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Burndive, Karin Lowachee, Warner Aspect, 2003, 417 pp.

Burndive is the follow-up to Lowachee's acclaimed debut, Warchild, and it takes place in the same universe as the first book. But Burndive is not a typical sequel. It reuses some of the same events from the end of Warchild but from a different point of view, and then strides forward from there. And although Burndive seems to be based on much on the same template as Warchild -- namely the story of a young boy who lives through terrible events, and grows up despite what is essentially psychological torture -- the characterization takes us to a wildly different part of society. I liked this book a great deal; itís a complex work that rewards reflection, all in the context of a readable story.

Ryan Azarcon has always been at the centre of media attention due to his famous family. The fame is mainly due to being the son of Captain Azarcon, one of the most risk-taking and individualistic deep space captains (this at a time of ongoing war between humans and the aliens known as the strits, a situation complicated by the presence of human pirates and another human group known as symps who seem to be on the stritsí side). So essentially Ryan has had all of the corrosive effects of excessive public scrutiny, without any of the benefits; that is to say, he has not been scrutinized for anything he himself has done, so the attentions of the media have not benefited him personally. Worse is the fact that it's actually quite dangerous to be an Azarcon. Before the book starts, Ryan witnessed a horrific bombing in Hong Kong, part of an attempt to kill his grandfather. Later in the book, he himself becomes a target and it seems as if his bodyguard can't do much about it. Personally, he is suffering a great deal because of a liaison between his bodyguard, only a few years his elder, and his mother. His father is gone for years at a time, and the maternal side of the family has never approved of the match. All in all, itís a complex, hurtful situation.

On top of all this, Ryanís space station and his fatherís ship get caught up in the events of the war. As we found out at the end of Warchild, Ryanís father and the hero of that book, Jos, are part of a serious peace attempt. Now we find out more about what others think of the process, and even better, Burndive continues the story to tell us what happens next. In my review of Warchild, I pointed out certain parallels between that work and Enderís Game (as well as some welcome differences). In some ways, Burndive parallels Enderís Shadow, Cardís close retelling of Enderís Game; both books take an earlier story and explore it from another point of view, working over the meaning of the tale, and adding depth to a future history by way of new characterization.

Like Jos in Warchild, Ryan has some serious psychological problems he needs to overcome; both young men take much longer to get to the point of personal equilibrium than typically happens in such stories. By sustaining this note for so long, Lowachee points out to us that the character who changes or reforms at the drop of a hat is a fantasy, a convention of stories less interested in psyche than plot. This construction also can be flipped over to a reading of society and the nature of power. Warchild was structured fairly conventionally; the outsider Jos, the most powerless of all, finds his way into society. Burndive turns Warchild on its head: Ryan has all of the advantages Jos never had. Why wonít he just grow up? But he is still living in the same violent, essentially abusive universe. Lowachee drives this point him in a key passage in the first quarter of the book:

You linked on the Send every shift, and for every peacehawk from the Dragons to Hubcentral that wanted an end to the war, there was a raging political group or a racist paramilitary organization that thought the symps were traitors fit to be executed and strits an abomination to humanity. Or people who'd lost families through the fighting were simply unable to forgive, or forget, and would rather avenge. They devoted time, cred, and weapons to the cause.

Oh, everybody had a Cause. And they all thought their points were best made with bombs. (86)

Ryanís actions might not be derived from a rational response to such a universe but thatís precisely the point. How does anyone become intellectually equipped to face this universe outside the self? In its outlines, Ryanís struggles are the ones that we all face, are forced to face. Warchild and Burndive might be about adolescents, and about the typical rite of passage trope, but they donít feel like books for adolescents. This crucial distinction is what I like so much about Burndive; the youth of its protagonist doesnít mean itís a simple work.

Burndive is another excellent work from a promising new writer. Lowachee has set a fairly high bar for herself!

Last modified: October 7, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (

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