Book Review: Operation Grendel by Daniel Schwabauer


Title: Operation Grendel

Author: Daniel Schwabauer

Genre(s): fiction, military, sci-fi

Length: 242 pages

Published: March 9, 2021

Rating: ★★★★☆



I ought to keep a list of the books I finish in 24 hours or less—while it isn’t common (I read long books a lot, after all), it isn’t an anomaly either. After Operation Grendel came in the mail last month, I picked it up that evening, finished the first of five* parts, and picked it up as soon as possible the following day. Does the review need a longer introduction than that?

For an actual summary, the official synopsis says it best:

“It’s the war story he’s dreamed of. But the battle may cost him his mind.

Military journalist Raymin Dahl thinks he’s finally getting the story of a lifetime. Secret peace talks on a remote tropical moon are about to surrender five colonized worlds—and six hundred million civilians—to a ruthless enemy.

But when his commanding officer, Captain Ansell Sterling, is fatally wounded before the negotiations can begin, Dahl can no longer just report on the mission. He’s ordered to complete it. With help from the AI embedded in Sterling’s comms bracelet, Dahl must impersonate his commander—a Marine Corps hero and psychological operations expert.

However, Sterling’s AI may be luring him to surrender more than he realizes. And the mission Corporal Dahl thinks he’s running isn’t the only operation underway.”



In some ways, Operation Grendel’s narration style reminds me of True Grit: first person, filled with little asides that show the protagonists’ voice, but with a straightforwardness and efficiency that doesn’t bog down the plot (which also happens to be my favorite approach to first-person POVs). OG, however, has much more of a sense of presence and urgency rather than reflection upon the past. Here’s an example of what I mean from page 8:

Sterling’s dark hair was going prematurely gray, but he had the body of a young man. Even the loose cut of his utility fatigues couldn’t hide the impression of a high-performance engine idling at poll position. “Today maybe. Not by the end of the week. It’s why you’re here. Fleet doesn’t have the resources to protect nineteen systems. Coffee?”

I gave him an expression that hovered between false humility and blissful ignorance. “Thank you, no.”

Sterling shoved his chair back and retreated to a wall of auto-dispenses for a cup.

It never hurt to let a source feel they had the upper hand. Especially when they were wearing captain’s bars and a combat recon badge with six(!) stars. How he’d achieved that without also being promoted to at least Lieutenant Colonel had to be a story in itself.

Another interesting feature of the narration involves to protagonist’s interaction with the artificial intelligence in his “comm bracelet.” He converses with his AI throughout the story via internal dialogues, which are separated from external action, narration, and dialogue with other characters by brackets and italicization (the AI’s “voice” is italicized while his is not). I found it to be a clever and easy to understand way of integrating that sci-fi element.



While the plot of OG is the true star of the show (more on that below), the characters aren’t flat or uninteresting in their roles—especially the protagonist and POV character, Raymin Dahl. However, in light of my commitment for spoiler-free reviews, there isn’t much more I can say about Raymin or the other characters. You’ll just have to take my word for it that they’re well-written (or just read the book to see what I mean)!



OG is a very plot-driven novel, and, granted, stories that focus on plot are right up my alley—but I think there’s intrigue and mystery enough to interest even those who prefer character-focused stories. The technical structure of the story hits every point, but not in a way that feels like a script; questions are raised from page one, and consequently get raised with every chapter, which not only pulls you deep into the story but creates mounting suspense until the very last page. Schwabauer combines thematic elements and plot twists with a straightforward goal for the protagonist, bringing balance while not compromising the potency of either, and chapters alternate between action and character development/backstory so to not exhaust either aspect too quickly.  Why do you think I finished the book in under 24 hours? Sadly, because the plot is so central to the story, it’s difficult to give any more details without giving away the best parts of the book, so you’ll have to take my word for it about how well-done it is.



Overall, the setting of Operation Grendel had all of the elements I’d want from a sci-fi story, and the narration style—both Dahl’s personality and the integration of internal dialogue with the AI bracelets—helped add a sense that the places visited or discussed were “lived-in” (to me, the mark of good worldbuilding). No spoilers, but the way AI is used in that world created not only a cool atmosphere, but lots of intrigue and opportunity to explore important themes. There were also little details, such as Quelon’s orange sky, that created an otherworldly atmosphere. However, the setting felt a bit underdeveloped in some places. Based on Dahl’s personality, I wouldn’t have expected (or wanted) to get lots of asides about colors or scents or extra backstory information. I also don’t believe that sci-fi has to have the grandest, most expansive worldbuilding—readers can fill in the blanks, especially in novels geared toward adults, and sometimes simple descriptions carry the most weight. But certain settings, such as the jungle where most of the novel takes place, or some of the important buildings that characters visit, lacked a sense of place beyond the obvious—enough to make me want more information in retrospect. Again, this wasn’t a major issue—after all, I didn’t notice certain gaps in description while caught up in the story—but some readers may find the setting lacking in comparison to other elements.


Objectionable Content:

The objectionable content in OG is low overall, but the military nature of the story means varying degrees of violence. Many characters are injured and killed by various means, and the descriptions range in vividness (although, in my opinion, they are always tasteful for what they are); one character is tortured while being interrogated. Several characters drink. Mention is made of two romantically-interested characters spending vacation together but nothing beyond that is described (I can’t imagine even those who are very sensitive to sexual content finding those parts objectionable, honestly).



Perhaps I should start adding a “theme” category in my reviews, because for all the detail I’ve written, I hardly touched upon what made this story so engrossing—and so meaningful—when I read it. Every genre is equipped to ask and answer certain questions; sci-fi, beyond its chrome-gilded tropes and strange creatures, has the opportunity to interrogate human nature in a way few other genres do. Operation Grendel does that via a combination of inter-planetary war, artificial intelligence, and journalism. Why would people be willing to give up mental and emotional autonomy—even down to their creativity—and be so unwilling to break free that they would rather die than surrender? In light of modern phenomena like social media, that question seems timely. That, on top of the storytelling skill on display, is why I give Operation Grendel 4.5/5 stars. If you like sci-fi, especially the thematic kind, this book is for you.

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