Shadows of the Past by Tom Kolega – review

State of the Art Entertainment, 2010, 365 pages, 978-0-615-30202-7, Hardcover, $22.95

Genre: Military Science Fiction

The first book of the Contra Alliance series introduces the reader to a difficult situation on a near-future Earth. A mysterious organization called the Revolution has created chaos across the globe. Criminals have banded together under the Revolution’s direction with promises of power and wealth, and strange laboratories performing atrocious experiments have been discovered.

To combat the Revolution, NATO has organized CONTRA, a strike force comprised of the world’s most elite military fighters. In the process of tracking down their targets, however, members of this group uncover unexpected truths about the origins of the Revolution. At the same time, the integrity of the CONTRA leaders comes into question, which puts decades of secret work in jeopardy.

In my previous post about this series, I mention that I thought the plan for the story was ambitious. The concept spans so much time that there are thousands of years worth of history before the first book even begins. This is all well and good since it gives the author plenty of material to work with. Certainly it’s a good thing for the story to have an extensive background provided the urge to explain it all immediately is held in check.

Luckily, Tom Kolega does not burden the reader by attempting to heap the entire history of Nerrial and its people into a novel that doesn’t yet have anything to do with them. They are a driving force in the story, yes, but the more immediate concern is whether or not the CONTRA teams will be successful in locating and eliminating the Revolution. Uncovering the existence of Nerrial and its representatives on Earth is a slower process that builds toward the content of the second book.

The story’s exposition is, however, still something of a problem. There are at least a dozen characters as well as several integral bits of history that need to be explained in order to better understand what is happening. This in and of itself is not an issue, but these things are often explained in long chunks of text that either interrupt scenes or involve entire chapters. At times it felt as though I were reading a conceptual history instead of a novel, and the action of the story became lost beneath endless narrative. I would call this a “show don’t tell” issue that could very likely be resolved by restructuring the exposition into scenes that could accomplish the same thing in a more interesting way.

Kolega doesn’t attempt to explain the histories of each and every character, which is probably a good thing. As a result, however, some of them blend together. This is mostly a problem with the male CONTRA characters, presumably because there are more of them. The women, on the other hand, receive much more character analysis. I could tell them apart easily, and I understood the personalities and desires of each. Of the men, only Troy, his father, and Magden stood out sufficiently for me to remember them in the long term.

The same problem existed amongst the antagonists as well. The female member of the Revolution, Prowess, was far better defined than the others. In fact, most of my favorite scenes and details involved her–she was, easily, the most interesting part of the story. As for the other two antagonists, some effort was made was to differentiate Likzi from the others, but it came so late that it accomplished very little. Had his personality been made more apparent over the course of the novel, the final revelations of his character would have been more affecting.

These issues with the narrative and the characters made the story move more slowly than I would have liked, and they made it difficult to connect with what I was reading. I felt, constantly, as though I were viewing events from a distance. Moreover, of all the things that were explained during the novel, the new technologies were not. I would have liked more details about the battle suits and the various military devices and vehicles used by CONTRA.

On a better note, I was intrigued by this book’s take on “werewolves,” which were not actual werewolves as such, but the result of a genetic experiment. The scene involving them was probably one of my favorites in addition to Prowess’s appearances, and I wouldn’t have minded further exploration in that area.

Overall, the idea behind this novel is an interesting one, but I would have enjoyed it more had it been more tightly focused. Fewer character POV’s and a little more detail regarding their behaviors and motivations would have gone a long way toward making the major players memorable as well. We only see a glimmer of these things before the end of the first book. Perhaps the second volume will improve in that regard.

Thank you to Tom Kolega for providing a review copy of this book.



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