“The Last Good Man” by Linda Nagata

Compelling immersive tale of a near-future Military Contractor seeking the truth about her son’s brutal execution

I wasn’t sure this would be my kind of book. Set in the near future, it tells the story of a woman soldier working for a Private Military Contractor (PMC) licensed by the US government, who finds something she doesn’t like while on a hostage rescue mission.

I see PMCs as a scourge on the earth and the US’s tendency to use force in countries it’s not at war with as criminal, so I doubted I’d be sympathetic but I was curious, so I gave it a try.

Three hours into this fourteen hours long audiobook, I was hooked. The first mission was still in progress and I still didn’t know what the bad thing was that our soldier was going to discover but instead of finding myself tapping my fingers in impatience at the pace, I was enjoying myself. I found it unexpectedly compelling to get a blow by blow account of the planning and execution of the mission. it felt real. It was tense without being melodramatic.

One of the things that kept me reading was the credible but very scary biomimetic robotics being used. This is not far out tech. Many of the physical characteristics are already available and the AI and Swarm technologies are catching up fast. When they become available for real, they will transform warfare, and terrorism and private armies and organised crime.

I also liked the thoughtful way in which the role of PMCs was talked through. The dangers of having a private military capability that makes money from was but has no incentive to bring or keep the peace were given ait time, as was the impact of a boundaryless war: the ability to pursue a conflict globally, based on infrastructure capability rather than national sovereignty.

The most surprising thing for me was that the book managed to be character-driven. The soldier, Tru Brighton, ends up on a very personal quest for the truth around the public and barbaric execution of her soldier son eight years earlier. This worked partly because Tru is likeable as a mature soldier and as a mother and partly because her quest is not for comfort or even for revenge but just to know the truth.

There’s a reasonably complicated plot that kept me invested all the way through without making me feel I was being teased in the way some smug bet-you-didn’t-see-that-coming thrillers do. It allowed some great action scenes and a constantly shifting perspective on the truth as new facts came to light.

I listened to the audiobook version and wad impressed by how well Liisa Ivary delivered the story. She has teremendous range in both pace and characterisation.

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