In spite of all the transformations that the science fiction novel has undergone since its early days of rockets, aliens, and interplanetary space travel, one of the original sub-genres has traveled through the years relatively intact. Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers may not have been the first of the interplanetary war stories, but its influence on subsequent books of a similar kind can't be underestimated.
Not only did it set the standard for "space military" novels, it also served as a catalyst for books that refuted his view of the noble warrior. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman from the early 1970s was as much a reaction to Viet Nam as it was to Starship Troopers but it was one of the first overtly anti–war science fiction books in which the main characters are soldiers.
Haldeman's story prompted a revision in the way the space-war novel was written, turning the characters into real people instead of clichés from the Cold War era. The lines between them and us were blurred and the morality of war was more openly questioned. Squads of homogenous humans have been replaced by multi-species confederations that has allowed authors to have fun with creating character traits both amusing and alarming in the humans in their novels.
The sign of a good author is how matter-of-fact he or she can make the interspecies relationships. If we can be dropped into the story and feel like we've walked in on the middle of a conversation, it's that much easier for the reader to get to know the characters without the distractions of species differences. In turn this allows the camaraderie in a unit of soldiers, so important to these types of books, to be developed quickly, easily, and with believability.
Tanya Huff has proven in her previous books that she is no slouch when it comes to creating unique, interesting, and believable characters. From werewolves and vampires, to princesses, wizards, and adventurers, she's peopled the pages of enough books, set in a variety of worlds, to know her way around all the obstacles a space war story can offer.
The fact that Tanya's father was in the Canadian Navy and she served in the Navel reserve means that she is familiar enough with the reality of military life to be able to write about it with an air of authenticity. If anyone has any doubts about her ability to write in this genre they will be dispelled by picking up an omnibus edition of Valor's Choice and The Better Part Of Valor, just released under the title of A Confederation Of Valor.
Staff–Sergeant Torin Kerr is everything a good sergeant should be. Mother hen to her troop and babysitter to young commissioned officers, she does all that sergeants have been doing probably since Roman times; she knows everything and is prepared to deal with everything else. Unfortunately for her, in both books, she has to deal with every soldier's worst nightmare, a two-star general who's never seen action and wants a third star.
In Valor's Choice that involves being part of the diplomatic mission trying to convince a new species to join the Confederation against its enemy, while in The Better Part Of Valor it involves being part of a team investigating a mysterious, seemingly empty, ship found floating near the border of known space. Of course, after being asked by the aforementioned general in advance of the first mission, what could go wrong, everything did.
But that was still no reason to be stupid enough to call a two-star general a bastard to his face while spoiling his attempt for historical immortality and ensuring his nose was broken and eyes blackened. Not that it was her fist that did the breaking, but she did guide a large prehensile tail into doing the job for her.
Probably any one of the three would have been sufficient to engrave her on his memory, so she really shouldn't have been surprised when he picked her for the reconnaissance mission involving the mysterious space ship in The Better Part Of Valor. It turns into something that stretched her abilities and ingenuity to the maximum.
As is usual for a Tanya Huff novel, both stories are well written and well paced. While activity never slows to crawl – an inactive Marine is a bored Marine, and a bored Marine is asking for trouble – she has the good sense to modulate the speed of the action. When Kerr and her platoon come under attack in Valor's Choice, Huff captures the chaos of a flurry of combat activity wonderfully, and uses the downtime between assaults to give us and the Marines a breather, continue to develop the story, and ratchet up the tension.
Although the small group of heroic soldiers facing numerous enemies is all too familiar, it really depends on how well the author is able to depict the situation for it to be effective or not. In the case of Valor's Choice, Huff has created characters who we like and whose company we enjoy. By having to experience them coming under heavy fire after we have spent the best portion of a book with them, she has created a situation where we are genuinely concerned for their welfare. In some small way we experience a little of the camaraderie that exists within such a group.
In the The Better Part Of Valor the circumstances are different, as Sergeant Kerr must take individuals from various units and form them into a working team for the mission. The easiest way for a group of people to come together is to unite against a common enemy and in this case it is the Captain who has been given the assignment of leading their mission.
His desire for publicity and to appear heroic has ensured the deaths of far too many soldiers for any foot soldier to like him. When they find out that one of the purposes of this mission is to add more lustre to his public image in order to ensure a political promotion for him, it only makes the team even unhappier with him being in charge.
The ship that they have been sent to investigate turns out to be investigating them. First it traps them on board by destroying the shuttlecraft that carried them there, and then it takes out the air lock they had parked at. To leave the ship they have to make their way to another air lock nearly five kilometres from their initial position.
That would be difficult enough in the first place as they have to carry wounded (including the captain who took a head injury and is thankfully unconscious) and shepherd civilian scientists, two reporters, and the salvage operator who discovered the ship and has come along to ensure nobody messes with his claim. But additionally, Kerr and her group find that a platoon of "Others" are in similar circumstances.
As Torin bitterly remarks to herself, if it was a movie this would be the moment the two opposing sides joined forces to combat the mutual enemy. But since the team is under fire from snipers at the moment, she knows there's not much chance of that happening.
Huff's willingness to not be satisfied with just writing a really good space war story, but her ability to poke fun of the conventions and stereotypes of the genres, as she makes free use of some of them herself, is what makes these two books such a success. Having one character openly complain that they might as well paint a target on another character, because he's such a friendly, likable guy who's always smiling, and they're the ones who always get killed, is one of the better pokes at convention.
Even the sergeant isn't immune to that, ;she has had herself surgically augmented so she can arch one eyebrow to enhance a look of withering scorn. It's those little things that run throughout both books in this omnibus that make them so much better then the average war story.
Tanya Huff is not your typical hard science fiction writer either; aside from these two books, the rest of her writing has been either more fantastical or in the horror genre. Perhaps it's that sensibility that makes the tone of these books slightly off-centre and far more appealing then your run-of-the-mill war story. Although both novels make no apologies for being very sympathetic to the military, they also make no concessions to that genre either. If you like hard science fiction, but have grown tired of the attitudes and clichés that accompany it this is the perfect antidote.