BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Lieutenant Jander Mortas rejoins the war against the alien Sims.
PROS: Further development for Jander; introduction of two new POV’s; larger scale, hard hitting action.
CONS: Supporting characters need more development.
BOTTOM LINE: O’Neil’s Sim War is a very promising military sf series with a grounded, yet compelling cast.
I read Henry V. O’Neil’s Glory Main last fall and while I found it to have some flaws I also felt that it was an unexpected and satisfying military sf debut. I am very pleased to say that Orphan Brigade manages to improve upon the aspects of the first book that displayed so much potential. Where Glory Main was a more personal tale of survival in a war zone, Orphan Brigade is a slightly more traditional military sf novel with wider scope and familial drama. Because of the nature of sequels this review will have some minor spoilers so if you haven’t read Glory Main I suggest you check out that review and then give it a shot.
Lieutenant Jander Mortas survived the events of Glory Main and has been reunited with the Human Defense Force. Jander’s father Olech, Chairman of the Emergency Senate, wishes to appoint Jander to a cozy ambassador position but a strong sense of duty and a distrust of his father propels Jander to rejoin the Defense Force. Orphan Brigade follows Jander as he adjusts to a new posting with the hardcore veterans of the First Independent Brigade, the titular Orphans. The story also features the perspectives of Chairman Olech Mortas as he navigates a treacherous political landscape and Jander’s sister Ayliss on her continued search for evidence to incriminate her father’s abuse of power.
The split third person narration between Jander, Olech, and Ayliss is a departure from Jander’s lone POV in Glory Main and it functions well to expand the scope of O’Neil’s story. Orphan Brigade is still too limited in scope to be considered space opera but the inclusion of political and civilian perspectives sets it apart from straight military sf. The familial angle is another interesting component. The relationships between the three protagonists are strained to say the least. The inclusion of Olech’s perspective suggests that perhaps things aren’t as black and white as readers might believe after reading Glory Main. Of course Ayliss’s perspective will further serve to confuse the truth.
Readers received a limited glimpse at the universe in Glory Main. As Chairman of the Emergency Senate, Olech has an impressive God’s-eye-view of the conflict with the Sims and it’s not a pretty picture. The war has been grinding on for decades now and the Sim onslaught shows no sign of abating. The Sims remain an enigma. It is generally accepted as fact that the Sims are manufactured to fight humanity but beyond that little is known about them and nothing is known of their creators. To make matters worse humanity’s alliance is fragile at best. Politics driving military decisions result in unnecessary losses of life and opportunistic planetary governments seek to claim resources vital to the war effort. As a result of the Purge that followed the Chairman’s rise to power he’s got a great many enemies that would see him and his family undone. Olech sees all of this on a macro level while Jander, and to an extent Ayliss, provide a more personal view of the situation.
Of the new characters, Olech was my favorite. I recently replayed BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy and I couldn’t help but equate Olech with the Illusive Man. I pictured Martin Sheen as Olech the entire time. He’s not necessarily a good guy or a bad guy — he’s a political creature. There’s more to the Chairman than meets the eye and I’d wager even more that we haven’t learned by the end of Orphan Brigade. I’ll add that in the future I’d like to see more of Minister Reena, the Chairman’s special other and political badass. I wasn’t as moved by Jander’s sister Ayliss but the end of the book sets her up for some engaging conflict in the next book.
And then of course there’s Jander. The events of Glory Main tempered Lieutenant Jander from naive young officer to hardened survivor but Orphan Brigade reminds readers that he still hasn’t lead troops in combat. Jander spends much of the book learning about his new command with the Orphans before they are shipped out to take advantage of a quickly progressing situation on a world called Fractus. What I appreciate most about Jander is that he’s probably the most down-to-earth military sf protagonist I’ve ever read. He’s not a killing machine and he doesn’t devise some brilliant tactic that carries the battle and saves the day. The battle on Fractus is his first real taste of combat and it shows in his behavior. When he isn’t sure how to act or react he looks to the veterans around him for guidance or advice. When the fighting starts he’s scared and uncertain like everyone else. He’s learning and growing. It’s possible that come the next book in the series Jander will be more proactive and confident in his abilities to command but given his lack of experience leading up to Orphan Brigade it’s totally believable.
I was disapointed that I didn’t get much chance to develop connections with any of the Orphans. A few of the soldiers show promise but would have benefitted from more characterization. I can’t fault O’Neil too greatly for this given Jander’s “New Guy” status in the Brigade. Like the reader, Jander isn’t given much opportunity to form close bonds with the Orphans before being sent to Fractus. O’Neil even touches on this in the aftermath of the battle as Jander laments his unfamiliarity with a number of the casualties. Still, even a little extra characterization could have made the characters’ deaths more impactful.
I must commend O’Neil for playing into my paranoia. Those who have read Glory Main will know from that gut-punch twist of an ending that appearances can be deceiving. It could have been unintentional on O’Neil’s part but it seemed to me as though Orphan Brigade is teeming with red herrings. I spent the whole book waiting for the other shoe to drop, almost constantly on edge. Maybe I’m just paranoid but I like to think that O’Neil is purposefully teasing suspicions for an even greater payoff in the next book.
O’Neil succeeds in writing a strong sequel to a very different sort of military sf novel. Orphan Brigade surpassed my expectations in many ways, setting the stage for an even better third book. From the believable and fascinating protagonists to the frenzied action and perplexing mysteries, I believe that fans of William C. Dietz, Robert Buettner, Ian Douglas, and Jack Campbell will love Orphan Brigade.