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Valor's Choice, Tanya Huff, DAW, 2000, 409 pp.
Tanya Huff has spent her writing career turning fantasy and horror on their heads, discarding conventional wisdom and subverting genre clichés, with consistently enjoyable results. In Valor's Choice, Huff turns her attention to the creakiest subgenre of science fiction, the space opera, of the military type. Despite her long track record of overcoming my doubts -- for example, with a fresh and funny haunted house story in her recent Summon the Keeper -- my initial reaction to this project was unenthusiastic, tepid at best. Military sf has never been a personal preference of mine, so Valor's Choice faced an uphill battle against my critical defences, and it did not win my affection until about halfway through. At that point, an amusing digression occurs where a lesser writer would have introduced a plot complication or conspiracy. Huff uses the break in narrative rhythm for a laugh, and keeps the plot as straightforward as possible. While there still were things I disliked about the book, Valor's Choice delivered an amusing and fast-paced reading experience because of this streamlined structure.
The book tells the story of Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr, of Sh'quo Company. Almost immediately after a big battle, the company is given new orders by the brass and it's a diplomatic mission that's supposed to be easy. In this future, humans and several other races of aliens are part of the Confederation, and the Confederation is at war with the Others. The diplomatic mission is to the planet of the Silviss, a saurian race that the Confederation wants to enlist in the fight against the Others. Kerr and her company arrive, guard a few diplomatic ceremonies, get into a somewhat staged bar fight, and leave for another part of the planet. Their aircraft gets shot down in a reserve full of Silviss males. With a ration of males to females of 20:1, young Silviss males are sent off to reserves where their numbers are expected to be thinned in constant struggles for power. After the Confederation aircraft has crashed, the immature males turn on the stranded Confederation soldiers, in ever increasing numbers. Kerr does what she can to hold the company together but the assaults are overwhelming. What will happen at the end? Huff seems to have painted the plot of Valor's Choice into a corner: either an Alamo-style tragedy or a heroic victory that makes no sense considering the odds against our heroes (in her Author's End Note, Huff confirms that the story was based on the battle of Rorke's Drift, but the odds here are clearly even more against survival). Huff once again confounds expectations with a neat twist at the end, based firmly on what the reader already knows about Silviss psychology.
Kerr is tough as nails, and functions as a near-perfect commander, yet still thinks for herself and so forth. She is somewhat of a stereotype -- especially when she falls into military ways of dealing with emotions -- but it's jarring to the typical sensibilities of such a story that she is female. The chatter of the secondary characters in the Company doesn't ring quite as false as the Marines in Aliens, and the constant joking and bickering actually does grow on you. But wisecracks do not make a character, and so Kerr is the only vivid person.
The Confederation offers very little in the way of rationale for the fight with the Others. The blatant label calls up all of the bad military science fiction where vast groups of sentients are filed as "enemies." But Valor's Choice is not about the Others; the Others become a convenient plot device for the examination of ends vs. means. The Confederation are desperate to enlist the Silviss. How far will the brass go in pursuit of this goal? The main battle is against the immature Silviss, and, as it turns out, against the machinations that caused the situation.
Huff has no patience for the typical xenophobia of such space opera stories, and a good number of the jokes play on this. Here a quotation from the passage I mentioned in the opening of this review, a passage where two aliens are discussing rites for the dead:
Valor's Choice has a number of alien races in it, and these aliens are the source of much of the humour of the book, not condescendingly or in a xenophobic manner, but organically as shown in this quotation. Huff's intent also never manifests itself as a boring tirade but as character development or heightening of tension. Valor's Choice might not be a deep book but it's remarkably well-constructed.
First posted: June 26, 2000; Last modified: February 9, 2004
Copyright © 2000-2004 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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