Maseo Kaytu is a man with a past. Raised between refugee camps and the slums of Vila Vela, he’s had to make difficult choices to keep himself alive, leaving him with dark secrets he’s running from. In an attempt to find redemption, he signs up for the harrowing “cry pilot” trial—an opportunity to do his part fighting off enemies and protecting others by melding his mind with a powerful battle machine, an experience that brutally kills nine out of ten volunteers. If he survives, being a cry pilot will allow Kaytu to enlist as a new military recruit and begin his journey into redemption. And Kaytu has a plan to survive.
But survival is only the first step. In an alternate world where corporations have more power than governments, a devastated earth has been “terrafixed” with great effort—but the process isn’t without its side effects. Terrafixing gives abandoned machines and technology a new life, turning them into violent creatures that are both organic and inorganic—a fusion of weapon and mutated animal. After proving himself as a cry pilot, Kaytu becomes part of a squad training to defend against the latest of these threats (not to mention the most dire to date)—mysterious, ruthless creatures called lampreys hell-bent on destruction. With no known weaknesses and a casualty count mounting higher and higher, the pressure is on Kaytu and his squad to keep their reflexes quick and use all their training to fight against this seemingly unbeatable foe. Through it all, Kaytu has to decide: will he follow his needs, or the squad’s?
Cry Pilot, from pseudonymous author Joel Dane (described in a bio as “the author of more than 20 books” and a writer for film and television) is a vivid, immersive novel that leans strongly into its military science fiction identity. Its main asset is its voice: Kaytu’s strong personality and first-person narration creates an intimate reading experience. The worldbuilding is multilayered and rich with a sense of depth. There are unfamiliar terms on practically every page, but the flood of information serves to both replicate a complex military environment—replete with strong hierarchies and a wealth of information both classified and not—and also create a sense of verisimilitude by leaving background elements unexplained as regular facets of the characters’ lives. The science fictional elements deeply permeate every aspect of the world, story, and people.
The novel shows us a world that is multicultural and multifaceted. Various cultures have blended together, their influences hinted at in names, food, and other details. The cultures aren’t simply analogs of European nations—there is a truly global feeling to this future. It is also a setting in which LGBTQ people and relationships are normalized. Not only are the characters’ varying orientations reflected in their relationships with each other, but the very assumptions they make talking about families reveal a world in which it’s common to be raised by a pair of dads, a pair of moms, or “gen parents,” who are “gendother,” a nonbinary gender category. Characters don’t remark on LGBTQ aspects or assign labels to them. They are simply accepted.
Cry Pilot also offers a complex narrative of ability and disability through the character Rana, a member of Kaytu’s squad who is deaf. Rana’s deafness is a core part of her, but it isn’t the main focus of her character, and there is little comment specifically about her being deaf. But the monotone of her voice, for example, is something that other characters pick up and comment on. Where other recruits fail in orbital pod endurance training due to their balance being thrown off, Rana succeeds, completely unruffled; she’s learned not focus on inner ear cues for balance. Rana’s deafness has side effects and consequences, and its affect on her life and the role she plays in the narrative feels well thought out.
The ensemble nature of the novel is ultimately both a strength and a weakness. Through fun banter and terrifying training exercises, “Group Aleph”—Kaytu’s squad—is transformed from a handful of misfits and hot-headed personalities into a loyal crew in which every soldier has each other’s back. This transformation is sure to appeal to readers who love hearing about military units as much as individual heroes. However, the sheer number of characters means not all of them are given enough space to flourish, leaving a few late-novel deaths landing without much of an impact.
While the mysterious nature of the lampreys initially lends suspense to the plot, as Kaytu and the others prepare to square off against an unknown enemy, in the end, concealing information is a drawback to the overall pacing and narrative development. The squad is constantly disoriented, left in the dark about the nature of their training and their enemy. Eventually, the reader also begins to ask the same questions about what’s going on, meaning the stakes for each fight are unclear, and the objectives of each mission murky.
Overall, what you get out of the novel depends on what you expect going in. If it falls a bit short in its character development and pacing, it excels in its ability to immerse the reader in a chaotic military environment, one both completely alien and familiar in its pressures and hierarchies. Cry Pilot feels like a high-definition cyberpunk first-person shooter video game, with sleek, polished graphics and tons of lore to explore. If that’s your thing, suit up and dive in—this book will take you for a hell of a ride.