Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: Warchild by Karin Lowachee

Cover art for Warchild, featuring a pale-skinned boy dressed all in black coming through a round, yellow-lit hatch.
I’ll warn you up front: I’m incoherent about WARCHILD. I loved it, desperately and completely, and I can’t get it out of my head--but that makes it all the more difficult to talk about. I loved it in such an intensely emotional way that I’m tangled up in my own thoughts.

I'm not happy with this review. I've left things out. I've glossed over important points. I almost want to trash it and just keep mum about the book.

But the people (which: you) need to know, so here it is. WARCHILD is my best book of 2014, surpassing even THE MAGICIAN’S LAND (albeit only by a hair), and I want you to read it, please and thanks.

That is, I want you to read it if it's safe for you to do so. The threat of sexual violence permeates the text, from the pirates’ treatment of their captives to the soldiers’ banter, and emotional manipulation is never off the table. I intend to praise WARCHILD to high heaven and recommend it to everyone who so much as hints they’re in the mood for some excellent science fiction, but it’s by no means a safe book for all readers. Consider this your trigger warning.


A summary: Jos Musey is eight years old when pirates attack his homeship, slaughtering the adults and taking the children as slaves. Orphaned and separated from everyone he’s ever known, Jos spends the next nine years navigating a complex, alien landscape that leaves him uncertain where he belongs. As humanity’s war with the alien strivs and the all-too-human pirates comes to a head, Jos’s own struggle to internalize what was done to him may prove the key to the entire conflict.

Y’all know I’m a suspicious reader through and through, but Lowachee hooked me good and quick with a blend of action, unconventional narration, and immersive characterization. Her nuanced use of POV took me deep into Jos’s world and ramped up the tension at every turn.

The book begins in second person as Jos relates his capture. This simultaneously gives the narrator some distance from his own story in-world and ensures said story belongs firmly to the reader. Jos is far from eager to relive his parents' deaths and his time among the pirates, so casting it as something that happened to you rather than to him is a coping mechanism that gives us insight into his emotional state as it lets us share in it. Each scene becomes deeply personal for the reader as she wonders when the nightmare her worsen. There’s a terrible, palpable relief when Jos doesn’t drop the bomb the reader can't help but anticipate.

This segment serves as something of a prologue, but the prologue-haters among you don't want to skip it. It's absolutely essential. Jos’s experience with the pirates defines his entire life. What he tells us happened to us on their ship, and what he doesn’t mention at all, sets the stage for everything to come.

I’m shaking just thinking about it. Lowachee switches to first person past tense once Jos escapes the pirates and begins training as an assassin-priest among the strivs. This isn’t exactly a stable period in his life, given that he’s been thrust into yet another environment unlike anything he’s ever known, but it’s a far more centred time. He has the space to slow down, to reflect, and to be something resembling himself again. There's no need for him to deny that any of this happened to him, personally.

When the action ramps up in the final segment, Lowachee switches to first person present tense; a reflection of the lack of stability in Jos’s world, and the urgency of events. This also adds an extra level of tension for the context-obssessed reader who remembers the present tense doesn’t guaruntee the narrator’s survival.

Oh, friends. The structure delights the hell out of me, just so long as I think of it as a narrative device instead of reflecting on what it means to Jos in-world.

The structure also ensures there's never any distance between character and reader. Y'all know it's rare for me to forget I'm reading a book, but WARCHILD did that for me. I lost myself in the story for hours at a time. Lowachee delivers a tense, intense experience very much concerned with growing into your own, gauging who you can trust, and building a life for yourself when you’ve endured the sort of trauma that’s so terrible you can never come out and say it, ever, even when someone who clearly knows what happened asks you about it point blank.

It’s a hell of a ride. It hurts.

Hell, it’s been almost a month since I finished it, and I still experience intense emotional pain whenever I think of Jos. Which I do often, on account of this being my best book of 2014.

Let's talk about the trust thing for a bit. Jos, being both young and continually displaced, is never entirely sure who he can trust. Even once he decides to take the plunge and trust someone, he must constantly wonder if he was right to do so. Obviously Falcone, the pirate who initially abducts him, is never going to be a good candidate for that sort of thing, but he does eventually come to trust Niko, the striv human sympathizer who takes him in and trains him. As the story rolls along, he desperately hopes he hasn’t made a mistake in doing so, and I was right there with him. More than anything, I wanted him to be able to trust Niko; partly because I wanted him to be able to trust someone, and partly because I wanted him to have a family. But even as I hoped for this as on his behalf, both he and I were keenly aware of Niko as a warrior who will take advantage of any tool that comes to hand, and of Jos as someone with the capacity to be a powerful tool.

When Jos goes out on his first assignment, he runs into another trust issue: he’s meant to build something with his fellow jets (soldiers), but his job demands he betray them and fight against the people who are, at least for the time being, on his side. He’s aware the other jets would dump him out an airlock up in a heartbeat if they knew what he was, so he can’t simply withhold his own trust--he has to deal with the guilt that comes from knowing he’s betrayed peoples’ trust on both sides of the equation.

This also feeds into his fear of being left behind. His parents leave him when they die. Niko leaves him, first to fight the war that brought him to Jos in the first place and later when Jos goes into the field. The jets he befriends swear they never abandon anyone, but he’s aware of how quickly they'd change their stance if they knew his truth. All these abandonments (and potential abandonments) hit Jos both physically and emotionally. They’re both a reality and an ever-present fear for the future.

I was a little more than halfway through when I lit upon a terrible, horrible theory about trust and betrayal and abandonment and manipulation. I’m bloody good at guessing plot twists, so I was terrified I’d be right--absolutely, gut-wrenchingly terrified--and had no choice but to devote my entire evening to the book so I could make sure I was wrong.

Luckily, the terrible, horrible thing that terrified me to my core was only the red herring, and it came out soon enough that I could be sure it was the red herring. And even then, the part that would’ve been worst of all wasn’t even a thing. Whew.

On the worldbuilding-as-character-development side of things, Lowachee delivers a realistic military novel. She never dodges the extent to which an assassin-priest like Jos would have to train before they’d be even halfway decent, let alone how difficult such a process would be. It’s a long, involved journey, and it’s not necessarily going to make him the most talented fighter ever. He’s good, as one ought to expect from someone who puts in years of intense training, but he’s still fallible and it’s still possible he’ll run up against someone better than himself.

Lowachee also acknowledges the stress combat places on the combatants. All the training in the world doesn’t prepare Jos for what it feels like to kill someone, and every feeling is amplified when he considers that the person he just gunned down might very well be on his side, while the people fighting beside him aren’t.

The text also remains aware of how the nature of his military service warps Jos’s relationships with Niko and with his fellow jets. Lowachee makes it clear that yes, this sort of thing takes a tole, but she also leaves us hope that might be able to repair some of the damage in the future. Things will never be like they were before, but it’s possible forge a new path going forward.

As strongly as I felt for Jos, a big part of me hoped he would drop out of the story after WARCHILD’s final page so I could pretend he’d managed to repair everything with everyone and had gone on to live a painfully awesome life where he never had to kill anyone, could surround himself with people he regarded as family, and managed to serve as a bridge between his two worlds. It’s unusual for me to react this way to a character I love and--small, potentially guessable spoiler coming up--I’ll admit I was pretty damned happy when Jos showed up again in BURNDIVE.

Sometimes, I want things mostly because I’m trying to to care so damned much. I’m inevitably glad when I don’t get them.

I tried really hard not to care so much about WARCHILD so it would hurt less. This proved impossible.

Annnnddddd we're off track. We were supposed to talking about the worldbuilding, yeah?

Jos experiences life on both sides of the human/alien divide, and Lowachee renders each sphere in the same glorious detail. The alien side of things really does feel alien. Lowachee paints the strivs as their own people, possessed of a complex and inhuman culture that’s grown up according to their physiological and spiritual needs. She also uses them to show us life on a planet; not something Jos is at all familiar with until he goes to live with them. I loved his reaction to the world, both because it’s suitably wonderful and scary and because it’s not something I’d ever thought about before. Relative SF newbie1 that I am, this is (possibly) the first novel I’ve encountered in which many, if not most, of the characters spend their entire lives in spaceships and on stations regulated by shifts rather than the movement of a sun. It was a fascinating departure for me.

The human side of the story is much harsher, since we mostly glimpse the pirates and the military, but Lowachee limns it with no less care. The social systems and the effects of space travel come with their own limitations and advantages, all of which have a clear and certain impact on the characters’ worldview (or maybe that should be galaxyview). Jos is far from the only human who has never entered a non-artificial environment. Furthermore, space travel has a profound effect on the characters’ aging processes and their sense of time. A subjective year for them might be much more than that for someone in a stationary environment like a planet or a space station. I don’t know enough about physics to parse the science behind this, but it fascinates me nonetheless.

Lowachee's future also presents a different view of sex and gender than is common in the early 21st century. While the gender binary still appears to be in effect, neither human or striv society places any strictures on what is women’s work or men’s work. There are no gender-based restrictions on who can become an assassin-priest or a jet, or what roles a person needs to fill on a station or planetside.

Sexuality is also fluid. Among the humans in particular, everyone jokes about bedding everyone else (not always in healthy ways, as stated above), and some of them go through with it. The notion of queer or hetero seems to have fallen by the wayside. It’s possible, too, to read Jos as asexual. He doesn’t use that word (no one uses any sexuality-related words, really), but he does express his sexual indifference to both Aki and Evan, with the acknowledgement that sexuality may be something he’s simply put on hold until he’s dealt with Falcone and feels he’s regained some control over that aspect of his life.

Damn. I’ve been just as incoherent as I expected, and I've left a million things out (like Dorr! Dorr surprised me so much), so I’ll quit yammering at you now.

But before I shut up, let me emphasize again that WARCHILD is easily one of my best books of 2014. I loved it so much that I could not read another novel immediately afterwards. I faffed around with comics and short fiction until I could get myself to the used bookstore, where the Book Gods blessed me with an affordable copy of BURNDIVE. (Lowachee’s books are still in print, but for some reason they’re crazy expensive to purchase new and the last book in this particular sequence doesn't have an ebook edition.)

Please, seek this book out. It’s an experience I’d very much like you to have, if you’re able to get your hands on a copy and can be sure it won’t wreak havoc with your mental health.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read WARCHILD, you can try:

  • The Book Depository (super-expensive paperback; for purchase; free shipping worldwide)
  • Amazon (super-expensive paperback & regular-priced Kindle; for purchase)

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through one of the links above.

  1. I've been reading the stuff since late 2008. Before that, I always thought SF had to be ideas-over-people, and when forced to choose I'm very much a people-over-ideas reader.

    Of course, Past Memory was dead wrong about the ideas-over-people thing. SF characters can be as wonderful and complex as those who populate any other genre. If you need further proof of that, just read WARCHILD.


  1. I've bought this book based on your recommendation. I hope I love it as much as you do!

    1. Hurray! I hope you love it, too. From where I stand, your chances look good.

  2. This is such a good review, Memory! It definitely makes me want to read Warchild, and I'm a total wimp when it comes to emotional threatening stuff. <3

  3. I just got this because it was on your best of list and I read this review...

  4. Hurray! I think you're going to love it.