Karin Lowachee's Warchild is an unapologetic celebration of straight-ahead action science fiction. If you love such things -- and I do -- this book is an adrenaline-soaked read that's hard to put down for sleep or meals. To see if the story is for you, let me give you a simple test, a paragraph from early in the book:
You stood on the chair and poked the right numbers that you'd seen Daddy and Mama use, then the green button, and waited. The cabinet comp beeped, then the lights behind the buttons glowed green and you grabbed the handle and tugged. A rack of guns. You couldn't remember exactly how to use them but you probably could figure it out. You'd seen Daddy and Mama use them on the firing range. Daddy and Mama were good with guns, even though they were engineers. Everybody old enough had to be good with guns, Daddy said, because of the war. Nobody could predict aliens or the symps like the Warboy, and merchants like Mukudori could get caught between some Hub battleship and a strit one, you just never knew. And pirates were worse. Pirates liked to take hostages.
If the passage leaves you oriented to the story and ready for the action that follows, you'll likely be as thrilled by the book as I was. If you're still giggling, it's probably not for you.
The book can be summarized rather simply as a coming of age story centered around Joslyn Aaron Musey, beginning when he's eight years of age and continuing a few months past his 17th birthday. When the tale begins, Jos has become an orphan only minutes before (although he is not yet aware of this). The story continues as he grows and adjusts through an interval on a pirate ship, an interval on the alien home planet (where humans and aliens live side-by-side), and an interval spent on a tour of duty as a spy on a military ship. Jos is not a standard action figure -- he survives more by luck and the generosity of strangers than by personal character and thoughtful planning. He is frequently self-pitying, often self-destructive, and on more than one occasion he is more annoyingly ungrateful than cheerfully receptive to the help he is offered.
The remaining characters are often surprisingly well drawn for an action tale, although that aspect can be easily overstated. Probably calling them charming and colorful is closest to the mark. The universe is similarly undistracting -- a bullying and bureaucracy-bound Earth misunderstands a peaceful and morally superior alien race. The aliens (striviirc-na) are sufficiently non-human to invite discrimination, but otherwise comfortingly anthropoidal, to the extent that the strivs and the sympathizing humans can learn and speak each other's languages. The sympathizers have learned a sort of Taoist philosophy/lifestyle from the striviirc-na, and Jos is taught this discipline -- which includes martial training with ancient weapons -- during his time on the alien planet.
There are touches not often found in action stories that I liked a lot -- the military ship has both men and women in fighting and support roles without noticeable differentiation, the supporting characters were largely believable rather than overdrawn stereotypes, and all of the characters, including Jos, suffer a more-realistic-than-usual amount of doubt and hesitation. On the other hand, it did seem a bit odd that Jos, who seems able to adapt to, and learn from, the sympathizers and the aliens almost seamlessly, chafes and battles with practically every other character in the story. I'd also have to say that the use of second person in the opening sequence in the story, and to a lesser extent the use of first person present tense in the last section, don't quite resonate for me. That's particularly true for the early passage in second person -- probably used to emphasize the character's youth -- where the device is distracting, and even a bit grating.
The perspective on war is interesting, and may show a bit of evolution in the genre. Unlike Gene Roddenberry's thinly disguised lectures about the Vietnam war in the original Star Trek, Lowachee's story presents an ambivalent view of war. Certainly Jos bears substantial psychological scars from the death of his parents, and that experience colors his reactions for the rest of the story, but the effects of the war on other characters are varied. The stress of the war, and the opportunities it presents, bring out greed or duplicity in some, while the pressures of command and the stress of battle reveal surprising strength of character in others. I can't say that the story breaks new ground, or achieves insights I'd never considered, but it's more realistic than many.
Not surprisingly, it is Lowachee's skill in assembling the action scenes that makes the story come alive:
Three jets ran toward me from the alley leftward. They'd rounded me. I spun in the opposite direction and saw two more jets turn the corner from the main throughway. I looked up and jumped, grabbed the neighboring store's marquee overhang and hauled myself up, legs swinging. One knee found the narrow ledge while I scraped for a decent hold on the pitted plas-molding of the building wall. These places had no roofs, extending instead into the station ceiling, but they had windows. I levered myself standing and edged along to the half-open plexpane to my left. It was just within arm's reach.
The jets stopped below me like frustrated dogs. One drew her gun and fired.
The paralysis pulse burst a half meter from my shoulder, scarring the wall. I clung, fingers digging. An intentional miss.
Warchild is the winner of the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest, and a rare example of a book delivering pretty much what the cover promises, and for a more than fair price. If you're a fan of the genre, this is a great read -- just be careful not to start it when your life demands attention to other things; life just might have to wait.
Brian Peters is the Managing Editor of Strange Horizons.
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