The novels center around a Five-Man Band of old friends from Florida State University whose life never quite worked as they intended:
- Lee Summerston, the main protagonist, an adjunct history professor at Layne State College struggling to make ends meet amid the Great Recession and a messy divorce.
- Evelyn "Mac" McKinney, a bar manager who failed to make it as a music agent.
- Danny Tucker, a police officer laid off from the force from budget cuts.
- Hamish Lunley, a black guy adopted by a Scottish family with a struggling motorcycle shop.
- Lincoln "Link" Baxter, a would-be politician whose career went down in flames, now stuck as a lawyer with few prospects.
Though separated by geography they remained close, and Lee got them hooked on the Next Big Thing in video gaming, a mil-SF virtual reality multiplayer online action RPG called Mako Assault. Together as "the Renegades", they become the second team in the game's history to complete the final mission.
And then Lee gets a call from Dr. Jonathan Reiser, the game's lead dev, who reveals the truth behind Mako: The story is based on real life, it's a testbed for a system to train soldiers for a real war, and would the Renegades like to come with him and help further develop the program?
Books in the series:
- Mako (2013)
- Red Sky Dawning (2015)
- At Circle's End (2016)
This novel series contains examples of the following tropes:
- Ascended Fanboy: The entire team of sci-fi gamers become sci-fi warriors after Reiser reveals the truth behind Mako Assault. Incidentally, the other team that beat the game before them doesn't count: they were actually a squad of Auran military guys who played the game competitively in defiance of project rules.
- Attempted Rape: Foreshadowed early on when the Aurans tell them that female Auran POWs often aren't treated well in Alec Masterson's custody. Mac's captor Captain Hourne tries to rape her, but fortunately the other Renegades hit the base right then and Lee kills him.
- Big Bad: Alec Masterson, the Commandant of the Alystierian Imperial Guard and the next in line to the chancellorship.
- The Big Guy: Hamish, hands down. Enormous black guy, mechanical whiz, and explosives expert who loves BFGs and the Tuskan Starbomber gunship.
- The Chick: Mac as the token woman of the group, but she's a major tomboy from childhood.
- Cool Teacher: Lee's Establishing Character Moment is catching one of his students reading a Mako Assault magazine instead of paying attention to first-day orientation and proceeding to completely school the kid in knowledge of the game, including telling him that he developed the strategy to beat an early level based on a historical battle... which is on such-and-such page of the textbook.
- Do-Anything Soldier: Played with. Precisely because it's meant to teach every possible skill a soldier could know, no one Mako Assault player can be an expert in everything so the game has to be played as a team. Similarly the Renegades do come out of their training as commandos who can also be Ace Pilots, but they all have their own particular areas of expertise: Lee is the best pilot and the main strategist, Mac is the second-best pilot and the best hacker, Link is a sniper, Hamish is the demolitions guy, and Danny is an infantryman and martial artist. They're all competent in each other's skillsets, but they all lean on the others.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Lee unknowingly creates a personal enemy out of the Big Bad when he kills Captain Hourne. Hourne is Alec Masterson's secret son.
- Famed In-Story: Lee and the Renegades are well-known in Mako Assault circles because the game scoreboards can be read on the Internet and only one other team has progressed as far as they have.
- Friendly Sniper: Link, a hunter from childhood, gravitated to sniper rifles early in Mako Assault.
- Gender-Blender Name: "Mac" is a shortened form of Evelyn Twilah McKinney's last name. She thought "Evelyn" sounded like an old lady's name, and "Twilah" was a product of her hippie mom.
- Genre Savvy: The Renegades are a bunch of modern Earthlings transported into a science-fiction setting so they frequently have these moments. During hand-to-hand combat training, Drill Sergeant Nasty Keith Noll stands at ease and tells Danny to attack him. Danny has seen enough movies to say he knows where this is headed, and sure enough, Noll's knocked him on his ass in two seconds.
- Good Pays Better: Conversed. Mako Assault's storyline was deliberately designed to instill Auran values and, though gritty, is firmly on the idealistic side of the scale. Taking altruistic actions such as protecting civilians and refusing to abandon comrades-in-arms (even under orders otherwise) pays off down the line.
- Guilty Pleasures: Mac is a metal fiend who is derisive towards Southern Rock ("Mullet rock for hillbillies in pickups"), but Lee once caught her rocking out to "Please Call Home" by The Allman Brothers Band. Her Relationship Upgrade with Lee comes when he puts it on the jukebox on the Praetorian.
- Haggis Is Horrible: There's a brief mention in book one that Hamish convinced the group to try haggis once. Once.
- The Hero: Lee is the group's main planner and the top pilot.
- I Surrender, Suckers: Lee, Danny, and Mac get trapped inside the Alystierian base when the alarm goes off. Lee's solution? Surrender, because with the security alert going on the enemy will bring them outside, where Hamish is waiting with a BFG.
- Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: The space combat and FTL are soft sci-fi, but the weapons are all either homing missiles or kinetics, whether magnetically or chemically accelerated.
- The Lancer: Danny and Mac sort of share this. Danny is an expert martial artist and Lee's oldest friend in the group, while Mac is the only pilot to approach Lee in skill and the two are Like Brother and Sister.
- Military Brat: Hamish's adoptive family had a long history with Scottish British Army regiments, and he sometimes regretted not enlisting himself. His Auran military uniform has a Scottish flag on it, which reduced him to Manly Tears when he first saw it.
- Nom de Guerre: Each member of the Renegades has a call sign. Lee is "Daredevil" after the crazy stunts he pulls. Mac is "Northern Star" after she gave them a ride home when they'd drunk too much and Hamish referred to her as "our Northern Star", because "yer always there to guide us home, safe and sound." Danny is "Hurricane" because he's from South Florida. Link is "Jester" because he's cocky and afraid of clowns. Hamish is "Wulver" after a Scottish legend about a friendly neighborhood werewolf.
- Powered Armor: The Mimic suits that are part of the Mako project are a variation on the concept. Instead of turning the wearer into a walking tank, they're a training aid that helps teach the body the skills that have been learned through study (Mako Assault gameplay) and gene-implanted knowledge. The Renegades compare them to training wheels.
- Pre-Mortem One-Liner: Hamish gets in a good one in the base attack in Mako when the other Renegades surrender so that Alystierian troops will take them outside. Cue Hamish standing on the roof with a BFG.Hamish: (cheerfully) Hello, fishes! Welcome to ma wee little barrel!
- Relationship Upgrade: A subplot in book one deals with Lee realizing he has a serious crush on Mac and being encouraged by Danny to act on it. Turns out she was waiting for him.
- Renegade Splinter Faction: The Alystierian Empire originated as a militarist splinter faction of the Auran political establishment following the Auran defeat of an Alien Invasion. The Imperialists wanted to create a military government as a defense measure, requiring military service for full citizenship rights, the Traditionalists wanted to return to the prewar status quo. A plebiscite decisively favored the Traditionalists, but Imperialist leader and former resistance leader Clayton Zier refused to accept the result and led his followers to secede and colonize another planet.
- Shipper on Deck: During the trip to Phoenix Gaming Company headquarters there's a She Cleans Up Nicely scene with Mac (she gets gussied up for a group dinner with Reiser) and Danny notices Lee looking harder than the rest. He starts encouraging Lee to give it a shot.
- Space Romans: Somehow Auran culture is all but identical to modern America right down to the names, which is given a parallel evolution handwave. They also seemingly had literal Space Romans at some point, given Admiral Katahl's flagship being named the Praetorian.
- Stereotype Flip: Hamish, the huge black guy who talks like Scotty. Justified: he was adopted from a Chicago orphanage by a Scottish couple.
- Subspace or Hyperspace: Hyperspace travel is extremely fast. While ships are detectable from normal space, they do not apparently interact with normal space matter while doing it. At the climax, Lee uses the the hyperdrive in his Mako to Flash Step into an enemy carrier's engineering spaces to blow it up from within.
- Twofer Token Minority: Hamish is both the Token Black Guy and the Token Scot, of all things.
- The War Just Before: An alien race known only as the Beyonders (the Aurans' name for them) invaded Aura about eighty years before the series. The Aurans eventually drove them off with armed resistance and by firing a Weapon of Mass Destruction at what they believed was the enemy homeworld, but the aftereffects of the war led to a political schism between the Traditionalists who wanted to return to the status quo antebellum, and the Imperialists who sought to create a Starship Troopers-like military government to prevent any further Alien Invasions. When they didn't get their way in a plebiscite on the matter, the Imperialists seceded and became the Alystierians, the books' enemy nation.
- Unwinnable by Design: The sudden twist during the final level of Mako Assault is that a group of Auran colonists imprisoned by the Alystierians have been brought to the refueling post the Renegades are trying to destroy. Reiser says that had they exfiltrated without rescuing the colonists, the game would have sent them on a final bonus level to rescue them which was deliberately a no-win scenario.