BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A military officer named Ia, who possesses precognitive abilities, tries to shape the course of events to prevent countless deaths.
PROS: A likable protagonist; story moves quickly; doesn’t feel padded; interesting world building.
CONS: There are fewer actions sequences than military sf readers might expect.
BOTTOM LINE: Surpasses the previous novel.
An Officer’s Duty is the second book in Jean Johnson’s military sf series Theirs Not to Reason Why, the first book of which is A Soldier’s Duty. It continues the story of Ia, a tough woman who is not only dedicated to the military, but also has an ulterior motive. Ia possesses special abilities — including precognitive vision — through which she has seen the end of the human race three centuries into the future. She can prevent this catastrophe by steering the course of events in the right direction, which she can accomplish as a member of the Terran United Planets Space Forces. In this book, she switches from the Marines to the Navy where she’s assigned the very dangerous post of blockade control. She also meets someone who was, alarmingly, unforeseen by her precognitive ability and could, quite possibly, derail her plans to save humanity.
One of the things that stands out about An Officer’s Duty is how it offers much more than the usual trappings of military sf. Ia’s abilities — which extend far beyond mere precognitive abilities, we learn — put an interesting spin on things that allow the story to move in unexpected directions. They help her excel in her military career, sure, but they are also used within reason; ethical constraints — nicely portrayed in a sequence where Ia undergoes testing — keep Ia from abusing her gifts. As one might expect, her abilities also come into play during the action sequences. These action sequences, though relatively few, put seasoned military science fiction readers of firmer ground.
As noted in the review of the previous book, having a character with such powerful abilities — especially the ability to see the future — can potentially be a drama killer. After all, if Ia (and through her, the reader) can se the future, there are no surprises. But Ia’s gift, like before, proves to be wisely limited. She can only see possible futures, not definite ones. The uncertainty of Ia’s success is made all the more real because of some additional story elements as well. For example, Ia encounters a man who she has not foreseen at all in the time streams. Worse for humanity’s future: Ia develops feelings for him that may jeopardize her ultimate mission.
The structure of the book tends to modularize this and other events that occur, making the book seem somewhat episodic. The first act puts an off-duty Ia on her home world where society is threatened by a religious conflict. Not much military action going on there, however the story is nonetheless page-turning. Readers are exposed to interesting world building, are given more of Ia’s back story (including her ethics testing) and get a peek into events to come. It’s also where Ia demonstrates her other abilities. From there, the story takes Ia into the Navy where she meets the enigmatic and precog-invisible Meyun Harper. Her relationship with him is explored a bit while in training, but then the story moves yet again to Ia’s stint in the dangerous blockade, where encounters with enemy aliens — usually hostile ones — is a certainty. This last act is where Ia’s actions, which are usually executed with the utmost conviction, are the least deterministic…yet she nevertheless undergoes a very difficult trial to steer history in a certain direction. The book ends logically and realistically with the fallout from those events. The episodic nature of the book, as well as the author’s clean prose style, means things move quickly and the book never, ever feels padded.
It’s hard not to like Ia. She’s good at what she does, maintains high ethics and can kick some @$$ when she needs to. This is her story told from her perspective, so that’s an important thing to get right, and this book gets it right. The story reads quickly and — thanks to several additional elements like the world building and back story — there are simply no slow parts. An Officer’s Duty surpasses the previous novel because that it raises the stakes, advances the longer story arc, and further develops the characterization of protagonist.