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REVIEW: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

REVIEW SUMMARY: Another great read by John Scalzi.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The elite Special Forces of the CDF must locate a traitor before he can unite three alien races against humanity.


PROS: Enjoyable writing style; fun story; fast-paced; a quick read.

CONS: A small sense of deja vu when one character underwent his brief training.

BOTTOM LINE: Fun, page-turning, well-written science fiction

John Scalzi‘s The Ghost Brigades proves that his awesome 2005 debut, Old Man’s War, was no fluke. This guy’s got talent.

The Ghost Brigades follows the Special Forces of the Colonial Defense Forces on a series of missions to discover the reason why scientist Charles Boutin has turned traitor. Boutin is somehow involved with uniting three separate alien races against humanity, a triple-threat that humans have no hope of surviving. Led by Jane Sagan, the CDF Special Forces – dubbed the Ghost Brigade because the elite soldiers are created using genetic material from the deceased – are assigned to find Boutin.

The mission starts in CDF Research with Jared Dirac, an enhanced clone of Boutin himself. Boutin’s memories are transplanted into Dirac in hopes that the CDF Special Forces will learn what Boutin is up to and where he is hiding. Unfortunately, the memory implant doesn’t appear to take hold. There’s no need to waste a perfectly good soldier so Dirac is handed over to CDF Special Forces. But the memory transplant wasn’t a total failure. Boutin’s memories eventually begin to emerge, shedding light on the real reason for his betrayal and casting doubt as to the loyalty of an enhanced CDF soldier.

As readers of Old Man’s War will have undoubtedly figured out by now, The Ghost Brigades is not a direct sequel. This is not a continuation of John Perry’s life story. An interesting decision, that. On the one hand, you risk alienating the fans who loved it so much. On the other hand, you avoid the inevitable retread from which many sequels suffer. (Actually, I did get a small sense of deja vu when Dirac underwent his brief training, but the scenes were so much fun that it didn’t matter.) Ultimately, it was a wise choice to move the action to another branch of CDF because the result is something that feels as fresh and entertaining as its predecessor.

The story hooks you from the get-go with a mission to retrieve a scientist named Cainen from a hidden outpost. The action continues to skip along from scene to scene making it hard to put down. (I read half the book the day I picked it up and am still trying to recoup the lost sleep.) All of the scenes are enjoyable – the training, the missions, the strategic planning – and are heavily garnished with imaginative aliens and technology (I’m so glad BrainPals are back). Scenes are long enough to deliver a pleasing jolt of wonder but over long before you could even think of being bored. The result is a quick-moving, action-filled story.

Lending to this is Scalzi’s accessible, conversational writing style. It’s hard to not like a story when it’s obvious in the writing that the author is having so much fun with it. The occasional doses of humor are well-placed, well-executed and non-intrusive. On the other side of the spectrum, Scalzi has some brutally sobering battle scenes that the vivid writing makes hard to forget. There are also a few effective emotional moments involving children, both alien and human. In short, Scalzi maintains the easily-digested and appealing writing style he exhibited in his first novel.

I might add that it goes a bit further. Some themes are explored here that give the novel a bit more depth. For example, individual choice is touched upon frequently as Boutin’s memories begin to emerge within Dirac. Is Dirac predestined to turn traitor? Can Dirac resist the memories of a betrayer? The emergence of Boutin’s memories in Dirac provided a great buildup of tension. Other ethical issues are brought up, like cloning and human rights, but are mentioned only in passing; the focus is on the action.

One of the other things Scalzi does well is characters. Dirac is simultaneously sympathetic and distant; sympathetic because he’s somewhat of a victim, distant because we know the evil that is lurking inside waiting to take hold. Dirac was a nice contrast to the level-headed Jane Sagan who was tough but wary. Cainen was also a great character, forced to make the best of a bad situation. Even minor characters were memorable. Some later scenes with a CDF soldier named Harvey make me wonder if he was modeled after Jayne from Firefly.

You do not need to have read Old Man’s War to enjoy The Ghost Brigades, but if you didn’t read either of them you’d be missing out on fun, page-turning, well-written science fiction.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

3 Comments on REVIEW: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

  1. I would have to agree with John here on this book. I believe Scalzi has another winner in The Ghost Brigades. The introductary chapter really sucked me in and was an excellent way to start the book. One other thing to note here is that John Scalzi doesn’t build cookie cutter characters and here you really see that the Spec Ops folks have a range of personalities. One thing I would have liked to seen play out a bit more was the interaction between the Spec Ops folks and the normal CDF personel, but I am not sad in that the book delivers a fantastic story. Now I gotta wait for the next one – fiddlesticks…

  2. This book gets 4 stars from me. It’s a really good science fiction book – one of the better ones I have read. I’d have to say that if you like the Bujold, you’ll like Scalzi – he’s that good. That isn’t to say that the books revolve around a central character – they don’t – but that Scalzi writes a story in a great universe that involve fantastic characters. He doesn’t really present any new ideas in general, but he does explore the ideas presented by others (conciousness transfer, cloning, uplifting species, etc.)

  3. Ghost Brigades came to my attention as the next great read from science fiction. This is for the most part true…that is if your in fifth grade . It’s a great book for the first couple of chapters after that it feels as if Scalzi got bored. Scalzi attempts (and fails) to blend Starship Troopers and Blackhawk Down . Throughout the book my literary enjoyment was inhibited by the novels uneven pace and to keep things blurbed Scalzi adds elements of Heinlien prose. I.E. sexual liberation, bugs. Bottom line if you want military sci-fi read Armor or watch Aliens.

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