IN SHORT: In the future, humanity is about to get smacked around by three alien races at once. Even worse, a critical human scientist has defected to the enemy. The solution? Send in a bunch of vat-grown super soldiers to kick alien butt.
WHAT IT IS: The novel centers on a group of custom-built human soldiers manufactured for war. The implications of this are explored through Jared Dirac, one of those soldiers with a little something extra floating around in his brain. He’s an interesting character that John Scalzi uses well to explore the concept of manufactured people that are, basically, human slaves for waging war.
WHAT IT IS NOT: Besides the central premise, don’t expect a whole lot of depth here. I was surprised by the novel’s sparse descriptions and the overall lack of detail in the universe surrounding the main characters.
WHAT I THOUGHT: The novel is a fun action romp following Jared Dirac, an engineered soldier with the memories of the traitor scientist. In general, the action is entertaining, the story flows well, and the main character is likeable and interesting. I also really enjoyed the whole concept behind the two groups of soldiers. Old people volunteering to be put into young and powerful bodies in exchange for military service is a really neat concept, as is the ethical implications of manufacturing new crops of youngsters for the war.
That concept aside, this isn’t a deep novel. I never had a very good sense for who the Colonial Union (the human government) was or even who they were fighting. Yeah, three alien races against humanity sounds bad, but don’t expect any details about each faction’s technology, population size, or military strength. I honestly didn’t find the aliens threatening.
The lack of important descriptions is also a puzzling style choice. I understand the desire to keep prose clean and fluid, but I honestly have no idea what the aliens looks like. I get that the Eneshan are bugs of some sort, and the Rraey are … birdlike? Maybe? Not sure, really. But heck if I have any idea what the Obin look like, and they’re the most important of the three antagonist alien races.
There is also some weird conflict timing in the novel. Jared Dirac and company are sent on a kidnapping mission fairly early in the novel. This mission has the potential to cripple parts of the alien alliance. Despite this, the members of Jared’s team angst over having to kidnap someone.
That’s okay, I guess, but in the preceding scene, we learn the aliens EAT HUMAN COLONISTS! Dude, seriously? Should our heroes be whining about a little kidnapping if the enemy treats women and children like hors d’oeuvres?
All of those complaints aside, I still enjoyed the novel. It was light, fast, and fun. The main character is an interesting guy who goes through a pretty unique journey. All in all, I wasn’t blown away, but I was entertained, and that’s really where it counts.
A small personal note here: Due to the lack of descriptions in the novel, I started picturing the Rraey like Ernie the giant chicken from Family Guy. Below is something close to the picture my brain came up with. This may be why I couldn’t take them seriously as villains, despite their tendency to eat colonists. Your mileage may vary. 🙂