The Hangman’s Daughter – Gavin G Smith

Miska Storrow leads an unusual band of mercenaries in The Hangman’s Daughter, Gavin G Smith‘s latest novel (review copy from Gollancz).  Hers are pressed men, prisoners kept in suspended animation on a prison ship and fitted with collars that enable Miska to explosively decapitate them at will.  Miska and her mercenary legion have been retained to infiltrate a mining base that has been taken over by rebels, but she has few resources to back her beyond some ageing weapons and ammunition, and an AI version of her late father.

This is classic military science fiction – lots of running around, explosions and gory injuries and deaths.  In between, a conspiracy plot begins to be revealed.  Is Miska the rogue special forces operative turned cold-hearted and ruthless killer that she claims to be, or is there more going on under the surface?  Obviously there is, otherwise this wouldn’t be much of a story.

The plot rattles along fairly well, but the cast of supporting characters is pretty thin and straight from central casting – identikit gangsters and idealistic rebels plus a stereotyped drill sargeant for a father.  There is some disturbing fetishisation of a dangerous cohort of three high security prisoners held on Miska’s ship, including one particular serial killer that she is inexplicably attracted to.  But the biggest difficulty for me was Smith’s reliance on concealing information from the reader.  It jars me out of the story for a close third person narrator to not share information that would be known to the perspective character, particularly in a knowing way that is clearly designed to build suspense.

Goodreads rating: 2*

 

Heart of Granite – James Barclay

Regular readers will know that I wasn’t a fan of Heinlein’s seminal novel Starship Troopers.  I found it an unquestioning love song to the military.  But, despite some superficial similarities, James Barclay’s Heart of Granite (review copy from Gollancz) is a much better and more enjoyable read.

Heart of Granite follows the exploits of Max Halloran.  He is an arrogant, risk-taking pilot in the armed forces of United Europe, a futuristic power-bloc engaged in endless war.  But in Barclay’s world, the people of Earth have harvested alien technology and DNA to create new weapons of war.  Max pilots Martha, a fire-breathing drake, as part of Inferno-X, an elite squad of pilots based with others on a giant lumbering lizard (the titular Heart of Granite).  In a post-fossil fuels world, war is being fought over land, which has inestimable value in growing food and biofuels.  The challenges of aerial combat require minimal alteration to drake DNA, and a strong telepathic link between drake and pilot.  This puts their human pilots at eventual risk of a career and life-ending phenomenon when dragon-senses and intelligence overwhelm those of the pilot: The Fall.  But despite the risks, the thrill of flight and combat means there is no shortage of those seeking to become drake pilots.

Unlike the Heinlein, Barclay uses this set up to examine questions about expediency, and whether and how we value people as individuals in military hierarchies, rather than treating them as expendable resource, and the difficult trade-offs that sometimes have to be made.  The military hierarchy have to make a hard decision about whether or not to introduce a drake upgrade.  If successful, it could shorten the war and save the lives of many, but doing so will hasten The Fall, thereby shortening the lives of pilots.  There are parallels here with WW2 fighter pilots, where scarcity of materials and construction challenges made the planes more valuable than the pilots.  And echoes of Anne McCaffrey’s genetically-engineered dragons on Pern, with their close telepathic imprinting on their riders.

But over and above all that, Heart of Granite is a rollicking adventure story of dogfights, heroism, loyalty and cameraderie.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Starship Troopers – Robert A Heinlein

Several people have raved to me about Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, telling me the movie was awful, missing the point of the novel.

Oh dear.  It’s safe to say I was very disappointed.

Starship Troopers is the story of Johnnie Rico.   He joins the army to impress a girl, but finds a place and career in the Mobile Infantry, the high tech army of the future.  Most of the novel is taken up with descriptions of Johnnie’s training, as a private and then as he trains to be an officer.  It’s a loving exposition of a fictional military culture and discipline, with a lot of detail about training, discipline and equipment.

Heinlein seeks to present a case about the value of the military.  Those who are prepared to put their own lives and safety in jeopardy in order to protect others are, in Heinlein’s hypothesis, the only ones who have shown they can be trusted to express views about the running of a country.  Hence the prerequisite for military service before one becomes a ‘citizen’, entitled to vote.  It’s an interesting hypothesis, but it doesn’t hold water.

Given when Starship Troopers was written, I was hoping for more satire or a bit of social comment.  The Korean War was in full swing, posing real questions about US military might and the fighting of the Cold War by proxy.  But there is none of that here.

Overall, this was a bit of a disappointing read for me.  But I liked it more than Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.  Which is saying something at least.

Goodreads rating: 2*