Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Review: The Ghost Brigades

Today's review is for John Scalzi's novel The Ghost Brigades. It is a sequel to his novel Old Man's War, and a prequel to the novel The Last Colony. It is set in the same universe as Old Man's War but only one of the characters from the novel is featured here, and she is barely a POV character. Anyways, the back cover of the of the paperback has the following blurb:

The Ghost Brigades are the Special Forces of the Colonial Defense Forces, elite troops created from the DNA of the dead and turned into the perfect soldiers for the CDF's toughest operations. They're young, fast, strong, and totally without normal human qualms.

The universe is a dangerous place for humanity--and it's about to become more dangerous. Three races we've fought before have allied to halt our expansion into space. Their linchpin: the turncoat scientist Charles Boutin, who knows the CDF's biggest secrets. To prevail, the CDF must find out why Boutin did what he did.

Jared Dirac--a superhuman hybrid, created from Boutin's DNA--is the only person who can provide answers. Jared's brain should be able to access Boutin's electronic memories, but when the memory transplant appears to fail, Jared is given to the Ghost Brigades.

At first, Jared is a perfect soldier. Then, as Boutin's memories slowly surface, Jared begins to intuit the reasons for Boutin's betrayal... and the fact that some of humanity's enemies have worse things in mind than our mere defeat.
It's a fine blurb, tells the salient points of the novel, and explains the relevant information from Old Man's War that is needed to understand the book. I know I harp on blurbs a lot, but they're important things for a book. Books live or die based on the blurbs provided on the dust jacket flaps or back covers. Plus, it is always interesting to read what the publisher thinks will sell the book.

The main character, as the blurb discusses, is Jared Dirac. He's a Ghost Brigade soldier (read clone of a dead human, augmented with alien DNA and a host of technologies) based on Charles Boutin, a CDF scientist who has betrayed humanity. He's an interesting character, and it is interesting to read how he comes into his own both as a human, and as a soldier.

There are three main secondary characters: Charles Boutin, Jane Sagan and Cainen.

Charles Boutin is the primary villain of the piece. We don't actually get to see him, until the final few chapters of the book but oddly enough that works. We're given hints and impressions of Boutin throughout the story, which is an oddly effective way of building up the villain. Unfortunately, he falls oddly flat in the face of those expectations. That's not to say he's not a well-defined character, it is just that during the course of the story, I built up this concept of what and how I thought of Boutin, and then when he was revealed, he seemed petty and venal. Petty and venal worked for his character, it's just not what I was expecting.

Jane Sagan is Dirac's commander. She is the character that featured heavily in the previous novel, and from the excerpt of The Last Colony features heavily in that novel as well. I like Jane's character both here and in Old Man's War. She's tough, yet oddly vulnerable in how she is presented. Imagine, Princess Leia, mixed with Wonder Woman, all on steroids-that's the impression I got of Sagan.

The final of the main secondary characters is Cainen. He's not human, but rather a Rraey. What that means for the reader? Well, the Rraey are a spiritual people, and have a tendency to want to kill humans, and take their colonies. Cainen is a POW in this book, and instrumental in the development of the plot. This means that he gets a whole bunch of character development in response to the plot.

Settings are fun here. We get more of Mr. Scalzi's use of unique technologies, and he extrapolates both existing technology and the technology that he introduced in the previous novel. His entire universe is populated with technology and worlds, and Mr. Scalzi does his best to provide us with descriptions of those things without burdening us with useless information. For example, the starships - we know they are used to transport troops, and use a type of extra-luminal drive revolving around jumping dimensions. What we don't know is such things as the cubic-tonnage or even the shape of the ships.

Part of me likes this. It's clean and concise, but the other part of me wants that information. It desires to know what the ships look like, what their volume is. Of course, that can all wait until we get either a comic book or a movie out of these books. Boy, do I hope we get a movie out of those books.

The plot is similar in nature to most spec-fic war fare. The interesting bit, is the fact that Jared Dirac is built from Boutin. It adds in an element of distrust and tension, as the CDF has to wonder if Dirac would turn traitor as well. There's nothing really to complain about here. The plot is well built, and flows with the story, pushing the characters where they need to go smoothly, and without leaving a bad taste in the reader's mouth.

This is the first story from Mr. Scalzi that I've read that is not in a first person POV. Of course, this is only the third novel of his that I have read, but oh well. With this novel, he proves that he can produce a non-first person story, and can produce it where it works, and works good. All the other mechanics of the story, works perfectly as well. No glaring grammar issues, no typos that I could remember. Wonderfully done.

Overall, I loved this novel as much as I did Old Man's War. I love the way that Scalzi writes, his characters and just the tone of the story. It's fun, and reminds me a lot of Heinlein. There are a lot worse writers out there, and not many contemporary ones that I can think of that are better, and this novel just further reinforces my belief that Scalzi is such an awesome writer.

In the end, I give it a 3.7 out of 4.

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