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Fallen prophet, master of the elements, and daughter of the supreme Protector, Sanao Mokoya has abandoned the life that once bound her. Once her visions shaped the lives of citizens across the land, but no matter what tragedy Mokoya foresaw, she could never reshape the future. Broken by the loss of her young daughter, she now hunts deadly, sky-obscuring naga in the harsh outer reaches of the kingdom with packs of dinosaurs at her side, far from everything she used to love.
On the trail of a massive naga that threatens the rebellious mining city of Bataanar, Mokoya meets the mysterious and alluring Rider. But all is not as it seems: the beast they both hunt harbors a secret that could ignite war throughout the Protectorate. As she is drawn into a conspiracy of magic and betrayal, Mokoya must come to terms with her extraordinary and dangerous gifts, or risk losing the little she has left to hold dear.
JY Yang is one of the voices in the genre fiction community I always want to hear more from: intelligent, angry, nonbinary, queer, not white or Western. Imagine my delight when I discovered that I could hear from them in not one, but two novellas this autumn; and imagine my greater delight when Tor.com sent me ARCs of the pair of them… today I’ll review The Red Threads of Fortune, and on Thursday I’ll review the simultaneously released companion volume, The Black Tides of Heaven.
Silkpunk is a relatively meaningless genre descriptor, seeming to apply to everything with an East Asian influence on it; but The Red Threads of Fortune really does seem to solidly fit into the silkpunk designator. Not only is Yang using strongly East Asian influenced cultures as a starting point from which to build their secondary world, but they’re also using the political side of the silkpunk label; The Red Threads of Fortune is heavily engaged in discussions of, and resistance to, systems of various kinds, and is in dialogue with real world racism and assumptions. There’s a theme of resistance to authority, and of the way some authority collaborates in or overlooks resistance to higher authority; there’s a theme of personal relationships having political impacts; and so on, all fascinating and thought through. None of this is heavy-handed; instead, Yang makes them essential to the plot and world, seeding their themes throughout the novella, and rarely taking sides on the issues they raise but making it clear that these are issues to be considered.
That could suggest The Red Threads of Fortune is a very intellectual story, more of a thought piece than anything with emotional resonance. That’s very much not the case. Yang’s plot is built around heartbreak, love, resentment, and emotion; this isn’t a book about politics, really, but about the human heart. Specifically and mainly, the human heart of our protagonist, Sanao Mokoya. Mokoya has suffered the heartbreak of the death of her daughter, in a move that superficially resembles the opening of The Fifth Season, but has a completely different emotional reaction; Yang doesn’t pull punches, and Mokoya’s depression and grief are bluntly portrayed. However, Yang isn’t brutal either, and Mokoya isn’t a caricature of sadness; she is a complex, rounded, interesting character, one whose every interaction is coloured by the loss of her daughter but also by the way her mother raised her, and by her love life, and her emotional ties. Yang gives us a rounded and full emotional character to really connect to, even when she finds it hard to connect to others.
Around Mokoya, Yang arranges a number of other similarly complex characters; her twin, her husband and the father of her daughter, the person she has worked with since running away from her husband in the wake of the tragic death of her daughter, and most interestingly, Rider. Rider is a nonbinary character of a different racial and cultural background to the rest of the characters, and The Red Threads of Fortune relies heavily on emotionally connecting with them as well as with Mokoya; Yang really builds on and uses their relationship, and the way it develops, in a beautiful, powerful, and sweet way, without ever making it untrue. There are bumps and problems between them, and the emotional truth of the negotiation of the relationship is brilliantly moving.
Themes and characters don’t make a plot, necessarily. The Red Threads of Fortune slightly falls down on this front; the core plot is simple, and effective, and self-contained, with brilliant emotional resonances. The monster-hunting transitioning into politicking is brilliant, and the way Yang ties personal grief and responses to that into the plot is fantastic. It’s fast-paced and the romance feels very true. However, the way Yang ties the story into a wider world doesn’t feel complete; the references are obviously intended to be meaningful, but they don’t actually connect with the reader on the terms of The Red Threads of Fortune alone, and that takes some of the force of the story away.
The strengths of The Red Threads of Fortune more than makes up for the weaknesses; this is among the most beautiful and most deeply human books I’ve read in some time, and JY Yang is a truly fantastic talent whom I will follow wherever they lead.
Disclaimer: JY Yang is a friend. This review is based on an ARC from the publisher, Tor.com.
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THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS. AGAIN.
Three terrible things happen in a single day.
Essun, masquerading as an ordinary schoolteacher in a quiet small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Mighty Sanze, the empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as its greatest city is destroyed by a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heartland of the world’s sole continent, a great red rift has been been torn which spews ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
But this is the Stillness, a land long familiar with struggle, and where orogenes — those who wield the power of the earth as a weapon — are feared far more than the long cold night. Essun has remembered herself, and she will have her daughter back.
She does not care if the world falls apart around her. Essun will break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
N. K. Jemisin is a writer who I have admired since her first series, the Inheritance Trilogy, and who has only improved over the course of her succeeding novels; so I’ve been looking forward to The Fifth Season since it was announced, to the point of buying the ARC in the Con or Bust auction just to lay hands on it faster.
Warning: this review contains some SPOILERS for plot and structure.
The blurb of The Fifth Season arguably reveals one of the most interesting things Jemisin pulls off in the novel; mentioning only Essun, it ignores the two plot threads of the novel that follow Damaya and Syenite (Syen), plot threads that at the start of the novel could be roughly contemporaneously set with Essun’s journey but increasingly, as the novel continues, are obviously not, and are instead Essun’s own history. Jemisin pulls off this trick excellently; each name reflects not only a different stage in Essun’s life, but also a different person, defined by experience and by the image Essun feels it necessary to convey in order to be safe. Indeed, this code-switching narrative in The Fifth Season is one we don’t see enough of in fantasy; a look, through the eyes of one character (referred to in the second person present as Essun, in the third past for the other characters, in an early hint of the later revelation), at how one has to change one’s self-presentation for self-preservation. Essun is a member of oppressed classes, too, as a woman (the main society of the novel seems to be patriarchal, or at least the society Essun starts in is) and as an orogene, a kind of geological magic user, treated like witches by villagers and like dangerous animals to be trained and used by the main state. Watching Essun negotiate these statuses, and how she has to act because of them, is fascinating; as is watching others use different strategies to negotiate the various axes of oppression on which they fall, such as Alabaster, whose orogenic power allows him to bypass a certain amount of the self-preservation efforts that Syenite must engage in.
Of course, there’s a whole lot more to the cast of The Fifth Season than code-switching, that self-preservation; they’re an amazingly diverse, well-thought-out group. Essun is obviously the most complex, bearing the different selves she has been on her shoulders as she changes from a seemingly diffident wife and mother to return more to her confident self, but not unchanged by that experience; the evolution of character she undergoes across the course of the book is one of the most impressive character developments I have ever read, tying three distinct moments together and yet not letting any of those moments be static or unchanging themselves. That’s not to say that characters who only appear in one of those moments aren’t good or rounded characters, though; Jemisin has created a tremendous ensemble cast in The Fifth Season to surround her undeniable protagonist, and they’re all well-written, interesting characters, all of whom have fascinatingly different attitudes to Essun and her abilities, from Schaffa Guardian Warrant, an abusive sadist who Damaya doesn’t realise is either of those things and who is amazingly written as showing a face of benevolence over a reality of brutal cruelty, to Alabaster, the incredibly powerful orogene who doesn’t really care about the opinions of those around him but who is also a deeply sensitive person once his defences of apathy fall, and the smart, slightly unworldly Tonkee, who joins Essun on her journey only to turn out to be someone unexpected from her past. Every character has a unique voice and character, and they all have different masks they wear; no one is who one assumes them to be at first glance.
This is also a very queer book, despite its patriarchal societies. The Fifth Season‘s core relationship goes from being a purely sexual, heterosexual one to being an emotional, polyamorous, queer triad; Jemisin handles the transition, the growing feelings, the introduction of an additional character, incredibly well and beautifully, giving the reader a glimpse of a relationship that is incredibly erotic, incredibly sensual, incredibly sensitive, and incredibly human, as well as incredibly beautiful, with the kind of quality of sex scenes we have come to expect of her and the kind of emotional honesty, including conflict, that reflects reality rather than some idealised idea of polyamory. This is hardly the first time I’ve seen poly in a novel but it is certainly one of the best instances, and truly beautifully conveyed.
Of course, there’s more to The Fifth Season than character; all this is, after all, happening against the background of an apocalypse. “An” apocalypse is the best descriptor, because this is a world which is incredibly unstable and appears to undergo regular apocalypses; everyone is a survivalist, because you have to be prepared for the next time the world upheaves itself under you, and society is organised around principles that are intended to aid in that preservation, such as a caste system, although that appears to have ossified into a problematic heirarchy as time has gone on. An empire rules over small communities, an empire that has lasted through a number of these apocalypses somehow; but this apocalypse, it won’t emerge from. The Fifth Season has an awful lot going on; Damaya is learning what it is to be an orogene, how society views her because of it and what the demands of the empire on her are. Syenite is learning about heirarchies with the orogenes, and how the empire uses them – the things that they’re not told, and have to try to learn from themselves; the abuses of orogenes perpetuated by the empire. And Essun is simply trying to find her daughter, after her son is murdered by her husband for being an orogene; fleeing through this apocalyptic (the apocalypse isn’t over, so though N. K. Jemisin describes the book as post-apocalypse, I don’t think that’s quite accurate) novel. This is where the novel starts to run into some problems; each strand follows the same parallel path – a journey that ends in finding a new community – but their pacing is different and the way Jemisin times them is different, which means chapters can jar against those around them because of a different feel or approach. This is the kind of literary structural engineering I really appreciate in a novel, and Jemisin carries off the theme elegantly; but the actual mechanics of precisely how parts of it work are less smooth, less polished, than would be ideal.
In the end, though, I have no hesitation about recommending The Fifth Season to you; it’s a fantastic novel that I heartily enjoyed, and a fascinating opening to a new series from one of the best writers in fantasy.
The Fifth Season comes out August 4th from Orbit Books
Marvels, myth and microchips from classic writers of science fiction, and a dazzling array of new authors. From farflung planets to Greenham Common, from distant futures to the here and now, the stories explore the myriad possibilities of women’s lives: women under attack, women in control, women alone and women together. With stories set in societies barely recognisable, and societies only too credible, this collection comes from the frontiers and offers a glimpse of what lies beyond.
Published in 1985 by The Women’s Press, Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind is an anthology almost entirely of original work (Joanna Russ’ story is a reprint) by female science fiction authors, many of whom have now faded from view; it’s not a comprehensive overview of the field at the time, but it is a broad look at what was being written.
The absolute stand-out stories are two political ones by significant, and enduring, names in (feminist) science fiction, Joanna Russ and Raccoona Sheldon (who also wrote under another pseudonym as the “ineluctably masculine” James Tiptree Jr). The first, Russ’, is as much parody as itself a story; framed by the idea of possession by an evil spirit, ‘The Clichés From Outer Space’ sees Russ parody the approaches to women taken in much science fiction, ripping to shreds the matriarchal utopia, the matriarchal dystopia, the equalist society and the future-patriarchy of stated-but-unseen equality. Each of these is in itself riotously hilarious, but Russ’ comments at the end of each, and her acerbic framing of the whole thing, raises this above the simply joy of parody to absolutely brilliant brutality.
‘Morality Meat’, on the other hand, is a very downbeat story, a political warning rather than a literary joke. Sheldon’s story is very bluntly about a woman’s right to choose, and about the socioeconomic gap she saw developing in society under Reagan; it’s a fantastic tale, slowly revealing the darkness at its heart that is hinted at from the very opening of the story but doesn’t get confirmed right until the end of the piece. ‘Morality Meat’ is the darkest story in here, and Sheldon carries that darkness off amazingly, and believably.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of stories in the anthology are very political, whether it is Josephine Saxton’s broadside against advertising culture in ‘Big Operation on Altair Three’ or Lisa Tuttle’s environmentalism and anti-nuclear ‘From A Sinking Ship’, with its startling similarity in premise to elements of the 1981 TV adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some take a more broad view of politics, such as the far-ranging ‘The Awakening’ by Pearlie McNeill or ‘The Insurrection’ by Gwyneth Jones, where others are incredibly particular, such as Zoe Fairbairns’ story of Greenham Common, ‘Relics’. They’re not subtle but nor are any simply diatribes, all working their politics into stories that are good in and of themselves.
Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind does have one or two stories that I felt didn’t belong, including the closer of the anthology, Sue Thomason’s ‘Apples In Winter’; trying to be mythic, it ends up simply dragging, in a style that doesn’t seem to suit anything, including itself. Similarly, Pamela Zoline’s ‘Instructions for Exiting This Building In Case of Fire’ has a good core, and some great moments, but on the whole the mix of scale between abstract intentionally-fictional and concrete pseudo-real is a little broken, and the concept at the heart of the story is nearly nonsensical.
In the 1980s, queerness was a big part of feminism, so it is no surprise to see it come up time and again in these stories. The most interesting of these is Tanith Lee’s ‘Love Alters’, which is a brilliant, dark satire on the treatment of gay relationships and the way it is societal norms, not heterosexuality per se, that is the problem. Lee convincingly creates her world in very short order, and proceeds to highlight the extent to which that world is ours, just twisted only a little, and it works incredibly well. Similarly, Mary Gentle’s ‘A Sun in the Attic’ is an interesting little steampunk tale about the dangers of discovery, but it includes a society based on multiple-marriage; bisexuality and polyamory are both completely normalised parts of society, it seems, and Gentle plays with some of the implications of that as the story wends towards its Galilean conclusion.
Despatches From the Frontiers of the Female Mind is, perhaps inevitably, a bit dated now, and some of these concerns seem less relevant; but some of them are shockingly present now, and Green & Lefanu’s selection, whilst including a few duds, is overall excellent. An anthology very much worth your time.
Loup Garron was born and raised in Santa Olivia, an isolated, disenfranchised town next to a US military base inside a DMZ buffer zone between Texas and Mexico. Loup’s father was one of a group of men genetically manipulated and used by the US government as a weapon, engineered to have superhuman strength, speed, sensory capability, stamina and a total lack of fear, and Loup, named for and sharing her father’s wolf-like qualities, is marked as an outsider.
After her mother dies, Loup goes to live among the misfit orphans at the parish church, where they seethe from the injustices visited upon the locals by the soldiers. Eventually, the orphans find an outlet for their frustrations: They form a vigilante group to support Loup Garron who, costumed as their patron saint, Santa Olivia, uses her special abilities to avenge the town.
Aware that she could lose her freedom, and possibly her life, Loup is determined to fight to redress the wrongs her community has suffered. And like the reincarnation of their patron saint, she will bring hope to all of Santa Olivia.
Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Olivia masquerades as a superhero novel, from the cover art down to the blurb, but that is a false cover for a very different novel, about growing up, about responsibility, about dedication, about love, and about difference. Albeit treated through a lens not altogether distant from that of a superhero novel.
Carey’s Santa Olivia takes place in a strange netherworld, a legally nonexistent town controlled by an uneasy truce between the army and Mexican gangs native to Santa Olivia. The people are disenfranchised and powerless, existing and surviving by clinging on, by serving the forces that control them; either the army, the gangs, or both. There is no resistance to this system, no ways to fight it, no way to escape it… except in a boxing match. These are organised by an American trainer living in Santa Olivia despite its strange status, and the general in command of the army base stationed near the town. Winning gets one two tickets out; staying the course and losing on points gets pay; losing gets nothing. One of Santa Olivia‘s key themes is this need to escape, and the terrifying prospect of it not being possible; Carey beautifully sympathetically portrays the feeling of helplessness that holds the town and everyone in it, the feeling that nothing can be done to save themselves from the twin forces they’re trapped between.
It’s a kind of dark stasis, nothing changing… inevitably, until. But that until isn’t Loup’s birth; Carey does an interesting bait-and-switch in Santa Olivia, building up Loup as a saviour with special powers, including acting as a vigilante version of the patron saint of the town, before switching to her half-brother, Tom, as having a chance to beat the system by winning the golden tickets through boxing. It’s a novel of dedication and training, as we see first Tom and then Loup each training for the match of their lives, and indeed the lives of those around them; they’re not fighting for themselves, but for their families, for the town around them. Santa Olivia is a study in the focus of these two, of their single-mindedness; what they have to give up to try and be successful, what they sacrifice. Indeed, Carey makes very clear that it is a sacrifice to be so dedicated; that it does require one to give up things, to lose things. It’s quite a painful novel in that regard, as we watch a romance bud, grow, and end, rather drastically and dramatically; that it is a relationship between two women which isn’t stigmatised is especially nice to see.
Actually, the level of sex-positivity in Santa Olivia is incredible. Not only does the book showcase a lesbian relationship as its central romance, one which we see develop and see the emotion behind, but there is also a background romance that is both queer and polyamorous; whilst criticised in some quarters it seems to simply be accepted by the townspeople. Similarly, Carey simply has characters having sex without making it a big deal; it’s just something people do, another activity not entirely different in kind from gaming or drinking, as recreation. This is a really lovely thing to see in a novel, because it is so rare; especially when paired with a cast largely made of people of colour. Carey is almost ticking off the diversity boxes here; not literally, of course, but Loup is non-neurotypical, as is Mack, another character who is not genetically enhanced; Santa Olivia treats them as human and interesting, and the focus on Loup’s interiority means we learn an awful lot about how to see the world from a non-neurotypical perspective.
So far, this review hasn’t really discussed the novel qua novel much. That’s because Santa Olivia lends itself to discussing issues, and discussing its content; rather than answering questions, it asks them, and leaves them open. It does this, however, in a very enjoyable framework; Carey is an excellent writer, and the suspense in this novel can be heartstopping, the romance beautiful and moving, the emotion piercing, and the pain really does get incredibly, powerfully dark. Santa Olivia doesn’t zip along, because the prose is rich, beautiful, powerful; it isn’t excessive, but it does tend towards the lush, the sensuous or sensual; whether sex or torture, a boxing match or running, the physicality is amazingly conveyed alongside the sensation of action, and Carey really carries that off.
Santa Olivia isn’t the best novel in the world, granted; but it is an excellent one, and Jacqueline Carey has combined some incredibly emotive writing with some fascinating questions. I recommend it to you.
Her latest mission sees newly promoted Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr escorting a recuperating major and his doctor to Crucible, the Marine Corps training planet. But when the troops are suddenly attacked by their own drones, Kerr is caught in a desperate fight to protect the major, his doctor and a platoon of untried recruits.
The third of Huff’s Valour books feels, in many ways, like a return to the first, with a little of the paranoia of the second thrown in for good measure. The Heart of Valour once again sees Torin Kerr given a group of soldiers she doesn’t know for a specific mission; in this case it is theoretically the not-so-simple task of escorting a major through his paces as part of his rehabilitative programme on a training run for recruits, which becomes horribly real – and horribly live-fire.
If this conjures up images of Valour’s Choice, in which Kerr is sent on a diplomatic mission which turns into a rerun of Rourke’s Drift, that is a reminiscence actually mentioned in The Heart of Valour; while there is a sort of intrigue subplot trying to peek out from among the action, it’s one whose content is so obvious, and whose resolution so clear from the start, that it is nearly pointless and fails to add much. In fact, that particular subplot simply seems to be a way to have Craig Ryder hanging about, rather than constructive of itself, or perhaps building towards something in the next book; in either case it feels clumsily bolted on and slows down the main, core military science fiction story.
That core of The Heart of Valour is, as noted above, rather similar to the first book in the series, but excellently carried off; the way Huff treats her Marine recruits, the majority of characters in the novel, is sympathetic and interesting, similar to the way she has treated Marines in prior books but also touching on their lack of experience and their heroisation of Marines with actual service. Huff also introduces some interesting new wrinkles, including some backstory to the di’Takyan; this introduces a subplot related to the way integration of different cultures affects unit cohesion and function, and is interestingly addressed, especially in the way discussion continues throughout the book on Marine problems versus species problems.
Mind you, the specific choice of cultural difference is a rather problematic one. The Heart of Valour sees a character taken out of action by the use of illegal hormone treatments to avoid what is essentially a cross between menopause and gender-change; the resolution to this plot is not sympathetic to this character, and avoids touching on discussion of why they might wish to avoid this change, instead presenting it as idiocy to not simply give in and go through with it. As a genderqueer reader, what Huff is doing here strikes very close to trans issues, especially issues of trans service in the emergency services and the army; and her conclusion that attempting to avoid betrayal by one’s own body is a foolish, dangerous decision is one that we see reproduced often enough as it is, and whose counterpoint – that one’s body should reflect one’s self, not vice versa – is far too rarely argued.
Heart of Valour, then, continues the fun, readable and enjoyable adventures of Torin Kerr, but also continues Huff’s track record of some particularly problematic writing in this series…
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.
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.
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.