonate a soldier are suspenseful. Djibmet’s emotional and philosophical conflict, especially contrasted with Pretorius’s traditional military mentality, could have made this story tense, memorable and interesting. Sadly, Resnick did not choose to go there.

I was also irked by annoyances like “the race of Man.” Out among the stars, in a universe that has races with more than two sexes, humanity has chosen a name that ignores 51% of the population. When Pretorius announces, mid-trip, that he is stopping at a brothel to get intel, the women on his team react with prudish disapproval. Why would they care? As if that behavior weren’t stereotypical enough, Resnick goes on to describe Madame Methuselah’s establishment:

It was a brothel, with females of more than a dozen races, and a few males as well.

Oooh, a few males! How racy! And probably some of those “females” are from the “race of Man,” although as we all know, that word is totally inclusive, right? I can’t believe that in the future we will still be this blinkered, bigoted and unimaginative. This sudden reversion to a future rooted in the 1950s put a big dent in my reading enjoyment.

To be fair, Resnick peoples Pretorius’s team with a good number of women. They don’t get to do anything except listen to his lectures and follow his orders, but in that sense they are no different from the male characters.

DEAD ENDERS is a series, and possibly Resnick will devote future stories to the development of his characters. I hope he does, because they have potential. As it stands, I finished The Fortress in Orion wishing I had been watching a marathon of the TV show Leverage instead.

Dead Enders — (2014- ) Publisher: The Democracy is at war with the alien Traanskei Coalition. War hero Colonel Nathan Pretorius has a record of success on dangerous behind-enemy-lines missions, missions that usually leave him in the hospital. Now he’s recruited for a near-impossible assignment that may well leave him dead. At the cost of many lives, the Democracy has managed to clone and train General Michkag, one of the Traanskei’s master strategists. Colonel Pretorius and a hand-picked team must kidnap the real Michkag if they can, assassinate him if they can’t, but no matter which, put the clone in his place, where he will misdirect the enemy’s forces and funnel vital information to the Democracy. Against the odds, Pretorius, along with Cyborg Felix Ortega, computer expert Toni Levi, convict and contortionist Sally “Snake” Kowalski, the near-human empath Marlowe, the alien Gzychurlyx, and Madam Methuselah – the Dead Enders – must infiltrate the Fortress in Orion, accomplish their mission, and escape with their lives.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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