I first read Karin Lowachee in Lightspeed, when they published a story or two from John Joseph Adams’ new (at time of writing) anthology, Armored. When I tweeted about having enjoyed the story, I got a surprise response from her, which led to a short exchange, which led to me getting a copy of Warchild. Before seeing the cover, I was unaware that the book won the Warner First Aspect Award for that year’s best first novel; I definitely wouldn’t have guessed from reading, as the book delves into most un-debut novel-like places. It is also remarkably well-crafted for a first book, leaving me impressed at the end.
As the book opens, our hero is hiding in a bulkhead while pirates overrun his ship and liquidate the adults. Jos is saved because he is eight, a perfect age for the next pirate slave auction fund raising drive. Aboard the pirate ship, a number of terrible things happen as he is tutored to be a personal assistant and pirate spy. This first section is pretty short, which is a good thing for two reasons. First, reading about bad things happening to young children is not fun, especially when I have a child of my own about that age. Second, it is written in second person. I hate second person with a flaming, white-hot passion. (In my teaching days, I was straight-up with my students about this. They knew that any use of “you” outside of a quote saw their papers dropped one letter grade.) We later find out that this first bit was written as a report for a superior; presumably the character avoids “I” as some sort of coping mechanism. Anyway, in spite of my personal feelings, the prose was harrowing and gripping enough that I kept reading compulsively.
The next portion of the book depicts Jos’ time with the alien “enemy,” the Striviirc-na. He is taken in and taught by Niko, human turncoat, in a sort of Shaolin Temple environment. A number of people have commented on the Asian flavor of Striviirc-na life. The training that Jos receives does resemble Asian martial arts, Zen, and that sort of thing, but I think that an even more apt comparison is with the Mri, CJ Cherryh’s aliens from the Faded Sunbooks. Granted, the Mri have a different cultural basis to them and the Striviirc-na lack the Mri self-destructiveness, but the one felt much like the other when I was reading. (As a sidenote, Jos only receives martial and espionage training. I wonder if other guilds would look different to us.)
Finally, Jos endures basic training on a deep space warship in preparation for his role as a commando and spy. All of this training, from pirates to space marines, is clearly laid out for the reader, which is a lot of reading about education. I probably would have said, “Then I had eight weeks of basic training. It sucked,” and moved on. Of course, I likely would have followed with a lengthy political and economic infodump and had my character join an avant-garde music ensemble, which is why I am a part time blogger and Karin Lowachee is an award winning novelist. Making my way through the long learning process, I kept thinking that Lowachee must be laying the groundwork for a series, since all of this school time provided a convenient place to world build. It was only later that I checked the interwebs and confirmed that, sure enough, there are more books in the series.
Thematically, the books covers ambitious ground. Child abuse, the after effects of sexual assault, the identity of multi-cultural orphans and the like are not generally picked up as topics to address in a military tinged science fiction story, let alone a debut SF novel. I have no idea what inspired her to taken on such heavy stuff rather than copping a classic plotline, but it is nothing if not ambitious. (And, as always, we at Two Dudes much prefer a flawed swing for the fences to complacent competency.) As one would expect from such weighty subject matter, this is a dark and intense read. The claustrophobic mood again recalls CJ Cherryh, but this time Cyteen in particular. I have no proof of this, but I would be very surprised if Lowachee doesn’t rate Cherryh a major influence.
I should also note, because I know I have readers that care about this sort of thing, that while there are plenty of dudes in this book, not very many of them are interested in the relatively few females. It isn’t Dhalgren or Vellum, but there are lengthy bits of mood and implication that would turn a Westboro Baptist church-goer to stone.
The final piece of interest is not something that everyone appears to catch on to. Most comments I read about Warchild pick up on humanity not being The Good Guys, several note the ambiguous line between good and evil, but fewer seem to recognize the historical parallels in the story. I suppose not every SF reader has an antenna tuned to imperialistic radio waves, but to me, Warchild‘s world building is a direct retelling of the European conquest of North America. Substitute “the Red Man” for “strivs” and “the US/Canadian government” for “humans,” and the words to the song are virtually identical. In this situation, it would be easy for Lowachee to fall into the Noble Savage pitfall, and she certainly flirts with it, but the book stays just this side of Dances With Wolves. I hope that more people than I fear look beneath the initial “woah, humans aren’t the heroes” reaction to the imminently relevant conversation of colonialism going on in Warchild, because it’s a conversation worth having in our community.
Taken together, Warchild is a surprising novel. Ostensibly military SF, it is actually an exploration of how young victims of abuse cope with trauma, if they happen to be gifted undercover warriors trained by alien ninjas. There are space pirates, gruff sergeants, gay prisoners, carpetbagging imperialists, jealous siblings, espirit d’corps, and exploding spaceships. I am amazed that Lowachee, in her first novel, not only managed to make this concoction coherent, but created an intense and involving story that took up long term residence in my brain.
Rating: In keeping with the colonial theme, Senegal – France at the 2002 World Cup, as the Africans toppled their former colonial overlords in one of the great upsets in football history.