Damnation by Jean Johnson (Book Review)

I didn’t find out until quite late that because of narrative reasons, Jean Johnson had split the fourth and final novel in her fantastic Theirs Not To Reason Why series into two novels, Hardship and Damnation. Not until a few weeks back when I finally got around to reading Hardship that is. And finishing that short-ish novel, I wanted to read the final book as soon as I could, since I love the series a LOT and because the way that Jean ended Hardship, I knew that whatever was next for Ia, it was going to something big, big, BIG. And it was.

Damnation brings to a close a grand saga that Jean kicked off a few years ago with A Soldier’s Duty, the first novel in the series. The end of the Second Salik War is around the corner, and while the frogtopi aren’t going out without a fight, they are definitely on the out and out here. But the Salik aren’t the only antagonists at large for the galaxy’s greatest psychic, since the ancient Greys are also coming back and Ia has to end both wars in such a way that when an even more ancient hostile race comes to the galaxy, the legacy she leaves behind is going to be enough to give the entire galaxy a fighting chance against them. And I’ll also mention here that despite all the different scenarios I had come up with for how Damnation would end, I still got a nice jolt of surprise on the final pages.

Being a space opera/military science fiction series, there are a lot of things I expect from Theirs Not To Reason Why and with each entry, I’ve experienced that in full, or close to it anyway that it doesn’t matter so much. With all the dominoes that Jean Johnson set up with the first four novels, Damnation has a right tough job bringing it all to a close, especially within the restrictions of how the larger narrative grew and grew until we got the final product that we did in November 2014. Jean Johnson and General Ia go out with a big bang, and that is how it should be indeed, given all that has happened to this point.

In Hardship, we saw what happened when Ia’s precognitive abilities were blocked and… misdirected until all her efforts to keep her people safe and to continue on the Second Salik War the way she required it to were for naught. With everything that happened, her timetable was set back considerably, but in the end, it all meant that she came out of this ordeal with her skin intact and the timeplains on track. And now, it is time to bring it all crashing down around the Salik and the Greys.

The final novel sees Ia become the General of the Alliance Army for the Second Salik War. It is pretty much an unprecedented rank for any individual within the setting, and the way that it all happens is something worth a study in psychological manipulation, the kind that only Ia is good at, as she has shown before. Of course, she doesn’t actually directly manipulate anything, but her record in the war and even before that is proof of her conduct so to say and with the new authority at her command, she coordinates the end of the Salik as a species. Which is an extremely important milestone in the novel.

Back in An Officer’s Duty, we saw that Ia went to the Salik homeworld and did all she could to get the Salik to backoff and not commit to an all-out war with the Alliance. Since then, and even before, we’ve seen that she is completely committed to the idea of saving any and all sentients she can, no matter who they are or what they are. But the Salik, unable to throw off their own practices, their chosen course of action, pretty much force Ia’s hand, and the greatest hero and villain of the galaxy must now orchestrate their death, a death far more peaceful than what the Salik grant to their… prisoners.

And that’s what I loved about Damnation so much. Ia’s humanity, the core of her being that has been shaped by her powers and her experiences as a soldier in the Alliance and her own family and everything else, has been her bedrock since the start. It has been stressed again and again, and we see in Damnation what pain she causes herself when she does what she must to the Salik. It is sickening in a way, but Ia’s self-torture morbidly fascinated me. Too often has she been a protagonist to have breezed through her challenges, but this is where the buck stops. Or at least, it did back on Hardship before she managed to correct all the flaws in her plan that had developed because of unforeseen Feyori-meddling.

And now, we see the toll that the last few years have had on her psyche.

In Damnation, Ia is at her emotional lowest, at her most vulnerable. But at the same time, there has never been a time when she has been stronger as an individual or as one of the many other identities she has taken on since entering TUPSF service. At every point in the novel there is some fascinating insight into her character. The pace of the novel is brutal at times, but you always get a chance to digest what is happening to the protagonist.

The action can sometimes be fleeting, and perhaps even slightly unsatisfactory to some degree, but Ia’s characterization and the final three chapters of the novel more than make up for any of that. This is the novel where Jean Johnson goes full-out epic. She doesn’t hold back any cards, she doesn’t force the characters to jump through unnecessary hoops or anything like that. She just tells the story straight up, leaving the reader to make up his or her own mind. And the only conclusion that I reached in the end was that this novel was bloody brilliant. As all the other novels have been before it, so is Damnation different from them all.

We finally get some explanations for many of the things that Ia did during her years of service with the TUPSF and the Alliance. We see her make some choices that are not dependent on the needs of the timeplains at all. We see the depth of the faith and trust that her crew has in her, and that her superiors have with her. We see her at her most compassionate and her most ruthless. We see her supporting cast members get one great scene after another. We see some great dialogue take shape as the story goes. We see mind-bending twists and some truly fantastic moments.

And then, in the end, Jean Johnson totally surprises you with the ending to Damnation. She had stressed time and time again before that the ending wouldn’t be what you would think it to be, and that is definitely true. Even knowing how the novel might end given some of Ia’s dialogue and conversations with her crew, the exact execution wasn’t something I’d been able to image readily. But after reading it, the ending is the most natural out there.

So this is goodbye to General of the Alliance Armies Ia. This is goodbye to what has been a year and a half of awesome space opera/military science fiction wonder. This is goodbye to something truly great.

And at this point, I can only hope that Jean Johnson’s next, a prequel series to Theirs Not To Reason Why (set in the First Salik War this time) arrives soon, because I want to see so much more of this setting.

Damnation is certainly a fitting end to the great saga. Both that it needed and deserved.

Rating: 9.5/10

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

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