The Big Idea: Myke Cole

Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier, the second book in Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series, is out today. And on this auspicious occasion, Cole wishes to think on subjects like competence, training, preparation and readiness — and what happens when life takes all of those things and just chucks them out the window.


Life’s got a way of throwing us curve balls.

You get 20 years or so to build a career, become a veritable expert in your field, undisputed master of your domain. You’ve got this shit down. Nobody, but nobody has more contacts, a better instinct or more natural talent than you do at . . . assessing properties. Making donuts. Putting out fires. Whatever. You’ve reached the pinnacle of whatever it is.

Which is precisely when your boss runs into your office. You’re desperately needed to handle a critical project. Everyone else has been suddenly carried off by flying saucers mysteriously targeting only your department. You’re the only one left. It’s up to you. And this critical project? It’s in another department, one you’ve never had anything to do with. Suddenly, you’re a novice, in way over your head, with everyone counting on you to get it right.

Dramatic, huh? It happens all the time. It happened to Lieutenant John Chard, an engineering officer sent to fix a bridge near a mission station on the Buffalo River in what was then known as Natal. He was great at his job: you know, bridge fixing. Sure, the British army did other things, like fight wars, but that wasn’t his real job.

It became his job, when he found himself the ranking officer in charge of the garrison at that mission station, some 150 soldiers, most of them convalescing. Surrounding them were 4,000 Zulus, not at all pleased with British colonial ambitions in their lands.

Chard didn’t want the job, wasn’t ready for the job. He’d done everything right, studied hard, been an upstanding citizen and loyal servant of the crown. He didn’t deserve this. It wasn’t fair.

We have a saying in the Coast Guard: “The sea doesn’t care about you.” In Chard’s case, neither did the garrison, who looked to him to lead them. Neither did the Zulu, who were determined to use him as an example of what would happen to those who sought to colonize them. Neither did the wind or the air or the waving grass. Chard could have cursed and spit and cried. He could have beat his breast and shouted to the heavens, called God to account. But none of that would have helped, so he didn’t.

He dug in and fought. He closed his eyes, grit his teeth and put one foot in front of the other.

And when he’d opened them again, he’d won.

Granted, that’s an extremely dramatized/simplified version of events, but drama is what us storytellers are after. The Battle at Rorke’s Drift fascinates me. Not because of the tactics, or the gear, or the fraught questions of European murderous disdain for human life in their frantic grab for Africa. What fascinates me most is the story of a man, in over his head, who digs deep and finds the courage to fight.

In Fortress Frontier, I ask that question. What is the secret ingredient that makes some people shrug their shoulders in a crisis? What allows some of us to simply say, “I’ll figure it out,” when others go to pieces? It’s a question we love to ask, if genre stories are any indicator. Luke Skywalker joins a rag-tag rebel alliance in what seems a hopeless resistance against an all-powerful empire. Frodo lugs the soul-poisoning ring of power into the dark lord’s backyard, with the largest army ever seen standing between him and his goal. Alone. And did I mention he’s like three feet tall? Taran doesn’t even make it to full pig-keeper (he’s still an assistant) before he’s called to battle the greatest evil the land has ever known.

They have their failures, the moments they take a knee, try to set their burden aside. But they always get up again. They always take up the one ring, or their father’s light saber, or the burden of command. They close their eyes like Chard did, putting one foot in front of another. They don’t know how they’ll make it work, recognize the strong chance that they won’t.

But they go forward anyway.

Because. Sometimes, you win.


Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

37 Comments on “The Big Idea: Myke Cole”

  1. When I studied Military History this came up A LOT. When I’ve written about it, I’ve found that a lot of the people whom I’ve written about have been people thrust into situations for which they’re unprepared – it’s a great test of character, and that’s where you really get to see what people are made of.

  2. Did Amazon knew this ahead of the time?

    7 hours ago, with the subject “New and Similar to “The Human Division #4: A Voice in the Wilderness” by John Scalzi” i got a recommendation for “Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier” by Myke Cole.

    This is scary….

  3. I remember seeing ‘Zulu’ on TV when I was maybe 10. It’s one of the best battle movies, if you skip over the whole drunken priest subplot and just stick with what mostly happened. I have a hardcover of “The Washing of the Spears” which covers that battle, and Isandlwhana. Arguably the greatest victory and worst defeat of the British Army, to that time, essentially simultaneously.

  4. “Not because of the tactics, or the gear, or the fraught questions of European murderous disdain for human life in their frantic grab for Africa. What fascinates me most is the story of a man, in over his head, who digs deep and finds the courage to fight.”

    Absolutely!! I think that the story of two equally matched foes is mostly boring. The idea of the unprepared person who handles adversity is wonderful drama.

  5. I hate to be pedantic, (who am I kidding, I love it) but Lt. Chard had over 500 men while building their defensive position, but after the 100 Natal Native Horsemen abandoned their duty, so did more than half the garrison. Also, Royal Engineers received a well rounded education in tactics (for construction of defensive and offensive structures) and commanded men as an Officer for 11 years prior to the battle. His second-in-command,Gonville Bromhead, was an Infantry Officer for 8 years and a third generation army brat (his father fighting at the Battle of Waterloo and his grandfather fighting in the American Insurrection/Revolutionary War), who wasn’t already a higher rank at his age due to his mostly deafness. Between them, they had the experience and tools needed to pull it off, it just took courage and gumption to see it though.

    However, I love the premise of magical soldiers in an urban fantasy setting, even though a Colonel normally leads a bridage (4k-6k men) and receive postgraduate senior leadership training at the Army War College. I’m going to add these two books to my reading list and try to suspend my state of disbelief.

  6. Ok, I will have to buy this book just because you have awesome taste in stories. Also, now I have to reread some old favorites ( assistant pig-keeper Taran)

  7. This is definitely on my “too read” list. Bought and enjoyed the first book in the series, and after reading this it’s apparent the Mr. Cole gets what I love about fantasy heroes. It’s not the big, strong, impressive guys that we should look up to; it’s the guy who dropped into the fire and given the choice to wimp out and run or stand and endure choose the latter.

  8. Excellent set-up for a book that I am adding my reading list. It sounds like an excellent read. The line Myke’s The Big Idea Piece –

    “What allows some of us to simply say, “I’ll figure it out,” when others go to pieces?”

    made me instantly think of a comic panel I saw about the zombie apocolypse stories like “The Walking Dead” asking do you really think you’ll be the guy with the shotgun on top of the car surrounded by the hoard of zombies or that you’ll be one of the hoard. It is a similar question in my mind to what Myke posted, but rationally and statistically it goes the opposite way 99% of the time. Everyone wants to be the superhero, but even standing up and trying will not lead to success. My question then is what does it say about someone’s make-up who tries, but fails. Frodo gets to Mordor, but looses the ring before dropping it into the fires of Mt. Doom.

  9. Clearly I’m not stating an original thought on assistant pig-keepers in this comment section, but bonus points for Taran. The premise seems intriguing — added to my long and winding book list. :)

  10. Really liked Myke’s first one, Control Point, got this one on my Nook today. Will start it when I get hom from work. Looking forward to it, Myke. Thanks.

  11. is it weird that as I read this post I was humming Men of Harlach to myself..?

    Men of Harlech, on to glory!
    This shall ever be your story.
    Keep these fighting words before ye:
    Welshmen will not yield.

  12. “Sometimes, you win.” And most of the time, you die. But you don’t die any deader than if you hadn’t tried.

    My personal version of this, which I’ve been known to chant (resignedly) when the universe goes pear-shaped, is, “What must be done, can be done.” On one level I know that it’s not true; sometimes, what must be done, can’t be done. But it doesn’t do any good to accept that; if it must be done, go ahead and do it because even if you fail, you’re not any worse off.

    You know the old villain line, “You can run, or you can die. If you run, you’ll just die tired.” What’s so awful about dying tired?

  13. That’s not quite right about Frodo – he never bore the Ring alone. He had Samwise Gamgee with him all the time that he was carrying it on his mission.

  14. I might have to get this just because of Roarke’s Drift:
    “Hitch… Hitch, I saw you. You’re not dead.”
    “I am? Oh thank you very much, sir!”
    I think the point is that it’s a person thrown into a situation they weren’t trained for, with insufficient support and supplies, and still going out there to fight like crazy people to shame the Devil, because it’s the only alternative outside of curling up in a fetal ball.

  15. Never heard of Myke Cole or Shadow Ops before this (it’s been a long year). Going out to buy the first book now, ’cause yeah. That’s what I like in my stories.

  16. @Mapleson: So long as we are being pedantic, the Natal Native Horse were survivors of Isandlwhana who warned the garrison at Roarke’s Drift and then left because they had run low on ammunition for their carbines–they didn’t fire the same cartridge as the Martini-Henry rifles the Regulars carried. What you are thinking of are elements of the 2d/3rd Natal Native Contingent, who deserted under the command of Captain William Stephenson, their white commanding officer.

    @Cancerkiller: I would say that Frodo’s character allowed him to have friends of Samwise’s caliber, who allows him to complete the destruction of the ring.

    Thanks for the continual updates to my reading list, Mr. Scalzi.

  17. @Mapleson: Though I should be quick to add, not ALL the NNC ran. Indeed, Fredrick Scheiss, a NNC corporal would earn a Victoria Cross at Roarke’s Drift. (He’s the guy with the crutch and the bandaged foot in the movie if anybody cares…)

    @TheMadLibrarian I think Colour Sergeant Bourne summed it up when the private asked him, “Why us?” He said, IIRC, “Because we’re here, lad. Noobody else. Just us.” Sometimes that’s the answer…because there is nothing else to do but fix bayonets. Just like Col. Chamberlain at Little Round Top.

  18. I bought the first book after enjoying Myke’s panels at last year’s Boskone. I felt like there were some pacing issues (first book stuff, probably), but I liked it enough that I’ve been keeping an eye out for the sequel. It’s downloading to my Kindle as I type.

  19. I am minded of a comment the late Charles Schulz made when someone referred to his character Charlie Brown as a “loser.”

    With great indignation he replied, “I never thought of Charlie Brown as a loser. A loser would give up.”

    Other people can make you lose, but only you can make you a loser. In fact, you won’t know if you’re a loser or not until you get into a situation where it looks like you can’t help but lose.

  20. @Krusatta – good thought, actually. All I had in mind was the vague thought that Kipling could have done a tremendous job on a story like that.

    Of course, the limiting factor is that there are a lot more project managers in the world who like to imagine they could win a battle than there are soldiers who like to imagine they could manage a project.

  21. Hm. The author said that he’s not fascinated by “the fraught questions of European murderous disdain for human life in their frantic grab for Africa.” He is fascinated by “the story of a [white] man, in over his head, who digs deep and finds the courage to fight.”

    I think there’s something deeply problematic about setting aside those “fraught questions” in a story that’s set in Africa but has a white man as the main character.

    I don’t know if the author intended to say that his book hand-waves over the issues of racism and colonialism, but the way he talks about it gives me that impression. Although I am keen to see more sci-fi set in Africa (and basically anywhere that isn’t Europe or the US), I’ll be passing on this book.

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