I found “Warchild” because Tanya Huff recommended Karin Lowachee as one of her favourite science fiction writers. There’s no audiobook version, the cover is depressingly generic and the title didn’t speak to me. Normally I’d have moved on and then I’d have missed one of the most original, vivid and emotionally engaging science fiction books I’ve read in a long time.
“Warchild” confronts the reality of the damage done to the life of Jos, a nine-year-old boy who is abducted, enslaved and abused by the pirate who attacks his ship and kills his family.
The first section of the book is particularly hard on the emotions. Jos’s description of his abduction and what happened during his enslavement is written in the second person, giving it a distant, disconnected feel, like someone reporting something that happened to someone else a long time ago. Here’s an example, describing nine-year-old Jos’ encounter with Falcone, the predatory Pirate Captain who has enslaved him
“He forced your chin back and looked at your throat, then he lifted your hands and inspected your fingers, your nails, your knuckles. Then he stepped back
‘Take off your clothes.’
It was cold and you shook. You shook from more than cold. You couldn’t move”
The distance amplifies the sense of helplessness, of wrongness and brutality in a way that breaks the heart and stokes impotent rage.
“Warchild” has an original plot and first class world-building. In any other book, I’d have been praising the clarity with which an interstellar war between Humans, Aliens and their Human Sypthatisers is described. I’d have placed front and centre how the similarities and differences between the alien culture and the human military culture are explored. Nothing more would have been needed to make this a good science fiction novel.
Karin Lowachee pushes herself to go further. She keeps the focus on Jos as he finds himself having to choose between two strong men, an Alien Commander and a Human Commander, each of whom seems to want something from him. Both men help him develop as a soldier. Each offers patronage and expects loyalty. Jos cannot bring himself completely to trust either man.
As events unfolded, I was shown that, beneath his shell of lethal competency, Jos is damaged: unable to sustain any kind of intimacy with his peers; unable to trust; deeply troubled by the things he refuses to let himself remember but which attack him through his dreams.
Jos becomes a soldier, regularly raiding ships, killing those who oppose him, capturing those who surrender, watching the people closest to him dying in battle. Jos does not get through this unscathed. He is finding it hard to hold on to who he is, to stay free of his past and of the pressures of his present.
Although the main body of the story is told in the first person, Karin Lowachee finds ways to reflect Jos’ inner turmoil without using his interior monologue to do it. Perhaps the best example of this is the last chapter in Part IV of the book. Jos has been in a firefight in another ship and is returning to his ship “The Macedon” with blood on his hands and images of those he has killed fresh in his memory. In other dystopian novels, this might have been the moment when Jos comes of age and knows his purpose. This isn’t that kind of novel. Karin Lowachee sums up Jos’ mental state in a chapter that consists of a single sentence:
“I go back to Macedon with things in my head I have no language for. They are just hoarse sounds in a hollow drum of silence.”
I was surprised to find that “Warchild” was Karin Lowachee’s first novel, her writing is assured and skilful, managing to combine depth with brevity.
I was pleased to find that “Warchild” is the first book of a trilogy and that all three books are available. I look forward to reading the rest of them, although “Warchild” left me too emotionally frayed to move straight on to the next book.