An Officer’s Duty by Jean Johnson – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the second novel in the Theirs Not To Reason Why hard military SF series from Ace/Roc Books.
“I expected this book to be better than the first one, sure. I didn’t expect it to be so damn amazing.” ~Shadowhawk
A friend and I were recently discussing fannish reviews, i.e, reviews in which the reviewer can’t stop gushing about the piece being reviewed and some sort of a hero worship situation. We had both come across such a review recently and we were both surprised with the way it was written. That prompted an hour-long discussion on our own reviews that could be considered fannish and we exchanged reviews we considered fannish, in order to spot that very quality in the our work. Seemingly, we both passed the muster. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the whole affair.
I make no secret of the fact that there are a handful of authors whose work I enjoy and continue to rate highly, no matter what genre or setting they write in. Does that mean that I refrain from looking at the pieces with an objective, and critical eye? Well, it all boils down to the gut feeling after having read the book(s) in question. And my gut feeling once I was done with Jean Johnson’s second novel in her Theirs Not To Reason Why series was that the book was a solid piece of fiction that repeated all the successes of its predecessor and was a few shades more awesome in the final accounting.
The biggest reason why An Officer’s Duty is such a great book is because Jean Johnson did not repeat the formula of success for A Soldier’s Duty, instead going beyond that to step up her world-building tenfold and show a much more vulnerable and personal side of her protagonist Ia. To me, that’s what this novel is about. From the previous novel, I already knew that Ia was not a perfect character, whether in her personality, or her actions. And that she is indeed fallible when it comes to her abilities. But, Jean kept those instances low-key throughout the novel and she chose to work throughout at establishing who Ia is meant to be to future generations, for that (somewhat) distant point in time when it is the legends of her deeds and her reputation that will spur on the entire galaxy towards standing against the greatest threat it has ever known.
In this novel, Jean flips the situation. We now see more instances of how Ia’s abilities can be blindsided, and how she has to work through these situations to bring about the desired outcome. Ia’s journey over the course of this novel is a much more intense struggle than it was before, because now the stage on which Ia has to perform has grown dramatically in size. And through these struggles, her character continues to grow. Each challenge forces her to adapt, whether that be in ways that she expected, or ways that she didn’t. And amidst all of that, Jean continues to remind us that Ia is human, and that she is also a woman. Side little vignette scenes involving her family, her friends, and her allies demonstrate this aspect of the novel again and again.
If I had to pick three of my favourite scenes from the novel, these are the ones I would choose: Ia back on her homeworld Sanctuary and out in the wilds with her brothers Thorne and Fyfer; Ia and Chaplain Benny at the Naval Academy in Portugal, reminiscing about old times with her roommate (and new addition to the cast) Meyun Harper; Ia in a room with some of the most powerful individuals in the galaxy, getting all her abilities assessed and rated (lots of shocks to be expected here I would say).
One aspect of the novel that I really liked was that Jean made a dedicated effort to remind us again and again that all the things that Ia needs to do, she can’t just do them. She needs training, she needs to be prepared to react at a moment’s notice, to make snap on-the-fly decisions, to adapt. This applies to all her natural abilities, and also to her career as a soldier. Her eventual goal, as I mentioned before, is to become the greatest legend in the Terran United Planets Space Forces, a figure of such repute that when her legend filters down the generations, and the galaxy faces its ultimate test, people will remember her, the things she did, and they will be inspired to carry on her legacy, to justify themselves of being worthy of her legacy. To achieve all that, Ia needs to actively work at reaching that point. She can’t just make predictions and tell others what to do, or whatever else that needs be done. She needs to be at the right place at the right time and do the right thing. Being an officer is something that is going to open a lot of avenues of opportunity for her to bring about her master plan. The inspiration she wants to bring about will happen only when she can convince others of it, and the only way that can be done is by being there in the first place.
And the worldbuilding. This time, I was simply blown over. The way that Jean introduces the Fire Girl Prophecies through a minor character right at the start of the novel, the introduction of the crystal vein deposits on Sanctuary, the full range of Ia’s abilities, the space battles, the Naval Academy in Portugal, the Naval version of Hell Week, the Salik themselves (this is a huge element of the novel in the second half!), and to cap it all of, we finally get to learn more about the great threat the galaxy will face in the future, hundreds of years from now, and what Ia is trying to prepare the Terran United Planets for. Each concept is highly detailed and meshes in really well with the overall narrative.
We learn a lot about the setting this time around, and I had a blast with it. The lore geek in me just couldn’t get enough and I wanted more. There are all these amazing races that populate Jean’s setting here for this series and I want to know so much more about them. What are their cultures like? Their societies? Their martial traditions? Everything. I want to know everything. That’s the kind of excitement that An Officer’s Duty instilled in me.
Even though a lot of the novel is taken up with Ia exploring her mental and psychological barriers, and the limits of what she can do with her powers, the narrative never loses sight of the fact that this here is Military Science Fiction, and as such, there need to be a few battles here, with lots of adrenaline-pumping excitement. The Hell-Week at the Naval Academy is an excellent example of that. Even though I already knew that the final test was a simulation, nothing more, and that the lives of all the characters involved were never in any serious danger, I still couldn’t help but get tensed up reading through those scenes. Jean has a great gift to write action sequences that are detailed and punchy. Her action scenes, particular any involving space combat, are choreographed really well, and its as if you are watching it all happen on a cinema screen. She provides a basic framework for the reader to visualise what’s going on, and then peppers the scene(s) with enough detail to make it all come alive. Its a sitting-on-the-edge-of-the-sea moment again and again.
Given that we still everything from Ia’s (coloured) perspective, the motivations for everyone who helps her are not explored in any big detail, but we get information on why they are all doing what they are doing. Her brothers, with whom she shares a special bond, particularly with her twin Thorne, are the primary representatives of the trust that is placed in Ia. More than anyone else, they understand what she is doing, why is doing it, and where she wants it all to go. Her friends, such as Rabbit (a childhood friend) and Benny are also important in that regard since Rabbit represents all those people on Sanctuary who trust in Ia and follow her, while Benny works all the time, without really being aware of it, to keep Ia sane, to keep her from falling down the rabbit-hole marked “arrogance”. Benny is, essentially, Ia’s moral sounding board and she is one of my favourite characters in the novel.
There is a lot more going on in the novel as well, but if I covered all that, then this review would turn into a thesis post on why An Officer’s Duty is such an amazing novel.
Suffice to say that An Officer’s Duty is one of the best SF novels I’ve read to date, and that I highly recommend the entire series. A non-white female protagonist who kicks ass, a military SF novel that balances the action with the introspective extremely well, the really good pacing, and superb world-building. These are just some of the reasons for why I love this book. It is a superb follow-up to a novel that was already pretty much perfect.
What more could I say?