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Cagebird, Karin Lowachee, Warner Aspect, 2005, 429 pp.

Cagebird is Karin Lowachee's third novel, following her award-winning debut, Warchild, and a related second novel, Burndive. Cagebird follows closely in the steps of Warchild and Burndive -- this is not a prequel or a sequel as such things are defined, but rather a book that takes place in an overlapping time period from the point of view of a different character. Another example of this approach would be Orson Scott Card's revisiting of the Ender's Game universe with a character who was formerly in a supporting role. I have my doubts about whether this approach is a productive one, and I'll examine this question later in this review.

Cagebird resembles Warchild and Burndive in another way: all three books are intense psychological portraits, the type of characterization that is simply not found all that often in science fiction. The broader background of these stories is a kind of modified space opera, in which space pirates, military capital ships, and aliens all mix it up in the outer reaches of the galaxy. The stereotypical space opera cares more about the pace of the plot than the people involved, and Lowachee has subverted that expectation in each of these three books. Warchild followed a boy who got caught up in the battle with the aliens (on both sides), while Burndive was about a boy whose father captained a military ship but whose life was not necessarily any less psychologically grueling. Cagebird completes the trio with a look at the life of a boy who becomes a member of the crew of a pirate vessel.

Cagebird is also more structurally complex than the previous two books. The main character, Yuri, is 22 when his story starts, and he's in a military prison for his crimes as a pirate. The first 50 pages show how much of a tight spot he is in. A Black Ops agent comes to him to make a deal. Yuri will get out of prison if he agrees to infiltrate the pirate network and pass along intelligence about his former comrades. Then the story jumps back to Yuri as a four year old, living happily with his family on a colonial world. After a devastating attack by the aliens, his home world is evacuated and in the ensuing chaos his family loses track of his mother. Stuck in a refugee camp on some other planet, lonely and without many prospects, he's easy prey for pirate recruiters.

Lowachee switches back and forth between these two chronologies, gradually bringing the past up the point where we understand how Yuri got imprisoned. But it's a strange balance between past and present. I sometimes felt that the pacing, already focused on building a portrait of Yuri, became even slower with the way the story switched back and forth. Novels told entirely in flashback don't have this problem because the tempo is governed by the material from the past. Cagebird's structure seems to emphasize the slow-moving nature of both past and present stories. And the story from the past circles around the same nexus of events that concluded Warchild and Burndive, so a significant proportion of the emotional payoff depends on the previous two books. That's fine, of course, since this is a tightly coherent series, but this particular character portrait suffers as a result since some of the hard work has been done elsewhere. The galaxy-wide story of this future progresses incrementally, if it all.

I must say, though, that these problems, if they are such, are not due to carelessness but rather ambition. Lowachee has a big project in her sights here, and one that often gets glossed over in other books about galaxy-wide hostilities: what are the costs of war (and conflict more generally) on people, and specifically men. Starting off with the man as a young boy is a way of demonstrating the events rather than explaining them as exposition -- letting us see the injury happen rather than showing a scar and then mentioning in passing how it got that way. Cagebird is definitely a brave book -- Lowachee doesn't spare us any details -- and I often get impatient with the juvenile nature of much of what passes for a grown-up novel in the genre. What would it be like for a young boy to be trained as a violent criminal, able to kill on command? What would it be like for a young boy to be trained as a geisha, able to seduce anyone for the furtherment of the piratical mission at hand? Lowachee is totally committed to her material and Cagebird in particular has a frank attitude towards sexual matters. I have to give the book highest marks for the way it resists all exploitation; this is a story that demands a careful rendering of sensitive material and Lowachee is certainly up to the challenge.

I'll be curious to see what Lowachee does next as a writer. This is probably the last book that could be wrung out of this moment in future history -- as I've indicated, this third outing stretches my willingness to read about the exact same pivotal confrontation. All the same, I think Lowachee has created something new and necessary in the genre -- you could call these three books the Warchild trilogy because they all look at how children might be damaged by conflict and how three specific kids might cope with that damage. It's always important to reveal the consequences of the things that we like to entertain ourselves with.

Last modified: August 9, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by James Schellenberg (

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