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REVIEW: A Soldier’s Duty by Jean Johnson

REVIEW SUMMARY: Standard military sf layered with interesting sf-nal elements.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A woman named Ia enlists in the military with the ultimate (and secret) goal of preventing the destruction of humanity that she has foreseen through her precognitive ability.

PROS: Fast-paced; precog element ups level of interest; sympathetic and realistic protagonist.
CONS: Cookie-cutter plot; archetypical supporting characters; writing occasionally clunky and unclear.
BOTTOM LINE: A good read, with the precog story line making up for the predictable elements.

A Soldier’s Duty is the first in a new sf series by Jean Johnson, an author with several books to her credit, though this is her first into science fiction territory. Perhaps because of this, the plot of this military sf book is somewhat standard: soldier enters the military, goes through basic training, is sent on some missions, does well, and advances through the ranks. In this case, that soldier is simply named Ia (pronounced EE-yah), a heavyworlder from a faraway colony planet, who enters the space marine branch of the Terran United Planets Space Forces. Ia undergoes some brutal training and quickly establishes herself as a top-notch soldier, gaining the notice of her superiors. All pretty standard stuff so far…

But here’s where things get interesting. Ia is a precog – a person who has the ability to see the future. Ia has witnessed the destruction of her galaxy and, consequently, the end of the human race three centuries into the future. She has also seen a way to prevent it, but only by following a specific path. That path includes being in the Marine Corps where she can influence the right set of people and events to prevent this future catastrophe. The catch is that soldiers with psychic abilities usually get assigned to the special forces, not the Corps, thus Ia hides her ability from her squad mates and superiors so that she may accomplish her goal.

With the ability to see the future, it’s little wonder that Ia excels at being a soldier. This is a great sf-nal hook but also a dangerous one: if Ia can see the future, there’s no surprises for her or the reader, right? However, Ia’s power is thankfully limited. Although she can see the future, she can see many possible futures all at once. (The analogy of a river with many twists and turns is used quite often.) She doesn’t see definite futures, she sees possible futures. For her, it’s a probabilities game. Further, some parts of the future are hazy for Ia, meaning that even she does not know the outcome of certain events. And the fact that Ia, the point-of-view character, doesn’t internalize events before they happen, means that readers don’t quite know what’s coming (although from the perspective of the Omniscient Reader we’re pretty sure whatever she does will turn out well, especially if the series is to continue past book 1).

As a main character, Ia is suitably sympathetic. She’s somewhat tortured by her gift, and her determination to stay the course – even at a cost of any close relationships – is admirable. In fact, Ia’s decision to ignore the personal in favor of the Bigger Picture drives one particular scene that makes her seem downright heartless, and thus, not perfect — which only makes her seem more real. Otherwise, Ia is surrounded by standard, archetypical characters who’s names become familiar but whose identities don’t. The writing, though occasionally clunky and unclear, moved swiftly, lending to a feeling of being nicely paced and never boring.

A Soldier’s Duty was ultimately a good read because the precognitive story line made up for the predictable military sf plot.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

2 Comments on REVIEW: A Soldier’s Duty by Jean Johnson

  1.  This is a great sf-nal hook but also a dangerous one: if Ia can see the future, there’s no surprises for her or the reader, right?


    That’s definitely a threat and a problem with such books.  


    This book reminds me a little bit of a forward-looking version of the novel Mainline, where the protagonist just kept moving sideways in timelines rather than trying to choose possible futures.

  2. What I also thought was interesting by not having Ia’s preferred course of events plainly laid out for the reader was that it leaves some mystery for where future books might be headed.

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