Here on the Periapsis Project, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Combat Frame XSeed. I encourage you to check it out!
Brian Niemeier revitalizes the mecha tradition in Combat Frame XSeed, a gritty action novel that blends mecha anime and military science fiction to deliver high-energy combat alongside thrilling intrigue. The dynamic combat frame designs turn dogfight combats into scintillating gladiatorial displays, and political subterfuge threatening to crush the heroes keeps the drive high. An exciting opening for the trilogy!
This review contains minor spoilers.
Niemeier has asserted that he intended to move beyond the tired Eastern and the bleak Western aspects of the mecha genre, integrating the best of both in a refreshing return to what makes the mech so appealing. The result is a bold blend of military maneuvers and one-on-one duels, mass-produced combat units and showy customized ones, guns and swords – or any other close combat weapon.
The action sequences are gripping. Early in the story, it is established that there are no guaranteed outcomes, and the combat frames consistently take serious damage or are lost entirely, which kept me on my toes. This made the second half of the novel particularly engaging, when the coordinated attacks gave way to one-on-one combat. These showcased more unique combat frames, weapons, and tactics – leaning into the mech aesthetic more.
Unfortunately, there are not as many antagonists as there were protagonists piloting combat frames. This resulted in many battles against a deluge of mass-produced models, although there is still variety in the execution. It also necessitates the near omnipresence of Metis, the most formidable antagonist combatant for the majority of the story. Still, the manifold multifaceted battles were gratifying.
Mech design is arguably the most important aspect of any entry in the genre. Niemeier does not disappoint in this regard either! The combat frames are varied in form and style, and come armed with all kinds of weapons from over-sized machine guns to plasma swords.
While many of the combat frames are a sort of standard military issue, these do change over the course of the story, so that even the fights against the generic baddies become more difficult as the technology improves.
However, the true pleasure lies in the custom combat frames. These come in a myriad of colors, wield multiple cool weapons, and are under constant repair as they give and take damage. But they also have more of the “organic in the inorganic” design elements that are so iconic to mechs. Instead of descriptions of mere machines, elaborate though they may be, the custom combat frames begin to take on auras of their own.
For example, when Ritter first sees Zane’s custom combat frame Dead Drop, it “carried no visible weapons but exuded menace like a coiled mamba.”
My personal favorite is Jean-Claude du Lione’s custom combat frame: a CF Veillantif. I found the descriptions of its garish design, coupled with its dueling capacity aesthetically pleasing: “He fought to stifle a scream when a gothic monstrosity of bronze and burgundy crouched down beside the singed hole in the wall and leered at him with a giant, gargoyle-like head.”
An important element of Western military sci-fi – and, of course, present in Western applications of the mecha genre – is intrigue. Combat Frame XSeed applies this technique creditably, using multiple factions with conflicting agendas as its basis. The differing goals, secret meetings, betrayals, information leaks, red herring leaks, and more hype up the tension.
True to political intrigue form, it is not clear in the beginning who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. Even the two generalized groups – the grounders and the Coalition – are divided and not all the major players have clear motivations. However, Niemeier does not leave us in such bleak ambiguity. As the plot ramps up, disparate factions and characters unite in purpose, and the moral issues around the conflict make it easier to break down into good and evil.
Of course, there is still an element of uncertainty at the end. Not everything is explained, and I wonder if there isn’t information that the reader lacks, sustaining the mystery and incentivizing read-through for the trilogy!
Combat Frame XSeed does struggle a bit under the weight of so many point of view characters. It can get a bit confusing when changing between them, especially when that switch comes mid-chapter, and the impact of any one of them is diluted.
That being said, I did not find it too difficult to track who was who. I did not even have to reference the “Principal Characters” annotated list at the beginning, although it is a nice resource. It was a tad intimidating to see it sandwiched between “About Combat Frame XSeed” and the Glossary before the story started, but, again, it was needlessly so.
This can be attributed to Niemeier’s skill at quickly developing sympathetic characters. As the cast grows, it does not become bloated with people you don’t care about.
If I had to identity a singular main character, I would point to Ritter, who begins the story as an outsider joining the EGE and ends as a hero. But in keeping with the anime tradition, there are multiple quirky characters that could stand alone in their own right. From Maximus Darving, a software engineer with a weirdly affectionate relationship with his custom A.I. Marilyn, to Zane Dellister, a crazy guy who built a combat frame from scratch using stolen parts, the characters populating Combat Frame XSeed are captivating.
Check it Out!
Combat Frame XSeed is an entertaining execution of the best elements of the mecha tradition: compelling fight scenes, grandiose robot designs, and thrilling intrigue. Whether you are a long-time fan of the giant robot tradition or interested in them for the first time, this is a must read!