Jean Johnson is a writer who wears many different hats, and writes in different genres, one of them being military space opera. Her series Theirs Not To Reason Why is, for me, one of the best such series out there, with a protagonist that I absolutely love and a setting that I absolutely enjoy, no matter what I read of any of it. For me, A Soldier’s Duty was one of the best novels I read last year and it would have made it to be “best of the year” lists if I hadn’t read the sequel soon after. All the same, I highly recommend this novel (and indeed the series).
This review is a repost of the original review on The Founding Fields, which can be found here.
“This is military science fiction at its best, filled to the brim with some excellent action scenes and a heavy dose of military jargon, rounded off with an excellent protagonist and a great narrative. A must-read.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
Military science fiction is one of my favourite genres, whether we are talking about written fiction (as in novels and short stories, etc), or visual fiction (such as video games, movies and television shows). Warhammer 40,000, Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, Farscape, Mobile Suit Gundam, StarCraft, Doom, Andromeda, etc are properties that I can never get enough of. However, it so happens that I don’t read all that much into the subgenre, at least not as much as I watch in it. This is something I’ve attempted to change since the beginning of last year, and so far the experience has been well worth it, although not as widespread as I would like. I’ve read excellent stuff such as Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops novels, T. C. McCarthy’s Germline, William King’s Angel of Fire, David Annandale’s Yarrick: Chains of Golgotha, Rob Sanders’ Legion of the Damned, and many others. The latest in this ongoing reading challenge is romance author Jean Johnson’s first novel in the Theirs Not To Reason Why series, A Soldier’s Duty, in which a precognitive 18-year old girl joins the military to save the entire galaxy from a danger hundreds of years in the future. Sounds like a pretty tough and impossible job to me, but, as it turns out, Ia has a very long-term plan of staggering scope and this novel explores the beginnings of it.
The protagonist, Ia, is one of the strangest characters I’ve read about, and therein lies her charm. We first see her as a 15-year old when she has mind-numbing visions of a far future in which the entire galaxy is in danger and billions of people die because there is nothing to stop the bad guys. The terror and shock of these visions is captured by the author in such a way that I could actually feel goosebumps on my arms while reading the scenes. The writing is full of emotional impact and there is a very strong urgency to the scenes which got me hooked from the start. While it was a little weird to see the protagonist at such a young age, my faint concerns about the issue vanished soon after. This particular moment in Ia’s life represents a beginning, as much a prologue to the rest of her life as the scene is a prologue to the novel itself.
When we next meet her, she is 3 years older, sure of herself and dedicated to bringing about the desired and necessary future in which the galaxy has at least a chance of stopping the tides of darkness that Ia has seen in her visions. She is also much surer of her various abilities, of which precognition is one of many. Ia plans to join the military and create such an epic legend about herself that when the foreseen events come about, these legends will inspire countless people to fight to survive the hostile future. A Soldier’s Duty charts the beginnings of this plan and we start to see how Ia sets about getting that reputation, to be remembered in the future as Bloody Mary.
Ia’s confidence can sometimes be off-putting, as she often comes across as arrogant and too perfect in what she needs/wants to do. This is my only real complaint with the novel, but I’m not sure if that would be an entirely valid point to hold against either the character or the narrative since that is the core idea behind Ia. She intimately knows the future. She can see what the future holds for individuals and groups alike. And as far as she knows, she is the only one with such knowledge, and the means to do what needs to be done to make sure that the galaxy is ready. The confidence and arrogance is almost… instinctual.
I will however point out that Johnson has done the needful and portrayed Ia has someone who is fallible. There are instances when her powers fail her, or rather, when people behave in a manner that was the least probable or even unexpected, and then Ia has to work all the harder to get her plans back on-track. There are also instances of when the future is unclear to her, and then she has to work by her own wits and other abilities. Throughout the novel, even though Ia is hyperaware of future events, she does not use her precognition as a crutch. And I loved how it was all handled. This had been a concern of mine from the start, and I’m relieved to say that the author did not disappoint. Johnson has done a great job of showing that Ia can, will and is challenged by events and people despite her considerable abilities and training.
Often times, Ia reminds me of Demi Moore’s character from G.I.Jane. The similarities are much more apparent in the first third of the novel of course, when Ia is going through boot camp and has to prove herself fully capable of becoming a Marine in the Terran United Special Forces. Both characters face a roughly similar amount of obstacles, both physical and mental, and Johnson has captured the entire atmosphere of boot camp perfectly. The training sergeants, such as Tae and Linley, were excellent characters and through them, Johnson depicts a really harsh vision of the Terran military training. It is perhaps not all that different to what we see in various movies and documentaries, such as G.I.Jane, but the key difference is that here you have to visualise everything yourself, based on the author’s words, and therefore the experience is much more visceral and immediate.
When I was done with the novel, I asked her how much research she had done and she answered that she had talked to soldiers across the globe for years, gathering all the material she needed for this novel. Many people would undoubtedly call the boot camp sections of the novel dry, repetitive, and an info-dump. Not me. If you are going to write hard military SF, then it comes with the job that there are going to be lots and lots of instances of military jargon, whether it is the dialogue, or the training aspects, or the arms and armour, and so on. Jean Johnson goes into an incredible amount of detail in the first third of the novel, but I loved every second of it. The reason was that through this approach, the author was giving me a chance to truly immerse into the world she was creating, and was continuing to do so throughout the novel. These are the sections which separate A Soldier’s Duty from other MSF works out there, especially the big popular ones and give it a feel and atmosphere of its own, something that is distinct and unique to it.
For me, the pacing of the novel was always perfect. The highs and lows in the narrative were properly spaced out, and at no time did I feel that the story was going either too fast or too slow. Not even when, at the Marine boot camp, one of the Sergeants describes about a dozen different types of weapons ammunition and three-four different types of weapons that a Terran United Special Forces Marine is expected to be able to use at any time. Or when Ia has to explain some of her natural abilities as a second-generation heavy-worlder to her superiors. Or when Ia goes on her own special missions while a part of an enlisted and on-mission military unit and so on. It all slots in perfectly into the narrative with no bumps on the way.
I had expected the novel to be a first-person narrative, but that is not the case. There are intros to each chapter in which we get first-person commentary from Ia, as if she is narrating the events to someone, or as if she is writing everything down in a diary/memoir, but other than that, it is all third-person. And I have to say that I like it this way. Had the narrative been in the first-person, Ia would undoubtedly have not been as sympathetic a character as she ends up being. It would simply have been too much information and too much time in the character’s head. With the third person, while the focus is always on Ia, we do get to see a lot more of her interactions with the people around her. It all comes across as much more honest and realistic since things are not filtered through Ia’s understandings or misunderstandings of people and events.
Another fantastic thing was that while the author teases the reader about the future that Ia is preparing for/against, she never gives the game away. There are tantalising glimpses of this future throughout the novel, and quite a few references, so the mystery is maintained, even made more exciting from these brief flashes of what is going to happen. The hook is definitely there, and it is one that kept me going through the novel. In fact, I have half-a-mind to just start reading the second book right now, and writing this review is not helping me keep that temptation in check. However, I will definitely be reading the second book, An Officer’s Duty soon since the third novel, Hellfire, comes out in July and I definitely want to read that one on time.
The supporting cast in the novel, whether it is Ia’s fellow recruits or her Sergeants at boot camp, or her superiors and fellow Marines later on, or her various friends and mentors, all do a great job of enriching Ia’s own character. They are all unique in their own place within the framework of the narrative, and I do think that the author has done right by all of them. Still, without them, Ia’s character would not have been as compelling. She has given up her own dreams and wants to make sure that the terrors of the future are balanced by a genuine hope of resistance and legends to inspire, so her character often appears insular and introspective. Yet, it is when she interacts with the people around her, that her decision is reinforced for her, and she is reminded just why she is doing what she is. She doesn’t let people get too close to her, but she does give them an occasional opening and the results are great. Her professional relationship with Lieutenant Ferrar is one of the defining relationships in the novel, showing how Ia works both within and without the framework of the Terran United Special Forces to enact each component of her grand plan to save the galaxy. This is something that I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of in An Officer’s Duty.
In closing, I just want to say that A Soldier’s Duty is one of the best novels I’ve read to date. It has a protagonist who is kickass, flawed and extremely likable. It has a narrative that is gripping from the get-go and has an excellent climax. It has a perfect pacing and a supporting cast that is just as diverse and capable as the protagonist (point of fact: Ia is not a typical white female here). Jean Johnson has a new fan of her work in me. When it comes to SF that is! If I had to make a comparison, I would say that Ia is just as fantastic a character as Nathan Long’s Jane Carver from the Jane Carver of Waar duology.