Review: Wake of War, by Zac Topping

Nathan W. Toronto

July 15, 2022

Editor's Note: Bullet Points occasionally reviews novel-length speculative fiction written by retired or active military members. Please reach out if you'd like to see a particular work reviewed.

To call Zac Topping’s Wake of War a military thriller would be an understatement. It is at once more thrilling and more disturbing than that. In this debut novel from Zac Topping, who served two tours in Iraq, the combat sequences are so real and morally fraught that it feels almost like nonfiction. The book follows a host of characters on a collision course of ideologies, tactics, and ambitions, and it leaves very little wanting for those who know war.

In other words, Wake of War isn’t one of those cartoonish books that paints war in simplistic, black-and-white terms. Rather, it is a book that approaches war’s essence, its essential nature, as Clausewitz calls it, rather than simply describing its character. This is a thrilling feat indeed.

Wake of War receives 4 out of 5 bullets because the characters that Topping creates are compelling. They are case studies in that old adage: “the more war changes, the more it stays the same.” The novel follows three main characters: Trent, a kid who joins the U.S. Army to pay for college but winds up in the infantry instead; Markus, a late-career private military contractor who must balance the welfare of his team against the questionable ethics of his mission; and Sam, an ice-in-her-veins rebel sniper bent on eliminating as many U.S. military members as possible. These characters collide in various states of enmity and cooperation on the battlefield, and their stories intertwine in satisfying ways by the end of the novel. In the context of a crumbling American political system in the year 2037, these characters offer a frightening picture of what a cataclysmic American internal decline would look like.

Wake of War’s descent into civil war does leave this scholar of Middle East conflict with a glaring question, though. How in the foxtrot does Salt Lake in 2037 feel so much like Sadr City in 2003? I went to school in Provo, Utah, just down I-15 from where Wake of War is set, and the description of Salt Lake in the novel presupposes a nearly complete loss of social, human, and material capital from what Salt Lake is today. The fabric of society in Salt Lake has unraveled completely, with trash on the streets, decrepit infrastructure, and a tolerance for criminality that fit squarely in the dusty cities of central Iraq in the early 2000s. I, for one, want to know how this happened, so I hope to high heaven that Topping writes another book, and that it’s a prequel.

This should not overshadow what Topping has pulled off here. For him, war is real, and it comes out in this novel, in all its chilling complexity. The late Kenneth Waltz, a preeminent scholar of international relations, wrote, “Asking who won a given war… is like asking who won the San Francisco earthquake.” Wake of War is so thrilling and disturbing in its realism because its characters, to quote Waltz again, “suffer varying levels of defeat.” This frankness about war is precisely why Wake of War needs to be read by everyone who thinks that war is just a game, and even those who have already figured out that it’s nothing of the sort.

Zac Topping spent his formative years on the move, as some do, and it was in the fifth grade where he found an outlet for his active imagination through writing. After high school he joined the U.S. Army, where he served in an artillery unit out of Fort Bragg (soon to become Fort Liberty). He served for four and a half years with two tours in Iraq. He currently lives with his wife in a quiet farm town in Connecticut and is a firefighter for the city he grew up in. Wake of War is available wherever books are sold.