Hellfire by Jean Johnson (Book Review)

The third novel in Jean Johnson’s Theirs Not To Reason Why series of military space opera was published last year in the summer and it proved to be almost as good as the two novels before it, which is saying something since both A Soldier’s Duty and An Officer’s Duty stand as some of the best MSF books I’ve read to date. The fact that the protagonist Ia is also an uber badass is just icing on the cake and should there be a day when a movie series on these books is released, I’ll be the first to line-up in the theaters to watch it. The series has that kind of potential in it. Hellfire also made it to my “Best of 2013 Part 2” list last year as one of the best novels I read last year.

This review is a repost of the original review on The Founding Fields, which can be found here.

With all the setup over, we now move into the opening skirmishes of the new Salik War, and Ia returns with full force at the helm of a story that is both highly entertaining and extremely involving in equal measure.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields

In the previous two books in the series, A Soldier’s Duty and An Officer’s Duty, there’s been a lot of heavy build-up to the new Salik War. We’ve seen how Iantha Quentin-Jones joined the Terran United Planets armed forces and how she set about creating a legend of her actions and her name, such that it would carry down through the ages to the moments that mattered most. A full-scale intergalactic invasion by a ravenous species the likes of which have never been seen before.

Iantha, or Ia as she chooses to call herself from the moment that she joins the armed forces, has seen it all in precognitive visions and she’s taken up the responsibility to guide the galaxy to a point where it can have the barest chance of resisting the invaders, perhaps even win through. Employing all her psychic skills to full effect, but working under the letter of intergalactic and army law for the most part, she has made some great inroads.And now she is finally reached a fulcrum moment, where she actively participates in the new Salik War where her superiors are fully cognizant of her special abilities and (in the broadest sense) know what she is doing.

By the time Hellfire starts, Ia’s plans are well on their way and we finally get to a point where we can truly see some big space battles, of the kind that Star Trek and Star Wars and other such large-scale space opera franchises are known for. We don’t see many of them, but we do see two fairly important ones, and those were well the price of admission, so to speak.

As always, I loved Jean’s characterisation of Ia and her supporting cast. This is Ia’s third outing and by now I’m very well familiar with her as a character, which helped put a lot of her actions into the proper context for me. If you haven’t read any of the previous books, then you are most likely going to be lost here since you are going to be missing out on a lot of character development that has already happened and a lot of Ia’s decisions, or the references to events in the previous books will not make as much sense as they would otherwise. I’ve remarked before that in Ia Jean has created a really wonderful character, a protagonist with agency who always deals on her own terms and is able to twist her way out difficult situations when called for. Sure, she has to finagle her way past a ton of obstacles in the process, but then that’s the charm. Everything in the novel is not just about the characters themselves, or the situations or what have you, its about the execution.

And Jean definitely excels at that.

There is one particular moment, during the second major space battle in the novel, where all of Ia’s careful planning is burned up in engine exhaust because of the carelessness of a crew member. Suddenly, its like dominoes are falling. That moment gives the most in-depth emotional look into Ia as a character. Till now, we’ve always seen her at her best, at her most confident, even arrogant. And now she learns some true humility. Through this entire scene, Jean also shows something that we’ve only heard Ia speak of before in a passing manner: that there is always a chance that something wrong will happen, no matter how miniscule. There’s only so much that Ia can do, she can inspire, she can lead, she can guide, but ultimately the individuals themselves have to do something too, and she can’t always… control that properly. And that’s what happens here, ruining almost all her work that she’s done ever since she first had her visions as a teenager.

Its a crystallizing moment in her character development, and we see just how she rises to the incredible challenge and beats it, saving herself and the galaxy by the skin of its teeth. Everything that she has done has been for a purpose and every individual she commands aboard the Hellfire is vital to her plans. And yet, one small mistake, one small carelessness can bring everything crashing down. To use a flowery, descriptive metaphor, Ia beats this challenge as if she is a phoenix rising from the ashes. Given the consequences, it is an apt metaphor I believe.

One thing that made this novel stand out more than the other two novels was Ia’s interactions with everyone around her. On one level, we have her interactions with her the men and women under her command, the crew of the Hellfire, the titular ship that is Ia’s chosen weapon and steed during the Salik War. We see a lot of how she interacts with everyone as both a Captain and as a fellow soldier and as a human being. And this ties into the aforementioned event which throws all her plans into ruination. A very sobering moment in the entire novel. If you remember the scene from the first (and only good one) Starship Troopers movie where during a live-fire exercise Rico’s decisions lead to the death of a fellow infantryman, and his punishment that follows, you’ll have some idea of what Ia has to go through to ensure the loyalty and respect of her crewmates.

On a second level, a personal one, we have her interactions with Meyun Harper, her second in command and chief engineer aboard the Hellfire. He also happens to be a fellow graduate from the Naval Academy and someone that she had a brief fling back before she went into the Navy proper. Additionally, he is mostly a psychic blank to her, in that she can’t read his future like she can read most everyone else’s. As such, he is a blind spot to her and Jean often expands on that concept to show how much Ia can be surprised. We saw that in An Officer’s Duty and we see that happen this time too. But given how strictly Ia follows military law, she never really fraternizes with him, something that adds a bit of romantic tension to the story. Its not all guns and boom-boom in the novel. We do get to see a more personal side to Ia’s character and it all just makes her that much well-rounded.

On a third level, we have her interactions with the other alien races of the galaxy. We see how she deals with the Gatsugi. We see how she deals with the V’Dan, who are an offshoot of sorts of Humans. And through bits and pieces throughout the novel, we continue to see that. Ia is trying to save not just the Terran United Planets, but also the entire galaxy. She has set herself up as a defender of all the untold quintillions who live now, and who will live in the future. Hellfire marks her out as a diplomat in addition to being a warrior, and this was a really fun thing to see after the brief glimpses in An Officer’s Duty towards the end.

And finally, we have her interactions with her superiors in the Fleet. The back and forth she has with them is always entertaining because of the inherent sarcasm at both ends, given her particular situation, and it made for some really fun reading. Previously, we only see Ia interacting with her immediate superiors, but now we see her interacting with the very top brass, and it made for a good change of pace.

Throughout the novel, one after another, we see how Ia as a character keeps on building, how she continues to develop. Its not an easy thing to do, in my experience, but Jean does a fantastic job with it. And its not just Ia she continues to develop, but the secondary characters like Meyun, Hellfire‘s Chaplain Christine Benjamin who has been with Ia since her earliest days in the military, and all the other crewmembers of the ship. Each character has something to offer, something to add to the narrative. Given that Ia is running the ship with an absolute minimum crew, one where everyone is doing the job of two, maybe even three people at a time, it creates a lot of moments of character bonding, as I mentioned above. Hellfire doesn’t have a fully developed secondary cast, but it has enough significant secondary characters where its not as much of an issue.

Another thing that I want to commend the author on is the gender parity. Military science fiction is a subgenre where casts are always dominated by male characters, even ones where the protagonist is a female character. In that context, Hellfire deserves top marks because Jean has peppered her secondary cast with lots of female characters. We already have Chaplain Benjamin. There’s also Lieutenant Commander Delia Helstead, who is one of Ia’s senior officers aboard the ship, and even the chief medic is a woman, Jesselle Mishka. In this setting, while Jean doesn’t go to extremes, she does show that women are always on par with any male characters, and its fantastic to see that equality in the casts. It adds to the charm of these novels significantly.

And that’s really it for all the positive stuff. Where before I had found A Soldier’s Duty and An Officer’s Duty to be some of the finest examples of military science fiction and gave them both perfect scores, I can’t say the same for Hellfire unfortunately. That’s not to say however that this was a bad book. It wasn’t as good as its two predecessors, but it was still a hell of an enjoyable read.

One thing that really bothered me was the first chapter (not the prologue). It is the chapter where Ia takes formal command of the Hellfire and we are introduced to her crew. Till now, Jean has written some really great detailed scenes that often have a whiff of info-dumping but not quite. This time however, it felt very much like that. Ia introduces every single officer aboard the ship and after the first few, it got slightly tiresome. It was an overload of information that I feel could have been better left to come out naturally later on in the narrative.

Then there’s the fact that there’s often a fair bit of repetition in the novel, whether it is Ia explaining something to someone, or her just monologuing to herself or what have you. It broke the flow of the story. It didn’t happen a lot, but it happened enough that I had to mention it as a negative. I get the point of such repetition, that Ia has to fight against prejudice and ignorance, but I still felt it was a little too much.

And as a final point, while its not a negative per se, I felt that we weren’t really getting to the crux of the Salik War. It begins somewhat around the middle portion of the novel and continues thereafter. What I had been looking forward to was seeing a lot more of the space battles that something as grand as the Salik War hints at. I mentioned previously that there are two such major conflicts in the novel. I certainly enjoyed both of them, but I was left wishing for more. Jean is really good at helping the reader visualize these big scenes through her words and the scenes definitely pull you in.

Hopefully the fourth novel can correct that. It will be coming out at some point next year, and I’ll definitely be reading it. After finishing Hellfire, I want more adventures of Ia, especially since the fourth novel is going to end the series. Jean has mentioned that she is in the middle of negotiating a First Salik War series, which would be a prequel to Theirs Not To Reason Why and would be much more action-oriented. I’m interested already!

In the meantime, if you’ve enjoyed the series thus far, then you’ll definitely enjoy this one as well. Do give it a read!

Rating: 9/10

More Theirs Not To Reason Why: A Soldier’s Duty, An Officer’s Duty.

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