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Book Review/Author Interview: A Soldier’s Duty: Theirs Not To Reason Why by Jean Johnson

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Jean Johnson’s A Soldier’s Duty: Theirs Not To Reason Why was not what I was expecting. Looking through Johnson’s back catalogue and seeing that she was primarily a writer of fantasy romance novels, namely her Sons Of Destiny series, this new book, the first in a planned series, was a shift into the genre of militaristic science fiction.

Perhaps unfairly on my part, I tend to bias against reading fantasy novels of any sort, which had me questioning just how good this book could be and whether it was worth reading.

Boy am I glad I shut up and just decided to read the book.

Here is a quick summary of the story: Ia is a precook, blessed — or cursed — with visions of the future. As a young child she sees the devastation of her home galaxy three hundred years in the future, long after she is gone, but believes she can prevent it. So, when old enough and after preparing for it tirelessly, Ia enlists in the Terran United military determined to become a soldier who will inspire generations – a soldier history will call Bloody Mary – to change the path she foresaw and allow even a small chance that some (not all) will be spared from her vision.

With that as the backdrop of your story this could easily have been a very stilted book that was simply set on getting from point “A” to point “B” and pave the way for the planned books to follow. How much character development could you truly have for a young woman that is set up to be so driven?

Tons, it turns out.

Desperate not to fail at what she sees as the only way to save the future, Ia’s journey from a frightened youth to “Bloody Mary” is not at all one that is destined to happen. And that, I think, is what I loved most about A Soldier’s Duty and this character. In all of the other space opera or military science fiction I have ever read I’ve never really felt that the author ever considered the possibility that the end result would be anything other than victory.

I do not get the sense that Ia is sure she will succeed. In fact, from start to finish I do not ever get a vibe from Johnson that she herself is sure that Ia will succeed. Want to know what I do get a sense out of, though?

That Jean Johnson is one hell of a gifted story-teller. Ia’s story is one that is compelling and immensely readable and is one that I will not forget. There are few series that catch my attention enough these days to make me even care to pick up the first volume, much less have the patience and excitement to make any future volumes something I look forward to.

I will be there on the release date of every single one of the books Johnson writes for this series. I fell that hard in love with Ia and her struggle.

And that was the point where I dared to raise my hand and ask if I might be allowed to ask a few questions of Jean about this new book. Amazingly, she said yes. Here then is a small Q/A interview with Jean Johnson, author of A Soldier’s Duty: Theirs Not To Reason Why:

Ms. Johnson,

As your Sons of Destiny novels seem firmly set in the realm of fantasy romance was there ever a moment when you were concerned with what the reaction might be from fans of those earlier works to A Soldier’s Duty and the promise it holds of a new series based in the world of militaristic (at least for this particular book) science fiction?

I knew going into this that a lot of people would hesitate at the idea of an author hopping genres. I knew further that a lot of people already roll their eyes at romance-genre authors, presuming that we cannot write anything other than sugary-coated goodness — this is, alas, a persistent, lingering stereotype regarding romance writers which has very little to do with an individual author’s actual writing talents. And the third strike against me, I knew, came from going from happily-ever-after fantasy romance — however strongly plotted — to hardcore military science fiction. A number of my readers have been supportive and interested in reading in a different genre, but I know others have declined.

The reason why most readers are hesitant to jump genres, particularly such disparate ones, is probably the fault of the author more than anything else. By that, I mean most authors don’t immerse themselves in disparate genres to the point where they understand both genres at a blood and bone deep level. For myself, my three favorite categories to read are science fiction, fantasy, and romance. I would most likely decline if an agent or publisher asked me to write a western novel, because I don’t read westerns and therefore don’t know westerns, aside from the sub-genre of western romances… which is its own separate entity from westerns.

Eyes have been rolled on both sides of the divide, from my romance readers, and from military science fiction readers. I do know where my storytelling strengths lie, though, and I know I am writing where I am strong. So, when people express doubts over things like that, I simply offer them the chance to read the book and decide for themselves. The proof of whether I succeed or fail lies not in a dubious opinion, but in the actual story itself.

The novel’s main character, Ia, is a lovely complex little character. Was this a situation where the idea for the novel created the character or was Ia there in your imagination waiting for you to find the right story for her to tell her story in?

Oh, boy. This is a question I cannot answer, for the simple reason that I created her whole universe, and the dozen-plus stories waiting to be written about it, over twenty years ago. While I cannot speak for Ia’s character creation specifically, I can say that the whole concept was sparked by a handful of really cool dreams followed by me asking myself questions of how, why, what-if, and other imagination-directed queries. It was all just spurred by me trying to make sense of my dreams.

Was the choice in making Ia a woman a deliberate one? Was this a story that could have been told from a male perspective? I ask this while having fallen utterly in love with Ia, by the way.

Heh, I’m glad you’ve fallen in love with her; I’m a little bit in love with her, too. Or at least, I want to cuddlehug the poor thing.

I suppose in a way the story could be told from a male perspective. It’s about being faced with a terrible series of choices, selected by a character driven and directed by the urge to do the most good in spite of the horrors that await — damned if you do, damned if you don’t, in other words. Men and women both face these kinds of choices every day around the world. Of course, when I started the series twenty-odd years ago, I did not have as deep an insight into the male psyche as I’ve gained since then, so I suppose I could’ve changed it at some point in the last few years. But at the same time, I wouldn’t even think of changing it.

Early on in creating this series, I made the conscious choice to have a female protagonist in the military. I am a rabid equalist. Yes, women aren’t as physically strong as men on average, but you give them force multipliers such as mechsuits and other combat hardware, and women can be just as dangerous, just as courageous, and just as effective as men. We’ve come a long way in equal rights, whether they’re based on gender, ethnicity, religion, partner preferences or whatever, but we aren’t completely there, yet. I’ve done my best to address our current 21st-century problems in the series as no longer a problem in the 25th century, while still leaving in plenty of other problems for society to wrestle with, because no society is ever going to be perfect.

With Ia, as a child, seeing a glimpse of a future that finds humanity all but destroyed in 300 years time and then deciding to live her life in a singular and single-minded struggle to set events in motion that ensure her vision goes unfulfilled. Have you given any thought to how far you might be able to take her along on this journey? Obviously Ia is mortal and probably not going to survive to see whether or not her work and struggles were successful in 300 years so I’m wondering if there is any thought to have other people — other generations, perhaps — take center stage and thus allow us to get a closer glimpse of how it all might work out?

Oh, yes. With luck, the series will do well and I’ll be able to get a contract with Ace to write the next series, the three-book story that happens 300 or so years down the road, when the biological refuse really starts hitting the ventilation unit. I’m not kidding when I say I could easily write a dozen or more books set in this particular science fiction universe. There are a lot of stories to tell, some small enough for a single book, others requiring multiple volumes. And yes, for the record, Ia is mortal. Most every single sentient being in this universe is mortal, unless you count like God or something.

Some live longer than others, and the medicine of my version of the late 25th century is such that they can literally regrow and reattach limbs and organs to full functionality among Humans, but those Humans will still age, and suffer from the effects of aging. Currently, the median life-expectancy in the early 21st century is, what, about 75-80 years? The average life-expectancy in my universe’s future for a Human is around 100 years, and only that much more, simply because no matter how many times you replace parts, eventually something is going to break down past repair. If nothing else, the Human brain itself is not designed to keep going forever. You cannot replace parts in the brain without ruining the person that you were. Unless you could guarantee me the healthy body I had at the age of 17 or so, I don’t think I’d want to live forever.

Then again, is it even important to you how it all ends? On the back page you mention how one of the things you love about writing is perhaps being a part of something that inspires people in their lives. Is Ia’s journey to make hers a life of purpose more important than whether or not we ever see that purpose fulfilled?

That is true to an extent, but Ia’s journey has already been written out, and it does not end quite in the way you’d think — or how you think, or you, or you there in the back, yeah, you! Definitely not how you think it ends. …Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Most of my stories have a beginning, middle, and end. There is enough leeway at the end for my readers to start imagining “What happened next?” because I myself enjoy doing that, but they do have conclusions. To date, I have only ever written one story where the reader doesn’t get to know how it ends — a fanfic — and it only succeeded as a story that ends that way because it was a very poignant and bittersweet story. The pain of the characters parting was the conclusion of the story; that kind of pain does not fade readily. And to this day, I have stood firm on refusing to say how that story “ends”… because that’s the story I wanted to tell.

So how does Ia’s story end? I’m not gonna tell you. I do hope, however, to show you how her story concludes. You may have to wait a long while, given how fast I can write everything and how much time it takes to get them onto the bookstore shelves, but I do hope to show you, show you all… bwahahaha… whoops, wrong genre, that’s more mad science fiction than military science fiction.

I’ll warn you that I’m biased and hope not as I want to see more and see where this story takes me, but I also will admit to feeling like an unmotivated slug every time I turned the page and saw how earnestly Ia was living her life; how desperately she needed to raise herself above what she thinks possible of herself.

…Sorry, but I am sitting here laughing. Why laughing? Because I feel the exact same way you do. I’ve tried very hard to keep Ia from being a MarySue character, giving her great powers, yes, but also great problems and the potential for great failures. But one of the other things that keep her from being a MarySue — there is a long list of criteria — is the fact that I do NOT want to be Ia. If I were put into her position with her abilities and her troubles… I’d probably choose to do as she chose. But there’s no way in our universe that I’d ever end up in that situation, and if I had the choice — which I do — well, I’d like to avoid having that kind of responsibility.

At the same time, these are traits in her I do admire and wish I had more of in myself. I freely admit I’m a bit of an unmotivated slug in comparison to her. I am, however, happy with who and what I actually am, so it’s not the author trying to project herself or her fantasy-self into the story. Ia is Ia, and I am Jean. I know I need to get out and exercise more, but I’m not going to strap on a weightsuit.

Ia’s earnestness is a by-product of the only way she knows how to save her sanity: she has to act. She cannot NOT act. In fact, one could say that she’s, well, a bit insane. Beyond insane, even. Save the entire galaxy? And pull it off long after twice her average life expectancy has passed? That way is insanity, of the sort that creates madmen and Evil Overlord attempts. What saves her, and everyone around her, is that she is also deeply moral.

Power in and of itself does not corrupt. It merely magnifies, and amplifies. If a person is morally bankrupt, then yes, power will accelerate and display their corruption. If a person constantly remembers to check their moral compass and takes the time to consider the consequences of their actions, how their efforts will affect and impact the lives around them, then power will not corrupt. Ia has the ultimate checks-and-balances already imposed upon her, as well as the ultimate goad to jab her into action, because she can see all the potential-possible pathways of both action and inaction. I’d be working my butt off, too, if I were trapped in her situation… but I’m not, so like you, I have the leisure of being able to feel like an unmotivated slug by comparison.

And with that I think I will stop as I’m sure you have tons of people asking for your time and I want you to have at least a little time to stop and enjoy having this wonderful little book come out… and then I want you right back in there working on the next ten sequels!

I can only guarantee four books at the moment, since that’s the contract I have. I do hold strong hopes for seven books, and with luck, a few more. But I’ll put as much care into each book I write, fantasy, romance, or science fiction, as I can, however many or few I’m given the chance to write. That’s my promise to you.

Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to ask a few questions, Ms. Johnson. Any article or review I end up writing at the end of this experience is only going to be the better for this opportunity. Good luck with this book and thanks for the great read.

Thanks for your questions; they’ve been fun to answer.

~Jean Johnson

SPECIAL BONUS: I was fortunate enough to get TWO (2) copies of this and while you will have to pry one of them from my cold dead fingers I will give away the other copy to one lucky Blogcritic reader. How can you get it? Comment on this post and I’ll randomly choose a winner. And by random I mean I’ll wave a cat in front of the screen and the one she touches will win!

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    Don’t forget to comment here and toss your electronic hat into the ring for a chance to win the extra copy I have of this wonderful little book.