If nothing else, the title of Reese Hogan’s Shrouded Loyalties is extremely on-point.
This fast-paced sci-fi thriller that takes place in the middle of a planetary war and digs deep into the psyches of its three main characters, upending their hopes, tossing harsh reality in their faces, and challenging all their loyalties and beliefs.
It eases the reader into its world, beginning in that most claustrophobic of settings—a military submarine—and ends on a literal world of possibilities.
Mila Blackwood is one of three main characters, the chief sea officer aboard a high0tech military submarine. She’s a combat veteran at the age of 24 and feels her responsibilities keenly, especially for the new recruit, Holland, who—from Blackwood’s viewpoint—has been tossed into the middle of the war without any preparation. It’s not giving too much away to say that there’s far more to Holland than Blackwood believes; hints to Holland’s true mission are dropped in the first pages.
The third point of view character is Andrew, Blackwood’s younger brother, a 17-year-old prodigy who is back on the homefront and suffering from untreated grief as a result of their parents’ deaths. Andrew’s looking for someone, anyone, to cling to who will ease his loneliness.
The interior lives of these three people, all desperate for something, would be enough to fuel my interest in Shrouded Loyalties, but then there’s the fast-paced external plot, which throws them into one danger after another. The narration rarely stops to explain the backstory behind the war or the characters’ history, instead allowing the scope of the world and those in it to be revealed bit by bit.
Essentially, the various countries of this world are engaged in a nasty war, fought without mercy, and no one side seems to give much credence to another’s gods or way of life. The lighter-skinned people (which include Holland) are part of a patriarchal society where the worship of gods is paramount and a women’s primary function is family. Blackwood’s people are darker-skinned, less patriarchal, and worship a god of light that doesn’t exist to their enemies.
The good, bad, and many shades of gray in-between these sides in the conflict are well-presented, leaving the reader to discover—or decide—who’s on the side of right or wrong. Mainly, you’re on the side of Blackwood, Holland, and Andrew, the characters trying to make the best moral choices in a conflict where even the decision to save another’s life might be the wrong one.
The gods, too, become important, as the trio uncover exactly what their ancestors meant when they created their religions. Critical, too, is “shrouding,” which is more than just the title of the novel. The ability to “shroud” is what gives Holland’s sub a decided tactical advantage in the war; to say more would be to venture into spoiler territory, but it is far more than a cloaking device.
As the plot opens up to explore the entirety of the war and the way shrouding can be used as a weapon of war, so to do the characters move from being isolated, tightly-wound islands buried in their repressed trauma, to opening up their emotional worlds and finally reaching out and placing their trust in others—perhaps even those who’ve they’ve always seen as the enemy.
The theme of the story is about who deserves loyalty, and why, and how to separate caring from manipulation, but if that suggests a plot that is leisurely or secondary, trust that isn’t the case—to give you that impression would be a disservice to this book’s quick pacing, many intense action scenes, and the visceral reactions readers will experience as the characters face victory or defeat by turns.
Hiding one type of story inside of another, this intense, well-written novel balances loads of action and well-earned plot twists with a thoughtful examination of the effects of war and trauma on people.