Warchild

Warchild
Karin Lowachee

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.

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Interruption of Service

With apologies to all loyal readers, reality has struck the Attic with a vengeance this week. Posts may be scarce until the future physical location of the Attic has been determined; it’s hard to get in a writing mood when a Dude’s house ceases suddenly to be available. Things should be sorted out by the end of the week and regular service will resume, unless I find myself packing and hauling boxes every night.

 

Edit (6/18): Post finally going up tonight, after too long of a break. Things will be sporadic for a little bit longer, as we negotiate to buy a house. Moving has been, for the moment, staved off, so hopefully I can get back to twice a week soon. Thanks for your patience.

The Myriad

The Myriad
R.M. Meluch

I found about about The Myriad the old fashioned way, from an ad in the back of another DAW book. It had a blurb that promised guilty space opera goodness and was enough to rope me into a library request. Hard to imagine that back before the interwebs made SF fandom so much easier, this, author acknowledgments, and the Science Fiction Book Club were all we had. (I suppose some people subscribed to magazines, but I was stretching the allowance with Boy’s Life already.) That said, I can’t remember the last time this sort of analog advertising convinced me, so maybe I should ping DAW on Twitter to let them know that it still works.

The first thing to think about with The Myriad is the nature of storytelling twists. In some cases (The Sixth Sense), the twist turns the narrative on its head, but in a way that illuminates the hidden corners of the story and makes the audience say, “Oh! Now I understand!” In others (Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, though this is hardly the book’s only fault), it undercuts the story, chopping it off at its narrative knees and leaving the reader wondering why anything that came before even mattered. Pretty much any story that ends with, “And it was all a dream!” falls into this category. I mention this first because The Myriad has to stand or fall entirely on its last chapter, no matter the quality of everything that comes before. More on this to follow.

The book itself threatens space opera, what with the man eating space bugs and all, but settles more firmly into military SF territory. These aren’t mutually exclusive of course, and the book hints at enough subgenres to call itself whatever it wants. Still, if forced under pain of xeno-bug digestion to choose, MilSF it is. One viewpoint character is the dashing ship’s captain, a bold and cheerful leader who just happens to be amazing at captainly duties. He is also handy with a sword, which certain plot details cause to be necessary. Another character is the loyal, competent, and somewhat dense sergeant whose job it is to ride herd on the jolly band of marines. We’ve already met the space bugs, but the other troupe of bad guys is a neo-Roman Empire, complete with Latin, legions, and martial glory. The League of Earth Nations (eat that UN!) politicians are smarmy and spineless. There is valor, loyalty, and discipline; all the book needs now is a grave commander who mourns the fine young men and women he sends to their fiery deaths in his vast battlefleet to hit all of the requisite MilSF notes.

Did I mention that the crew are all Americans, protecting US interests in space because the League of Earth Nations is lily livered? And yet, for every Pournelle-esque “What the world needs now is an enlightened despot” moment, there is a sidelong wink that pricks the overinflated balloon of jingoism. Meluch plays coy with the politics, but seems too self-aware to sell out completely to the Baen Books crowd. This is without getting into the bizarre Romans, who apparently arose from a secret society that survived both the barbarians at the gates in 476 A.D. and two subsequent millenia. We don’t see much of the Romans, save for one Augustus, who has mental superpowers and is forwarded to the hero’s ship to assist with the war against the ravening space bugs. He is for me the most interesting character by a large margin. Besides his genetically enhanced intellect, he hates the Americans and tweaks them whenever possible, but is also dutiful and has a heart of, if not gold, then maybe nice bronze. He is also handy with a sword, which is convenient when the space bugs are boarding the ship and have to be beaten off with cutlasses. Yes, this book is just as strange as it sounds.

One final point before moving on. I was surprised that most of the reviews I checked of The Myriad had nothing to say about one of the female characters, including a couple of reviewers that really have no excuse for glossing over it. Meluch treats one of the women, the “morale officer” of the squad if you will, horribly. At one point, putting her in danger of being molested by an alien, the men say something like, “Well, she puts out for everyone else, so what’s one more? I’m sure she’ll like it in the end.” Egad. This wouldn’t be as shocking if the book didn’t basically condone this attitude. If a male author were to write this, it would be decried. It may be though that because Meluch’s first name appears to be Rebecca, this sort of thing is alright. I have no idea, but it was every bit as icky as an Anne McCaffery dragon lady being forcibly taken by whatever dragon rider was lucky enough to see his trusty steed chase down the queen.

Anyway, philosophical quibbles aside, the book holds together far better than it should. The characters are engaging, the plot moves along rapidly, and actual Science even pops its head in from time to time. There are a couple of “wait … what?” moments, but nothing too egregious. If I were to start this review by saying, “American marines and Romans fighting xenocidal space bugs with swords – it works,” my loyal readers would probably try to lock me up. But …. it works. Right up until it doesn’t.

Several things I’ve read say that The Myriad really can’t be appreciated until one reads the second book. After that, the whacko twist at the end of The Myriad makes total sense and is actually brilliant. This may be so. Unfortunately, I have to deal with the book on its own, and I wanted to toss it out the bus window. Meluch let her characters paint themselves into several corners, but this was not the resolution I was looking for. Maybe I’ll change my mind after reading the next book, because I will eventually read the next book, but for now I reserve the right to feel a bit cheated. Still, like an LA Lakers victory, eventually the foul taste wears off and we only remember the good times. I’ll be sure to read and review the next book, leaving this for now with a conditional recommendation.

Rating: Chelsea-Liverpool, 2008 Champions League at Anfield. Liverpool dominates and seems intent on their second straight CL final before inexplicably heading in an own goal in extra time. They have never been the same.