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Valour’s Choice by Tanya Huff

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In the distant future, two alien collectives vie for survival. When the peaceful Confederation comes under attack from the aggressive Others, humanity is granted membership to the alliance – for a price. They must serve and protect the far more civilized species, fighting battles for those who have long sinces turned away from war.

Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr and her platoon are assigned to accompany a group of Confederation diplomats as they attempt to recruit a newly discovered species as allies. But when her transport ship is shot down, the routine mission becomes anything but, and Kerr must stage a heroic last stand to defend the Confederation and keep her platoon alive.
~~~~~
Huff has long been recommended to me as a fluffy milSF fix, and after hearing her talk about queer milSF at LonCon3, I decided that, indeed, she might be worth a glance. Titan Books is finally bringing out UK editions of the Confederation/Valour series, so it seemed right to start at the start…

Valour’s Choice is not going to revolutionise the genre. It’s not going to bring a new paradigm to milSF or SF more widely. It’s not crunchily asking huge questions, debating large-scale moral issues, or talking ethics. It’s nothing like Mirror Empire, say. Except in one respect: both are excellent.

Valour’s Choice, as Huff’s afterword discusses, is openly based on the Battle of Rorke’s Drift; right down to the heroic actions of wounded soldiers, the casualties, and the oral war-cries as challenges to the victors. Unfortunately, that extends into Zulu-level portrayals of the antagonists; the Silviss are a savage, brutal, inherently violent species, so using them as stand-ins for the Zulu people is a problematic decision which allows Huff to keep the dramatics and lack-of-seeming-humanity of the attackers of the filmic depiction but doesn’t really alieviate the racism that went with that depiction in the 1960s. However, what Huff does capture is the drama of the battle; the pacy, simple, blunt style on display in the novel really works with what Valour’s Choice is, an adrenaline-pumping action novel.

Of course, milSF is often very interested in the characters, but only of NCOs and below; Huff breaks this mold slightly with Lieutenant Jarrett, whose character developes and is a subject of significant speculation across the novel, but largely focuses on the grunts. Valour’s Choice stars Staff Sergeant Torin, the stereotypical sergeant who knows her troops, knows how far to let things slide but also what needs picking up on, knows how to keep discipline and also to control and manipulate officers. Essentially, Torin is the paradigmatic NCO, and it shows, but also works; Huff makes that into a character, rather than caricature, by virtue of her interactions across different directions. The non-officer Marines are also given personalities; there are a large number of named characters as privates and corporals across Valour’s Choice, and each has distinct attitudes, speech patterns, and personalities, making it a very packed, but never crowded, novel. It’s also notable how interchangable gender is; although essentially binarist, there appear to be no gender distinctions in the Confederacy, and no issues over sexuality – sleeping all kinds of combinations of genders is seen as perfectly normal in an awesomely sex-positive book.

The single greatest achievement of Valour’s Choice, though, is the retention of its humour. As we move into more dramatic and indeed tragic territory, Huff never loses sight of a certain lightness; that lightness is estyablished openly in the prologue with reference to Douglas Adams, and forms a lrge part of the feel of the early novel, giving way slowly to rising tensions. But even in those tense moments, characters and authorial voice both find things to make light of; not only an intensely human response but also a very difficult balance to achieve, and the way Huff threads her humour into the tapestry is expert.

Valour’s Choice is far from unproblematic, given its literal alienisation of the Zulu people; but at the same time it is a fast, fun, and very liberal milSF novel. It’s good to see Titan bringing Huff, and Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr, to a UK audience.
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5 Comments

  1. Paul Weimer says:

    Unfortunately, that extends into Zulu-level portrayals of the antagonists; the Silviss are a savage, brutal, inherently violent species, so using them as stand-ins for the Zulu people is a problematic decision which allows Huff to keep the dramatics and lack-of-seeming-humanity of the attackers of the filmic depiction but doesn’t really alieviate the racism that went with that depiction in the 1960s.

    —Hmmm. I don’t know how you can use this story at all without getting into that problem, given the accounts of the battle are written by the winners from that colonial perspective. Should you not use the subject matter at all?

    • There are Zulu people who have orally preserved memories of the battle; there is the possibility of putting at least a little in the PoV of one’s Zulu-analogues; hell, even just avoiding saying they’re mindlessly aggressive and savage would help…

  2. Shivirani says:

    “Unfortunately, that extends into Zulu-level portrayals of the antagonists; the Silviss are a savage, brutal, inherently violent species, so using them as stand-ins for the Zulu people is a problematic decision which allows Huff to keep the dramatics and lack-of-seeming-humanity of the attackers of the filmic depiction but doesn’t really alieviate the racism that went with that depiction in the 1960s.”

    You seem to have missed a large point in the novel – the Silsviss are no more violent than humans, it is a feature of their biology that at a certain age, they feel the need to dominate. The violent teenaged Silsviss are counterbalanced by the calm, reasoning adult Silsviss that accompanies the party, and previous depictions of the Silsviss acting just like other members of the Confederation. And later on, it turns out that other influences manipulated the teenaged Silsviss into attacking them, which prevents the depiction from taking root. I’d suggest reading the book again – I’ve read it 5x times, and still get something new out of it each time.

  3. […] Tanya Huff’s Valour series of military science fiction have many elements in common with Ancillary Justice, not least the fast-paced writing and the sheer joy in science fiction taken. It goes deeper than that, though; both deal with, on some level, the traumas and crimes of war, the difficult decisions, and the idea of comradeship. Huff doesn’t deal with gender to the same extent as Leckie, certainly not with a full on attack on the standard gender paradigm, but gender stereotypes are out of the window. Furthermore, not only has the Voice of God declared all characters bisexual unless stated otherwise, but they actually are bisexual – that is, we see all sorts of configurations of various sexualities, as well as open relationships, polyamory and more, in a fantastic way. My review of the first book, Valour’s Choice. […]

  4. […] veteran fantasy author Huff as an accomplished spinner of high-tech military-sf adventure. ~~~~~ Valour’s Choice is one of those military science fiction novels that defies much of the standard understanding of […]

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