Friday, 23 September 2011

The Ghost Brigades

Why did it take me so long to get round to reading The Ghost Brigades? Old Man's War was as good a military SF novel as I've ever read (even including The Forever War, but that stands apart on different grounds), with engaging characters, an interesting story and a well-realised universe.

On this evidence, John Scalzi could write the handbook on writing accessible, engaging, compelling SF in the twenty-first century. The Ghost Brigades continues on where Old Man's War left off, both in terms of the story and stylistically. Scalzi doesn't overcomplicate his language, and some would criticise him for perhaps not stretching his abilities as he should... but why would he do that when he writes crisp, clear English with just the right amount of quirk as it is? True, he's not going to win awards for use of poetic language, but it works just fine as it is, thank you very much. The result is that a casual reader would do well to pick up Scalzi's work as a gateway to modern SF.

Old Man's War introduced humanity's colonies, the CDF, and the ghost brigades themselves. I'm not going to go into too much depth about them - read the book to find out more (and you'll enjoy it, believe me). And now the world is nicely fleshed out we can progress deeper into its depths. Relatively speaking, Old Man's War was a simple tale of a man going to war; The Ghost Brigades goes several steps further, with a far more complex story, which also offers the humanity we've come to expect from Scalzi.

We have a traitor who has left his consciousness behind. In an attempt to get to the bottom of his treachery, Special Forces try to transfer the consciousness into a Special Forces soldier. It doesn't take, and so Jared Dirac (that's his name) ends up in the ghost brigades, fighting to defend humanity's interests in space.

What Scalzi does particularly well is create characters who at one level have to be identical, but on another, completely different, level need to be individuals, suited to different roles in the narrative. There is one character who comes into the book already well established in-universe, and Scalzi keeps her character consistent with what went before, but he creates another half-dozen or so well-drawn characters. Even those he doesn't go into depth with are left with distinct personality traits which mark them out as different.

It's possible to connect with those characters because they are well-written and distinct individuals. Moments that shock the characters are felt by the reader (well, by this reader, at least), and every triumph and defeat is met by an emotional response.

At its heart, The Ghost Brigades is a good old-fashioned adventure story set in space. In many ways it's what the Star Wars prequel trilogy should have been if it was literature and not a set of undercooked films with too many special effects. And I don't think I can pay it a higher compliment than that.

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