Terms of Enlistment

Cover: Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos

At a glance, Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos feels like a standard military sci-fi novel.

It’s a relatively straightforward tale about a young man who, desperate to escape his life as one of the hood rats in a harsh, dystopian future, enlists with dreams of finding a way aboard a ship and off to the stars.

While it’s true that Terms rehashes some well-trodden ground in the wake of greats like Joe Haldeman, Robert Heinlein, John Stakeley, and others, there are some twists and turns throughout Terms and the rest of the Frontlines series that are likely to surprise you.

Here’s the low-down.

Details

TitleTerms of Enlistment
SeriesFrontlines, Book 1
AuthorMarko Kloos
Publisher47North, 2013
GenreScience fiction
Intended audience16+
Rating9 of 10
Will I read the next one?Yep

What to expect

Fans in the military SF subgenre will feel right at home.  Prepare for:

  • Dystopian sci-fi.
  • Overcrowded earth.
  • Military tropes / themes.
  • Aliens!  (Minor spoiler.)
  • Boot camp, basic training, etc.
  • Spaceships.

Kloos does an excellent job of taking familiar concepts and translating them into something that’s both narratively compelling and character-driven.

You won’t necessarily find much new here, but this is a top-notch interpretation of classic tropes and recognizable themes.

Warnings

Is this series done?Yep.  The entire series was completed in 2022.
Any graphical content?Not really.  People die, but the descriptions are pretty clinical and aren’t heavily focused on.
How long is this book?On the shorter side.  It goes quick.

Recommendation

Military science fiction fans will love this one.  Often, strong character development gets traded for worldbuilding in novels like this, but Kloos has done an excellent job of keeping both the story and the stakes personal.

I also found that Terms and the other books in the Frontlines series felt more realistic and detailed than other military SF books that I’ve read.

The tech here isn’t as fantastical as Old Man’s War (John Scalzi) with the body swapping and the space elevator / beanstalk.  Nor does the book come with a load of political or armed-forces messaging like what you see in classics like The Forever War (Joe Haldeman) or Armor (John Stakely).

If you’re looking for a galaxy-hopping adventure story with a strong main character and some interesting twists and turns, this is a good piece.

Overview

It’s like this:  Earth is overpopulated and, while humans have finally made it to the stars, terraforming new worlds and shipping colonists out to make those worlds habitable is both expensive and dangerous.

The North American Commonwealth (NAC) is constantly at war with the Sino-Russian Alliance over habitable planets and, at the start of the book, that’s the reality for Andrew Grayson.

For Grayson, joining the military isn’t just about a chance to go off-world and see the stars.  It’s an escape from Public Residence Clusters (PRCs) — read: welfare tenements — in Boston, Detroit, and other big cities, where the majority of the population lives on daily rations of reconstituted soy and riots are smacked down by the steel boot of the Territorial Army.

The military offers recruits a way out, access to training and real food.  It’s a steep price to pay for a little breathing room and, as Grayson soon discovers, maybe it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.  Humanity is about to get a big wake-up call in the form of aliens who want to take our planets and break our stuff.

What works

The realism in this military sci-fi series is probably its greatest strength.  Kloos offers a dystopian future that is largely just an extrapolation of current, real-world problems.  

Because Terms of Enlistment is the first book in the series, we get one of the closest looks at the problems that our species is facing as Grayson makes his way out of the PRC and finds himself on the bottom rung of the military ladder.

In this instance, the familiar tropes all play to Kloos’s advantage.  He doesn’t need to explain the broad strokes since the existing framework in popular culture has already done that.  Plus, the first-person point of view serves to keep any relevant worldbuilding both personal and close.

For example, you learn pretty quickly that enlistment and the opportunity to serve in the NAC is a privilege.  It’s a selective process, and recruits can quit anytime they want.  The military doesn’t need to propagandize itself (a la Starship Troopers) or recruit people.  They have more than enough bodies to fill the slots.  We learn that because Grayson’s drill instructors make it crystal clear that the NAC simply does not care.

Similarly, the PRCs aren’t depicted as the mean streets where only cutthroats and gangs survive (although that does exist).  Millions of people live there, and most of them are just trying to make ends meet and stay out of trouble.  That’s a far more realistic interpretation than everyone acting as a hardened criminal in all but name.

That nod to a more realistic outcome, compared to the extremes that are most commonly seen in future-based fiction, is a refreshing change.  It preserves nuance and prevents the world from feeling like a cardboard cutout of reality, and it’s something that Kloos does very well.

What doesn’t

Despite how much I’ve enjoyed the entire Frontlines series, Terms of Enlistment isn’t without its flaws.

Most notably, the main character suffers from a serious case of plot armor.  Sure, he takes some damage along the way, but the number of times he walks away from scenarios that should’ve been fatal is difficult to ignore.  Excluding the rest of the series, Grayson escapes certain death at least four times that I can think of while writing this review — and that’s without consulting the text for an exact count.

On the one hand, sure:  It’s a war and war can be like that.  Kloos also makes sure that the characters happen to be prepared for whatever it is they face.

During a stint with the navy, Grayson’s ship gets blown up.  Fortunately, he’s the network administrator and his girlfriend, Halley, is a pilot.  Though every other marine and sailor is dead, a dropship has conveniently survived and has enough fuel so that they can escape.  Equally conveniently, Grayson can use his access as the shipboard network admin to override door locks and reach the hangar where the ship is stored.  And edge cases like that have a way of repeating themselves.

There are also some contrivances that feel like they’re just easier for the sake of the story.  Halley and Grayson meet during boot camp, become friends with benefits, and then meet each other during their service.  That’s all well and good; Grayson finding his way aboard Halley’s ship is a plot point.

Still, you can tell that it’s also just easier if the pair meets at boot camp rather than Grayson meeting her somewhere else.  It’s more convenient to the narrative for them to have that shared history and for us to get to know her in that way, even if that’s somewhat less realistic than having Grayson stumble across her in a more nuanced way.

It’s probably worth pointing out that none of this really impacted my enjoyment of the story or the characters, but it feels a little contrived, like you’re seeing some part of the magician’s trick that you weren’t supposed to notice.

What’s next?

Honestly, this entire series is great, and it’s complete!

If you’re looking for a moderate-length military SF that you can sink your teeth into, Frontlines is one of the best options out there.  It’s available for free via Kindle Unlimited, and audiobook listeners will have the pleasure of listening to narration by the awesome Luke Daniels.

The next book in the series is Lines of Departure, also available through the channels listed below.

Happy reading!

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