Warchild by Karin Lowachee is full of a muted homoerotic undertones, which is a good description of my entire love life as a teenager, so it's not surprising that I loved this book. But that's not the only selling point of the novel! It also has spies, alien martial arts, slow burn friendships, revenge, double crosses, and a critique of all the terrifying ways child abuse can fuck someone up, in and out of war.
I expected space battles, Obligatory Female Love Interest, and a testosterone fueled climax where the Good Guy Protag gets verbally fellated by everyone around him. Plus, medals, because for some reason in my head all military space opera ends like A New Hope. Instead I was treated to a personal account of one boy surviving every horrible thing the universe could throw at him, because who needs a happy childhood to turn into a well-adjusted and happy adult? Ha ha ha, let's make this kid suffer as he grows up, lose everything, fall in love with someone unattainable, and betray people he cares for multiple times for the person he loves even though he can't figure out if that person actually cares for him or is just using him. If you want some angst, my friends, allow me to introduce you to Jos Musey.
When the war between EarthHub (humans) and and the aliens (striviirc-na, plus their human sympathizers) starts inching into the lives of regular citizens, Jos is living on a merchant ship with his parents. Pirates attack and Jos is taken hostage by infamous pirate Falcone, who keeps him like a pet. There's no mistaking the undertone of why Jos is being saved and treated nicely, either. The book isn't explicit about it, but Falcone's taste for young boys is obvious even if he only spends all his time with Jos teaching him manners and how to behave in "society" while petting him creepily. Jos manages to run away while on a station, but he's injured in the attempt. He's saved by Nikolas, who turns out to be a human sympathizer and an important leader of the alien army. Via Niko, Jos ends up on the other side of the war, fighting for the striviirc-na.
Warchild's blurb places it squarely in the standard bildungsroman military space opera category, although the plot itself puts a spin on the formula. It also digs into the costs of war: in bodily autonomy; death of loved ones and the helplessness and guilt that comes with it; building and losing trust; and personal relationships. It's also how you carve out your own identity while everyone else is busy telling you who you are so they can benefit from the particular person they want you to become.
Warchild was released in 2002, the period of time I was trying to find my way back to science fiction (again) using a very young internet and bookstore plus library shelves that loved Notable White Men. I probably wouldn't have appreciated it as much as I do now, because the book deals with recovery (or not) from trauma and the high cost of war on children, and I have more tools now to engage with fiction that deals with trauma and war. It especially focuses on children who are drafted into the fight, end up there by matter of circumstance, or fall through the cracks in society that war inevitably causes.
War is on my mind lately: recent international events have brought up a lot of feelings about war. After watching my father suffer my whole life from the reality of a war when he was young, I've come down pretty hard on war as a toxic solution in a world where power, influence, and greed is more important than humanitarianism. But war can be profitable and so it churns through resources and people, easily unchecked and often fueled by gross propaganda. Warchild makes note of the times where EarthHub populations are treated to gross misrepresentations of the aliens and their allies. Warchild suggests that peace is necessary for true, tangible progress. But the only way to create that kind of radical change is a radical plan: spying to learn enough about the enemy and using that information for a nonviolent resolution. And it turns out, Jos was raised and trained for just that job by Niko and his family.
Although the central story of Warchild is about the war and Niko's desire to end it without one side "losing", it's also a story about truth and trust. Jos struggles with both because of how he was ripped away from his family, made a slave, and then drafted into a war he could barely understand as a child. The nuance of who is "good" or "bad" in Warchild is complicated, because Niko and his family don't really seem to give Jos much of a choice about his training and involvement in the war, and later on Niko uses some very shady emotional manipulation to get Jos to agree to very dangerous plans. I got the distinct feeling Jos thought he was making his own decisions, when to me his love, attachment, and desire to please Niko was clouding his judgement. Niko expects Jos to become a key piece in ending the war, because Jos can infiltrate places Niko can't go. But the similarities between Niko and Falcone often got a little too close for my comfort. Plus, it's a huge burden to place on a teenager.
The book doesn't shy away from showing that Jos is traumatized and that his trauma is never truly dealt with by his new caretakers; he's left to muddle through it on his own. His aversion to touch, his slowness to trust, and his caution in developing strong feelings for people all stem from the original trauma. As a child, the things done to him both by Falcone and Niko because they had plans of their own and wanted Jos to be a part of them follow him as he grows up. Niko, at least, remembers that Jos needs basic care and stability, but he's awfully irresponsible with Jos's heart.
Niko and Jos have a complicated relationship. It's tangled up in how Niko saved Jos's life, how Niko treats Jos over the years Jos is his student, and their age difference. Also, Jos is 100% in love with Niko (hello, I will die on this hill) and struggles with these feelings due to his previous trauma while with Falcone. Their relationship isn't sexual, but there's some queer undertones to how they interact with each other as Jos grows up and does the work of a baby spy who is isolated and lonely, and you know, emotionally and sexually traumatized. War is hell, but Jos is living a totally different hell, one for fractured kids who never know if people care for them, or if they're just objects for people to use.
I appreciate that the novel doesn't treat queerness as if it's a result of abuse: the queer vibe to the story came from a drastically different place than the abuse vibe. I thought Lowachee did an amazing job with her characterization, especially considering that Niko's relationship with Jos rests at an intersection of queerness and abuse, and that Jos learns to trust himself enough in the end that the distinction remains. This is definitely not a "queer people are creeps and pedophiles" story, and after reading the bits with Falcone, I did worry a bit about that, but nothing came of it. There is plenty of what I think of as suggestive sexual violence. Nothing is ever spelled out, but it's obvious what happened or what's happening to the characters that is almost worse than having it explicit in the text. Your mind fills in all those blanks. Be careful, pals.
I wish I could wear justira's brain (totally not creepy) to talk about the writing, because the book read very differently than what I'm used to, even from older science fiction. It rarely ever spells things out; you have to do a lot of inferring from Jos's reactions to events and the different people he meets. Also, the villain is obvious and some of the plotting doesn't hang together until the very end of the book, and then I spent a few pages going, "Duh, of course." But otherwise, the flow of the writing was good (don't @ me, I can't explain what I mean by flow to anyone) was good and I never felt like I was skimming just to get through the text, which can happen in longer novels when I'm bored and want to see what happens. Everything that happens to Jos is interesting because the tension, once he's trained and on his mission, starts high and stays high. Spoiler, there's a gut punch of feelings at the end, but whether or not I cried about it is Classified Info.
Warchild is the first in a series of what look like sequel companion novels, which follow new characters in the same world instead of books directly from Jos's point of view, which is both good/bad because a) I want to see if Jos works out his problems and gets some stability within his relationships, but b) it will be fascinating to see Jos from another perspective, because Warchild is so much inside his head. I'm heading to Burndive next, which is named after the type of computer/VR hacking that exists in this world. I'm finally catching up on my 2017 Space Opera challenge, and this book was a winner. I give it 16 fully loaded starships.