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Warchild, Karin Lowachee, Warner Aspect, 2002, 451 pp.
Warchild is a winner of the Warner Aspect first novel contest, the second book to do so after Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring. Comparisons are perhaps inevitable, but quickly made; the books could hardly be more different. Brown Girl in the Ring is a near-future story of urban disintegration and one woman's life in that context. Warchild takes us much further into the future, into a milieu of space pirates, humans vs. aliens, and a young boy becoming a warrior before his time. This description might mislead the reader into thinking that the back cover blurbs categorizing this book as "in the tradition of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game" are correct. This is so only in the broadest sense; Lowachee tells a story vastly different in tone, and perhaps deeper in characterization, than Card's work.
Jos is a young boy aboard the ship Mukudori, enjoying life with his parents and many other people as they follow trade routes through space. Their ship has the misfortune to encounter the pirate Falcone, and soon the merchant ship is a floating wreck, the adults are all dead, and Jos has fallen into the personal attention of Falcone himself. As an eight-year-old, Jos does not really understand Falcone's plans for him, but he does know that his parents are dead and that he is in the control of an abusive psychopath. About a year later, Falcone takes Jos aboard a human space station, which coincidentally falls under the attack of the aliens, the strit. Jos takes advantage of the chaos to escape from Falcone, only to be rescued by a strit sympathizer, the human Niko. Niko takes Jos back to the strit homeworld and takes him on as his apprentice; as it turns out, Niko is one of the greatest warriors on the side of the strit, and now he is teaching Jos everything he knows. This section takes up most of the first half of the book, as Jos undergoes intensive martial training, learns about strit culture, and becomes aware of the complexity of the war now that he is no longer inundated by human propaganda. The second half of the book concerns Jos' mission a few years later. He is to infiltrate the human deep space carrier Macedon, learn more about its militarily successful captain Azarcon, and pass the information back to Niko. Jos' life was difficult before this point, and it only gets more agonizing as the story progresses.
The success of Warchild as a story rests on its most important character, Jos. If the reader cannot understand what is happening to Jos and why, then a book with this type of story line drifts off into pointless descriptions of battles, unpleasant secondary characters, and unthinking xenophobia. Nothing could be further from the truth here. Lowachee constructs our experience of Jos' world meticulously, guiding our sympathy step-by-step, and avoiding the narrative traps that afflict stories like this. First of all, Lowachee manages to create a believable child character in Jos, the first main difference between this book and Ender's Game. Ender Wiggin was a genius and moralist, and resembled an action movie hero in his machine-like imperviousness to human frailty; an interesting character, but hardly convincing as a child. Lowachee reminds us subtly and consistently along the way that Jos is a young boy, and later, only a teenager, and that his experiences have understandably instilled a certain fragility in his psyche. It's to Lowachee's credit that at moments of Jos' emotional shakiness when I wanted to say grow up, that I then understood how Jos' reaction, and not the action cliché of emotional impassiveness, was the correct one. Ender might have his moment of reconsideration at the end of Ender's Game, but Jos lives with that same kind of crushing uncertainty throughout the book. Inevitably, this lends a grim tone to Warchild, and this leads to my second point. The grimness of outlook in Warchild is not a randomly chosen effect, but rather it steers the book directly to its hopeful conclusion. Not to give away the ending, but Jos is the one who understands the consequences of war in its replication of effects physiologically and mentally on himself. What's more, he has a clearer understanding of both sides in the war than anyone else. These aspects of the book subvert the apparent space opera mechanics of the plot.
Lowachee's first novel is an interesting, carefully constructed meditation on war and the people caught up in it. Warner Aspect has once again found a worthy winner for its first novel contest, and I look forward to what Lowachee might write next.
Last modified: June 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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