Karin Lowachee had been on my radar for a few years. I first stumbled across the beautiful cover of her book Gaslight Dogs (which I got for Christmas last year – YAY!), then a bit of Googling turned up nothing but rave reviews of her military sci-fi novel Warchild. Here we are, me a happy reader and Karin Lowachee plus one fan.
Published by: Aspect, 2002
Paperback: 451 pages
Series: Warchild #1
My rating: 9/10
First sentence: You didn’t see their faces from where you hid behind the maintenance grate.
When Jos’ parents are killed in an attack on their trading ship, the boy is kidnapped by the attackers and then escapes – only to fall into the alien hands of humanity’s greatest enemies. He is soon coerced into becoming a spy against the human race.
Read that first sentence again. That second person narrative is maintained throughout the entire first part of the novel (after which we switch to first person). I don’t believe I’ve ever read something like this, something that not only works (read: doesn’t throw you out of the story) but is also incredibly effective. Jos Musey, an 8-year-old boy, is hiding on Mukudori, the space ship that is his home. Pirates have invaded, all adults seem to be dead, and he is taken – along with some other children – to the pirate ship Ghengis Khan where the captain Falcone takes a particular fancy to Jos. Because of the narrative choice, this part really feels like it’s happening to you, the reader. I lost count of the number of chills this sent down my spine.
After a year of etiquette training and implied sexual abuse, Jos manages to escape, only to fall into the hands of a man sympathetic to the alien race that humanity has been fighting for years. This symp, Niko, teaches Jos the ways of the alien striviirc-na, as well as fighting and Burndiving (computer hacking) in order to use him as a spy against humanity. Wherever Jos turns, he is a pawn in other people’s wargames, he grows up accompanied by violence and abuse, with few moments of kindness. That alone would have been enough to keep me reading breathlessly. But there’s more.
On a psychological level, this book is AMAZING. Following Jos as he grows up in a war-torn world, not just as a civilian, but right in the middle of the war and seeing several sides of it (there usually aren’t only two) can’t exactly be called pleasurable but it made for a damn good read. Jos’ experience on Falcone’s ship is alluded to and speculated on by many other characters, but we never hear Jos confirm the allegations of rape. There are scenes and memories that could be interpreted this way but Lowachee didn’t go for graphic descriptions of cruelty and abuse. That is commendable, not only because grimdark isn’t always the best way to go, but also because it makes for a much more intriguing story! We don’t know what really happened, we just see the effect his time with Falcone has had on Jos. And this experience is something Jos carries with him throughout the novel and probably for the rest of his life.
Jos’ sexuality is just as ambiguous. This is where the readers’ interpretation comes into play. I may heave read too much into it but I always saw Jos as a gay boy who is simply too emotionally damaged and traumatized to care much about sex at all. There are occasional tender moments between Jos and his teacher Niko, there are obvious advances from another man on Macedon, but you won’t find any official romantic sub-plots here. If you read between the lines, you can see all sorts of relationships forming, but I thought Jos’ reluctance toward any physical closeness was much more realistic than him starting a romance with a shipmate.
Comparisons to books like Ender’s Game are understandable – a child is being trained for war and suffers the consequences of being used as a pawn – but Warchild is a completely different book. Jos’ relationship with his teacher Niko was beautiful and one of the few occasions in which I, as a reader, felt that Jos was somewhat safe. Otherwise, he is a lost boy, without parents, without a home to return to, without a purpose of his own. He is thrown back and forth, never sure where he belongs. Once his time on the ship Macedon begins, he meets other children his age and makes something like friends. If it weren’t for the harsh training, it would be something almost resembling normality.
Apart from Jos’ action-packed story, Warchild offers entertainment on several other levels. The striviirc-na culture – leaning on Far Eastern traditions – fascinated and surprised me. Granted, I don’t read too many books involving aliens but I do like it when aliens show up and differ from humans in more than just physical appearance. The striviirc-na (or strivs) have a caste system, their own language and values, and of course reasons for why they’re not giving up on the war. Lowachee also allows us to discover this new culture through several characters, some basically good, some rather bad, and the rest somewhere in between. These aliens are neither noble savages nor evil monsters – the usual tropes do not apply. In fact, all side-characters, alien or human, are incredibly well-developed.
Some world-building, mostly the part involving human settlements and space travel, is only hinted at. Through Jos’ eyes, we only learn what we need to know or what he picks up on his journey. But the glimpses we get of the reasons for the war, of the deep space carriers, and the jets (space soldiers!) are all fascinating and give the impression of a much bigger world.
Warchild is a disturbing book, a tragic story that does everything right. Apart from an amazing, poignant ending, it handles childhood trauma with great care. Jos’ experiences never feel cheap or used for shock value. They form him as a human and impact every relationship he will ever have. I was deeply impressed with the many layers of this book. Part coming-of-age story, part spy action thriller, part military space opera – all parts awesome.
MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection