A hugely entertaining military-ish science fiction novel, Gavin Smith’s The Bastard Legion (originally released as The Hangman’s Daughter) kicks off a series of the same name, set 400 years into a dark but still recognisable future. Livewire, smart-talking mercenary Miska, commanding a force six-thousand strong, is commissioned to pacify a group of rebellious miners on a remote asteroid. The problem is, her army is made up of dangerous criminals from a stolen prison ship, trained only in virtual reality and compelled to fight under threat of execution, while her only help comes from the digital presence of her dead father.
The main narrative revolves around Miska bullying, cajoling, tricking and indeed fighting her way through the mission, with the expected ups and downs, but there’s a slowly-revealed backstory that gradually builds up as the book progresses to explain how and why she’s ended up doing what she’s doing. There’s a hint of Iain M. Banks in that slow reveal, but also in the smart world building on offer. Miska inhabits a well-realised SF world which is sufficiently close to reality to feel relatable, with snippets of familiar-feeling geopolitics, and recognisable day to day concerns, but with plenty of cool toys and technologies on offer as well. It’s all quite lightly sketched in, rather than hammered home, which makes for a satisfying sense of style without detracting from the plot.
Narratively it keeps to a fairly familiar template of pace, action and sharply entertaining dialogue, interspersed with (largely) slower-paced flashbacks that steadily build context as Miska’s story unfolds. Impressively, the main storyline is entertaining enough that things are believable and entertaining even before the flashbacks begin, and that’s down to Miska herself. In what is a pretty brutal, dark story, where you’re often best off not getting too attached to supporting characters, Miska’s mix of irreverence, bravado and slightly worrying craziness is instantly engaging. She’s not a nice character, in fact she’s often pretty appalling – a fact she addresses herself during the course of the book – but she’s got the madcap anti-hero vibe nailed.
In case the title hasn’t given it away, this isn’t a deathly serious story – it’s bold, loud and entertaining, equally gritty and dark-humoured, but for all that it’s nicely constructed and well written. It’s not groundbreaking or startlingly original, but narratively it’s satisfying and conceptually it’s vivid, clever and occasionally a bit gross. It’s thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, and as the first book in a series there’s a lot of scope for this to develop and turn into something genuinely great. If you like your science fiction fast-paced and explosive but also smart, sharp and witty, this is the sort of book you’ll love.