“Going Grey – Ringer #1” by Karen Traviss – a much better book than the cover suggests

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From the blurb, I thought that “Going Grey” was going to be a science fiction military thriller: fast plot, high body count, on-but-not-over the edge of credibility. What I got was something quite different and much, much better.

“Going Grey” is about military men, illegal science and a conspiracy that spans decades but it is not, primarily, a thriller.

It’s an exploration of what, to me, is an alien world where men with the skills to kill seek to serve; where family roles, especially brotherhood and fatherhood drive people’s lives; where belonging is as important as living; where you are either US, THEM or a bystander.

“Going Grey” takes the time to build characters and the relationship between them rather than shortcutting through pop culture references and movie tropes.

Karen Traviss spends chapters showing how two very different men, Rob – Brit, working class, Sergeant in the Royal Marines and Mike -American, hyper-rich, security contractor, form a bond that can only be described as brotherhood.

I’ve never met a hyper-rich American but my father was in the Royal Navy and I found Rob to be a very believable portrayal of a Royal Marine. Karen Traviss captures the way he speaks, his sense of humour, the way he interacts with the men and women around him, the movies he references, the shops he goes to in a deeply authentic way. I felt as if I’d met Rob before.

Mike is more alien to me but equally believable: earnest, privileged but with a strong streak of noblesse oblige, patriotic in what seems to me a very American way, and strongly focussed on family.

Normally, I find military men impenetrable. Their world is so far away from mine that I can’t begin to understand why and how they do what they do. This booked changed that. Karen Traviss got me inside these men’s heads and helped me to see the world the way they do: being “situationally aware”, assessing threats, taking people down, a restless need for action held in check by strong discipline and personal ethics.

Add to this a young man with special abilities, raised in isolation with no male role models except those he saw in the movies about sacrifice and honour that were fed to him and there is a reach opportunity to explore what it means to be a man, to desire to belong, to need to act.

Karen Traviss doesn’t cut corners with her other characters either. Dru, the forty-something, divorced with a teenager daughter, HR manager responsible for drawing up the lists of who to fire in an upcoming merger is very clearly drawn and develops into someone interesting and real by the end of the book.

There is thriller-type plot here. There are also some intense military scenes and a huge amount of weaponry, but the book remains low-key, closer to real life than to a 110 minute movie.

I found the result deeply satisfying. I got to know and understand these people. I also got to see a thriller plot unfold and resolve in a way that kept my interest through out.

I hope there is a sequel. I know I will be reading more Karen Traviss.

The audiobook version of “Going Grey” is a pleasure to listen to. Euan Morton is the narrator. He is incredibly good at getting the Brit and American accents right and at giving each character a distinctive voice. He is even more impressive narrating this than he was with “The Aeronaut’s Windlass”. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear him read “Going Grey”

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