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Book cover art by Chris McGrath.
Review © 2008 by Thomas M. Wagner.

[This review contains mild spoilers.]

It is a sad truth that too many series never manage to maintain their quality curve much past their third installments. I have, so far, been enjoying game industry veteran Steven Kent's series about Wayson Harris, a clone warrior bred by Earth's Unified Authority in their fight against a rebellion by the Morgan Atkins Believers (Mogats for short). Both previous installments have taken a deeply cynical view of the politics and morality of warfare, as Harris must deal not only with his status as a despised minority nonetheless genetically programmed to defend the society that has both made and disdained him, but the repeated betrayals said status causes him to endure in the course of simply doing his duty.

That cynicism, admirably, isn't muted in the least in the third book, The Clone Alliance. But this time, the story — which deals with the discovery at long last of the Mogat homeworld and the subsequent invasion thereof — is hampered by, to use the polite phrase, plausibility issues. The impolite phrase, for those counting, would be "poor storytelling choices." Harris has most of his successes in this volume due to luck; "luck," in literary terms, being a euphemism for "writer's convenience." The Mogats, to put it bluntly, are collectively as dumb as a sack of hammers. If they weren't, there'd have been no way for the UA invasion of their world to have worked for five minutes.

Harris is drawn back into the UA fold to help figure out why, with such appallingly poor military skills and discipline, the Mogats are nonetheless handing them their asses in every engagement to date. The Mogats appear to have access to technology far beyond their means. Where could it come from? And though the "broadcast network" that allows most vessels to travel through the Milky Way at near-instantaneous speeds has been wrecked, the UA fortunately has enough ships capable of self-broadcasting to hold their own. And it helps that some other breakaway rebel groups, like the Confederate Arms Treaty Organization, are looking to ally themselves with the UA once more, after their brief alliances with the Mogats predictably collapsed.

Yes, Kent makes it clear that the Mogats are fundamentally a bunch of amateurs. But there's amateur, and then there's stupid. The Mogats are weapons-grade stupid. This robs the first half of the book of much of its dramatic tension, simply because Harris faces no threat in undertaking his espionage. He's practically able to slip into Mogat ships and, eventually, their homeworld itself, by walking right through the front door with a minimum of stealth and disguise. In one scene, Harris is disguised in Mogat armor in a transport vessel packed with about twenty Mogat soldiers, when the buddy of the guy whose armor Harris stole notices something amiss. Harris shoots the guy dead in his seat...and no one else in this crowded troop transport notices the flash of the laser gun, or even discovers the body, until Harris has conveniently shifted himself away.

At another point, Harris meets up with Illych, another clone (whose type we've encountered in this series before, in unfriendly circumstances) who has been undercover on the Mogat homeworld for a long enough to start up a terrorism campaign, setting off explosives at random in their underground city. We're supposed to believe that Illych has been undercover at no less than a Mogat military supply depot, whose regular staff he has killed. And again, no one notices. Come on, no one in the Mogat military is even aware of who their own personnel are? And no one wonders, "Gee, who's this guy manning the supply depot, and where are the other guys we stationed there weeks ago, and why haven't they reported in?"

In the heat of battle, Mogat soldiers like to cluster themselves together in groups and pack themselves like sardines into tight corridors, where a single frag grenade can make short work of them. Really, where's the suspense in a military story when the enemy displays no cunning, no strategy, and presents basically no threat? In his two earlier books, Kent had Harris facing formidable enemies, often including the UA itself. That the Mogats are such Keystone Kops tends to make The Clone Alliance all a big laugh.

That the book eventually does offer up an enjoyable climactic battle helps, somewhat, to mitigate some of the absurdity of earlier chapters. And there are some revelations hinting that Kent intends to take the series to a whole new level in future installments. If he does, that could be all to the good. I'm thinking this is one military SF saga that needs a shot in the arm. After all, when you're reduced to facing an enemy whose most formidable weapon is something called "distilled shit gas," I think it's time to trade up. Bring on the scary aliens already!

Followed by The Clone Elite.