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The Heart of Valour by Tanya Huff

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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.
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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…

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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If You Liked… Then Try…: Ancillary Justice

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Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice swept the science fiction awards this year, winning the Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA, Hugo and Nebula Awards among others, an unprecedented feat. It’s also one of my favourite novels, and one I like to share with people as much as possible, for its scope and scale, its approach to gender, its fast-paced writing, and, well, general wonderfulness. But it’s not an isolated example; here are some books you might like if you enjoyed Ancillary Justice:

confederation-of-valorTanya 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.

8745331740_a323368a9b_oJacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension is possibly the most diverse novel I have ever read. Koyanagi’s cast includes chronically ill, trans, non-neurotypical, variously sexually queer characters, many of whom are people of colour and a large proportion of whom are not male (female, genderqueer, etc). This isn’t a matter of comment for Ascension, although some of the more unexpected representations – Otherkin, for instance – are, while normalised, still questioned by the protatonist. Koyanagi’s debut isn’t without its problems, including some very rocky prose and poor plotting, but that’s not to say it’s not worth your time despite this.

418KTZKpiVLMelissa Scott’s Shadow Man is one of the most famous works of science fiction to have really questioned the gender binary, and one of the earliest to do it well. The clash of cultures between a five-gendered and a binary-gendered society still has problems related to essentialist assumptions, even while challenging binarist thinking, but it at least opens the discussion up in an interesting way, similar to the questioning of our understanding of gender the Raadch of Ancillary Justice provokes. Like Ancillary Justice and, more so, Ancillary Sword, Scott’s Shadow Man also tackles issues of colonialism and the relationship between dominant and nondominant cultures, and ethical relations between them, in a brilliantly done and never overstated way. My review of Shadow Man.

Banks Consider PhlebusIt’s impossible to talk about Ancillary Justice without also talking about Iain M. Banks and the Culture, despite the lack of direct influence from one on the other. That’s in large part because the Culture and the Raadch have a number of features in common, including the prominence of AIs – treated very similarly by the writers, but very differently in their worlds – and the non-binarist approach to gender. It’s also something deeper, though; both the Culture novels and the Raadch address issues of cultural colonialism and the homogenisation of culture by a dominant force, albeit using different kinds of force. They’re also both extremely good writers, Banks famously so; and the combination of fast, fun romp with very serious issues and a certain degree of tragedy that both achieve is very notable.

So, those are the four big recommendations I’d make to fans of Ann Leckie and Ancillary Justice… but now it’s time to throw open the comments to the floor! Why am I wrong? What have I missed? What would, or wouldn’t, you recommend?

Blood Price by Tanya Huff

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When Blood Price was published in 1991, it signaled the start of what would eventually become one of the most popular genres in the field – modern urban fantasy. Blood Price introduces readers to Vicki Nelson – a private investigator who was previously a homicide detective; Henry Fitzroy – the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, who become a vampire during his father’s reign, and has been earning a comfortable living as a writer of bodice rippers; and Mike Celluci – a Toronto homicide detective who was Vicki’s partner on the squad. Together the three of them will face everything the supernatural can throw at them, while at the same time they navigate the dangers of their ever-changing interpersonal relationships.

Vicki Nelson witnessed the first attack by the forces of dark magic that would soon wreak its reign of terror on Toronto. As death followed unspeakable death, Vicki became enmeshed in an investigation that would see her renew her stormy relationship with her former police partner Mike, even as she teamed up with Henry Fitzroy in a desperate attempt to track the source of the attacks. For Henry had knowledge of realms beyond the mortal acquired over the centuries he’d spent mastering his own insatiable need – the life-from-death cravings of a vampire…
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If Blood Price is what urban fantasy looked like before urban fantasy was urban fantasy, urban fantasy has always looked like urban fantasy. Just queerer.

Blood Price, nearly two and a half decades after its first publication, isn’t going to blow the minds of any of its readers with its characters, really. Vicki Nelson, the tough private investigator and ex-cop who was a hotshot until she quit the force due to degenerative loss of her sight, is the standard wise-cracking sex-driven genius that (female-protagonist) urban fantasy focuses on; not herself supernatural, across the course of the book she seems rapidly able to accept it and integrate it into her worldview. Huff similarly made the mold into which all subsequent vampires have fallen when she created Henry Fitzroy, albeit with some differences (like bisexuality); brooding, romantic, somewhat guilty about his vampirism, a loner, out of time… that he writes appalling bodice rippers is some consolation, a sort of self-aware critique of some of the heavier and worse romance tropes around Vicki and Henry, mind you. The core cast also has the grizzled cop with a heart of gold in Mike Celluci, whose relationship with Vicki as both partner and ‘partner’ has all kinds of interesting emotional handups.

Finally, the villain of the piece, Norman Birdwell, is one of those characters it would be so easy to get wrong but who Huff gets very right. Blood Price balances various elements of his character against each other; he’s a geek bullied by jocks, but whose toxic personality does actually earn the bullying, and we see other geeks (playing a role-playing game, at that!) who seem far more socially integrated than Norman. Indeed, if Blood Price had been written in 2010 not 1990, Huff could have been accused of ripped Norman straight from the toxic cesspits of the PUA boards of reddit; his misogyny and sense of entitlement fit right into the PUA/MRA community, and Huff’s obvious disdain for him is wonderful.

The plot is really just something to hang that disdain, and the complex relationships of Mike, Henry and Vicki on; Blood Price doesn’t really show much interest in the idea of investigation, rather going through the motions but allowing characters to jump to correct conclusions very readily to advance the plot. Partly, of course, that is because Huff is working in a supernatural framework where the normal investigative process – as is noted explicitly a number of times – would break down; but partly it’s because it isn’t really what the book is interested in, being rather more focused on its characters. The developing relationship between Henry and continuing one with Mike are both excellently portrayed and Huff’s sensitivity to the idea of polyamory is heartening; and the bit-part of Tony, the homeless addict, is a wonderful brief flash into the gay community and the fears of HIV that were so prevalent at the time.

Blood Price isn’t perfect; in the two decades since its publication, urban fantasy has developed an awful lot, in ways that eclipse the mold-breaking approach Huff was taking with the novel. The plot is flimsier than might be acceptable now and reliant rather more on both an implicit Christian framework than is seen as acceptable by modern writers, and the role of coincidence and deus ex machina to resolve the plot is very heavy handedand argues a little more attention needed to be paid to it.

In the end though, if you go into Blood Price interested in its characters, you will be more than satisfied; just don’t expect Huff, in this instance, to be bringing her A-game to the plot…

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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.
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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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