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The Better Part of Valour by Tanya Huff

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When Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr makes the mistake of speaking her mind to a superior officer, she finds herself tagged for a special mission for the interplanetary Confederation to act as protector to a scientific exploratory team assigned to investigate an enormous derelict spaceship. Along with her crew and her charges, Kerr soon finds herself in the midst of danger and faced with a mystery that takes all her courage and ingenuity to solve. This sequel to Valor’s Choice, featuring a gutsy, fast-thinking female space-marine protagonist, establishes veteran fantasy author Huff as an accomplished spinner of high-tech military-sf adventure.
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Valour’s Choice is one of those military science fiction novels that defies much of the standard understanding of the subgenre, especially the conservatism of it; The Better Part of Valour sees Huff following many of those themes through…

Once again, Kerr is sent on a mission of vital importance with too little information and under a misleading brief from General Morris. Given the way Valour’s Choice ends, this is perhaps a little surprising; that Kerr still has her post as Staff Sergeant after her insubordination is rather unexpected, and that she is the go-to Marine for dangerous missions is, while earned, unexpected. On the other hand, Huff makes it work; her portrayal of the military relations around the different ranks and between them, and between the services at different levels, shows the way she sees the military working with a sense of humour as well as a certain degree of functional disfunctionality.

That, of course, is more subplot than plot; the plot here is one gamers will recommend from any number of space-based science fiction shooters, and that Warhammer 40,000 players will recognise as the standard encounter with the Tyrannids: The Better Part of Valour sees Kerr leading a group of specialist Marines assembled from various regular units into an unidentified alien ship in order to analyse it. Unsurprisingly, what early on seems completely routine rapidly takes a turn for the more violent, but also the quite weird; Huff creates a sense of the strange and uncanny about the story and the ship even while the blunt humour, sexuality, and fast, almost breezy style keep the sense of a military science fiction that just wants to get the job done in place.

As usual, character really makes this; The Better Part of Valour sees Kerr joined by a completely new cast, and it is worth reading for the different characters and interactions we see in this sequel. Huff has great control over her characters, with each having different voices but similar, not across species alone but also across roles – such as the universality of Marine grunts, and the di’Takyan sex obsession. The interests, ideals and thought processes of each character are unique but all are also distinctly human; while slightly strange in that most of these characters are human, it makes this an intensely relatable book.

Once again, we don’t approach the Confederation novels for deep, meaningful meditation on the human condition, but Huff does deliver enjoyable, and interesting, military science fiction with both humour and excellent characters, and The Better Part of Valour builds on the strengths of Valour’s Choice to be a better novel than it.

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