Living in a small city that has both a military base and a military university changes one's perspective on the military. Seeing men and women in uniform everyday changes the military from a faceless monolithic entity into a collection of individuals. That awareness, coupled with the knowledge that people stationed at our base are rotated in and out of Afghanistan, is enough to make it easy to distinguish the difference between disagreeing with how the military are used and disparaging the men and women who are part of the armed forces.
It's unfortunate that neither the people who support Canada's involvement in Afghanistan nor those who oppose it seem to be able to handle that distinction. On one side are those who say you have to endorse the war in order to support the troops, while the other seems to think that saying anything positive about the military implies implicit support of Canada's military presence in that country. Like everyone else soldiers are more than just their profession, and by forgetting that we make it easier for governments to expend their lives without responsibility. There isn't another profession in the world where those in charge would even consider the death or injury of their employees in terms of "acceptable casualties".
It doesn't help that the majority of military fiction, either in books or filmed, has a tendency to deal in stereotypes and cliches when it comes to the depiction of soldiers both on and off the battlefield. It's rare indeed for them to take the time to recreate in any detail the day to day routine of soldiers not under fire, or develop their characters beyond types. There have been some exceptions over the years of course, but not nearly enough, which is what makes Tanya Huff's Confederation series of military science fiction novels such a pleasure to read.
Valor's Trial, distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada, is the fourth instalment of the series that's set sometime in the future. Humanity, and a couple of other less evolved, war-like races, have been enlisted by a confederation of elder races (i.e., pacifists) to fight a mysterious alliance of beings known only as the Others. All attempts at finding a diplomatic solution to the war have ended in a lot of dead diplomats. As the two sides are able to imitate the other's technological advances far too quickly for anybody to gain an advantage, the war looks like it could be interminable.
As Valor's Trial begins Gunnery Sgt.Torin Kerr is finally coming home. Well it feels like home to her, as after a series of special assignments she is back with her own company again. Just in time too, as it appears the Others are planning a large offensive and her people look to be finding themselves in the thick of things. Regular combat will almost be a relief to her after having to deal with being at the beck and call of the high command and being a guinea pig for a mysterious alien life form. (See The Better Part Of Valor and The Heart Of Valor, parts two and three of the series, for details.) Unfortunately for Kerr, the universe isn't finished messing with her, and it turns out that the first three books were merely a warm-up for the main event. One minute you're taking cover on the battlefield from incoming artillery, and the next minute you find yourself waking up battered and bruised in a cave that's part of a larger complex of tunnels.
It was always supposed that the Others didn't take prisoners, at least there had been no record of it ever happening before. Yet, after somehow surviving the blast that apparently wiped out the rest of the platoon she was with, Torin wakes up to find that she is apparently in some sort of Prisoner of War camp. The section of the Prison Camp she's landed in has been turned into a personal fiefdom by a particularly vile human sergeant, and her first order of business is to rectify that situation. Once she's done that, by the simple expedient of killing the leader and seven of his cronies, she can begin the process of trying to figure a way out of the prison.
Unfortunately, that's easier said than done as the food supply has been treated to sap a person's will over time, and the majority of the Marines imprisoned have been so for a good length of time. Eventually Torin leads a party of eight out into the tunnels in a search for a way to the surface of the planet. They're not doing too badly when they run into another party of escaping prisoners – only they aren't Marines or even from the Confederation, they're a party of Others.
So if the Others aren't holding them captive, and vice versa, who has been keeping both of them captive? It looks like Torin's desire for a simple combat mission was never in the cards from the word go. Somebody or something has done a lot of orchestrating to make sure that each escape party is the same size and contains exactly the same proportional representation of species from each alliance. When Torin's lover and a reporter, who both came in contact with the same alien mysterious alien life form that she had in the two previous books, are dropped into space near the prison planet without knowing how or why, it's just one too many coincidences for anybody's liking.
Aside from the fact that Tanya Huff has written the usual taut and exciting story she is capable of, what really makes this book work are the characters. Instead of populating the book with the usual stereotypes — the Marine who was going to be shipped home to his wife and kids after this one last mission and ends up going home in a box after heroically giving her life to safe everybody else — these are all living, breathing beings. They get scared, angry, and occasionally lash out at each other, just like anyone else would under the same circumstances.
Even Gunnery Sgt. Torin Kerr — in spite of the fact that Marine Gunnery Sergeants are able to accomplish three impossible things before breakfast, and then again after lunch — becomes all too human, something she most definitely keeps from her people. The people under her have to believe that she will get them home and alive whether they want to or not and she has to act infallibly no matter how devastated she personally might feel.
No matter what species, or what "side" they are on, all of the soldiers involved in this book are individuals characterized by behaviours that anybody can understand. A soldier is a soldier, and a soldier is a person, no matter whether they have fur, exo-skeletons, or human skin. Valor's Trial performs the remarkable literary feat of lifting the mask we place over the face of soldiers, and letting us see the being beneath it, without ever once making it seem preachy or like a big deal. Valor's Trial proves once again that the best anti-war novel is the well-written war novel, and Tanya Huff is probably the best war novelist I've ever read.