Warchild

by Karin Lowachee

Cover image

Series: Warchild #1
Publisher: Warner Aspect
Copyright: April 2002
ISBN: 0-446-61077-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 451

Buy at Powell's Books

In a future world of deep space stations and starship trade routes, Jos Musey grew up on a merchant ship with a loving family and typical childhood companions. But, at the age of eight, his ship was taken by pirates and he's taken as a slave. That might have been the end of his story, but after a year of captivity he manages to escape during an alien attack on a distant frontier station. Jos then learns more than he ever expected to learn about the ongoing deep space war between the human military and the aliens and their human sympathizers. From both sides.

Warchild feels so much like a collection of 1980s SF tropes that I'm a bit surprised it was published in 2002. Some of those have been part of SF well before the 1980s: the coming-of-age story of a child in space, deep-space combat and merchant fleets, pirates, and sketchy stations. But when one adds the Japanese-inspired philosophy and combat training, with a bit of Karate Kid feel, plus the (oddly bolted on) cyberpunk "burndiving," this book feels deeply embedded in a specific generation of SF storytelling.

That's not necessarily a drawback. I like some of those tropes. The martial arts training coupled with careful and patient psychology worked very well for me. It may be a bit stereotyped, but Lowachee is careful to never present it as Asian; it's an alien philosophy and environment, and although it happens to wear its influences on its sleeves, it makes no attempt to tie that to any particular human culture. And the philosophy and, more to the point, the approach Niko takes with Jos is exactly what Jos needs. That section of the book (the second) was by far my favorite. I wish the whole book had been like that.

Unfortunately, it's not. The first part is a deeply uncomfortable account of Jos's capture and enslavement (with bonus implied pedophilia). It's thankfully the shortest section of the book, but it's an endless parade of horrors that I didn't enjoy reading. Lowachee took the stylistic choice of writing it in the second person, which is a literary trick that rarely works for me and didn't work here. I'm sure the goal is to make it feel more immediate, but I didn't need this scene to be more immediate, and second person always reads as awkward and forced. If the authors write characters well, I will identify with them, but if I feel like I'm being forced to identify with them, I just start getting irritated.

The third part of the book goes in yet a different direction: military SF, complete with hazing, camaraderie, esprit de corps, and bloody combat, with an uncomfortable undertone of constant stress due to Jos's complex and dangerous position. I wanted this to be much shorter and wanted the book to return to the part that I really liked. Unfortunately, that's not to be; the tone of this section is the tone for the rest of the book. To be fair, it's better than I expected it to be, and Jos's recovery and coming-of-age continues in more subtle and more satisfying ways than at first it seemed like it would. But Lowachee complicates and largely breaks a recovery that I was hoping would proceed down a more peaceful path, and replaced a beautiful and interesting (if a bit stereotyped) environment with bog-standard military SF. If you like that sort of thing, there's a lot of that thing here, but I've read a lot of books with that setting and far fewer about an Asian-inspired martial alien philosophy.

I think Warchild has a bit too much stuff going on and not enough recovery space. The cyberpunk angle probably gets developed more in later books of the series (the next book is Burndive, which is the name for cyberpunk hacking in this book), but it felt bolted on here. Jos's story has multiple false starts and complications, and Lowachee keeps pulling the rug out from under him again until both he and the reader go a bit numb. The ending mostly works, but it's a brutal resolution to the complex psychological situation Lowachee sets up. This book reminds me a bit of C.J. Cherryh in that the characters seem constantly stressed beyond their ability to cope. I wanted something a bit kinder and softer.

Despite that, the psychology and the brief moments of understanding and light are compelling enough that I'm still tempted to read on in this series. The subsequent books follow other characters; maybe they'll be a bit less nasty to their protagonists.

Followed by Burndive.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-12-23

Last modified and spun 2016-12-24