Here at the Completist, I’ve been hemming and hawing about whether I should include certain series because of their availability (or lack thereof) to readers. After some thought, I realized (rather, hoped) if I covered some series that had limited availability, people would be encouraged to hunt down these books and perhaps renew interest with the publisher to make the books more readily available. With all of that said, I wanted to highlight a trilogy of novels I read a few years ago that stood out to me for many reasons, and I think to others who have read the books. Military Science Fiction is and has been one of the most popular sub-genres in science fiction, but the books here are quite different from the typical first-person Soldier-in-Training-Then-Fighting-a-War story.
Karin Lowachee made something of a splash with her debut novel, Warchild. It won the second WarnerAspect (Hachette’s SF imprint prior to Orbit) first novel contest, sported a glowing blurb on the cover from Tim Powers, and a terrific cover from Matt Stawicki. The opening chapter immediately grabs you unawares, by placing the reader in the story: “You didn’t see their faces,” as if the reader is a character in the novel, being told what happened to him/her in the past. This immediately makes a strong connection between the writer and reader. Though jarring, this perspective parallels the tumultuous events opening the story as protagonist Jos Musey’s home-ship, Mukadori, is attacked. Jos is then orphaned and “taken in” by the pirate Falcone, the captain of the attacking vessel, Genghis Khan. While the time Jos spends with Falcone is relatively short compared to the rest of the novel, this time spent with Falcone, in addition to the loss of his parents, shapes Jos irrevocably.
After Genghis Khan is attacked, Jos then falls under the wing of Nikolas-dan, a human priest-assassin on the striviirc-na (a race humanity has been at war with for many, many years) planet of Aaian-na, thrusting him in the middle of the conflict which has pit the humans of the galaxy against the striviirc-na (strits) and their sympathizers (symps). Lowachee charts Jos’ development as a spy-assassin, who slowly becomes an essential part of the galactic war. The interaction between Jos and Nikolas-dan is logically played out, from initial trepidation and distrust on Jos’ part to the eventual trust and respect that builds between the two. So yeah, Jos has quite a lot of angst, conflict, and emotional baggage accompanying him wherever he goes.
Lowachee could have easily let Jos become a cardboard cutout—that of a typical emotional, crybaby teen. Though he sometimes acts on his emotions impulsively, Lowachee is able to flesh out Jos’ character fully and logically, through his actions and how characters around him react. One of the most admirable aspects of the story is how not all the details are thrown in the readers face. Certain events are hinted at early and confirmed later, characters reveal difficult memories without revealing the unseemly details. This is especially true of a young man in a similar situation to Jos’s – Evan – who sold himself sexually and subsequently attempts to seduce Jos.
Throughout this novel, Lowachee demonstrates how early experiences can mold the character and through those experiences and knowledge gained, how a boy becomes a man. The largest thing over Jos’s life is his understandable inability to trust others. While harsh early experiences painting a rough life is a known thing, Lowachee paints a painful picture of Jos that sets him apart as a distinct, believable character in his own right. Despite a somewhat predictable ending, the novel is otherwise expertly told, quick paced, with a satisfying journey traveled by Jos towards story’s end. Lowachee has definitely written a novel that stands on its own merits for its uniqueness and her abilities, while still being a novel worthy of the comparison.
The second novel in this connected trilogy, Burndive, introduces readers to Ryan Azercon, son of perhaps the most infamous space captain in the galaxy, Captain Cairo Azercon and Songlian Lau, Senior Public Affairs Officer of the Austro Satellite where Ryan lives. Ryan’s life is under constant public scrutiny because of his parents’ fame (or infamy) and even more so after being voted the “#1 Hot Bachelor.” What doesn’t help matters is his practically non-existent relationship with his parents. The opening scene shows Ryan purchasing Silver, a drug available only on Earth with Sid, his Marine bodyguard. As a result of being in the public light, Ryan’s life occasionally is threatened, and he lives the life of a reluctant celebrity. Ryan wasn’t necessarily the most likeable character, but Lowachee invested enough into his development that reading about him proved quite compelling. Ryan is built up as this incredibly arrogant and angry character; however, through Lowechee’s skill with characterization, justification and empathy are present.
Soon after Ryan’s life is threatened in an attack on his Dojo, his father arrives at the Austro hub to bring Ryan aboard his ship, the Macedon. At this point, the pacing of the narrative picks up considerably as Ryan interacts with more people, including Jos Musey, the protagonist of Warchild. Again, while reading that book would enrich this novel a great deal, Burndivecan stand on its own as Lowachee provides ample exposition about Jos to make him a fully realized character in this novel. Jos is on Macedon assisting his father Captain Azercon (another character first seen in Warchild) in the negotiations with the striviirc-na as more depth is revealed about the striviirc-na. Despite Jos and Azercon’s appearance, Burndive truly is Ryan’s story of how he moved from a life where he felt isolated to a life where is, albeit reluctantly, a greater part of what is going on, a part of what matters.
One thing Lowachee does, which is initially a bit jarring, is shift from the third-person narrative voice to the first-person narrative, as Ryan begins telling his own story in the last third of the novel. While jarring, the effect was a good one, it indicated a positive change for Ryan, and enriched his character as we got into his head.
Burndive really showcased Lowachee’s growing skills in building believable characters. Not necessary the most likable characters, but convincing, empathetic, and moving characters nonetheless. Ryan suffers from PTSD, becomes addicted to drugs and has many other fractures in his personality as he comes to grips with his past and what can become of him. It was a rewarding journey to see the character’s growth.
The final novel, Cagebird, tells of a young man, Yuri Kirov upon his release from prison at the age of 22. When Yuri was a young boy, his home world is destroyed and he is taken captive by a pirate named Marcus. When he is finally extracted from prison, he’s had more of an education in secretive criminal activities than most people twice his age. Where the narrative flirted with homosexuality in the protagonist in Warchild, here in Cagebird, Yuri is homosexual. He even go so far as to break a fellow prisoner whom he has feelings for out of prison.
In another callback to the first novel, Falcone the pirate was once a mentor to Yuri. The narrative follows both the “present” of the novel and Yuri’s early life when from the destruction of his world, to being recruited by Falcon, to his life as a geisha. He falls for his mentor and essentially becomes a prostitute and eventually gains his own ship. Lowachee also reveals the deeper connection between the events in Cagebird and Burndive. However, when Yuri is out of prison, he is met with a surprising challenge when he attempts to regain his ship.
What is particularly effective about these three novels is how the war is told from different viewpoints and angles; unfolding layers of her universe from tangential points of view, which showcases the richness of her future world and space saga. This approach also worked well in the novels I discussed earlier, T.C. McCarthy’s Subterrene War novels. Like McCarthy’s novels, Lowachee deals with PTSD in a way that is a natural extension of the plot, young people in traumatic situations, often involving war. By series’s end, Lowachee paints a distressing picture of the many traumatic and negative effects of war on those who are both intimately involved in the war as well as those involved in conflict which themselves are a result of a war, especially children and young adults. These three books are uncompromising in the frank nature of nearly everything Lowachee attempts to portray.
Much of Military SF is written by white guys, and here we have a decidedly non-white guy (Karin grew up in South America and is a woman) giving us some excellent Military SF. In the military depicted in the novels, there is no real demarcation between men and women who serve, both serve and it is barely noted (especially in Warchild). In other words, the men and women fighting together is a seamless feature of the world rather than a stand out bug. Lowachee also broaches topics not often seen in Military SF like homosexuality and the damaging effects on children. That said, Mark L. Van Name’s Jon and Lobo books (which veer more into Space Opera than Military SF) do spend a great deal of narrative energy extolling the horrors that can be placed up on children during war. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t make a link, of sorts, between Karin’s novels and a recent Military SF/Space Opera novel which I found very impressive – Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension (also reviewed here at SF Signal by Paul Weimer) insofar as much that Koyanagi’s novel could be seen as a spiritual successor to Lowachee’s trilogy. My point being is that these books are excellent for a lot of reasons and for the most part, all of the elements that set the books apart from standard Military SF fare (gender/nationality of the author, topics broached) simply are natural elements of the story.
The only problem I have with these three books is their limited availability (and that is no fault of the author’s). I read them quite a while ago, but now the price on the mass market paperback seems quite high ($22!). This trilogy would seem ideal for repacking as an omnibus or some other repacking (much like Orbit did for Robert Beuttner’s “Jason Wander” novels) since Orbit has been established as Hachette’s SF imprint. I do recall seeing copies of the books in the used book shops I’ve haunted. Lowachee has a story in the forthcoming Kickstarter-backed War Stories anthology edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak and published a steampunk novel, The Gaslight Dogs in 2010. All of that said, the “Warchild” novels are most definitely worthy of reexamination and an increased audience. (Hint, Orbit, get these books in an omnibus!)