RogerBW's Blog

A Soldier's Duty, Jean Johnson 24 June 2015

2011 SF, first of a five-book series. Ia is a precognitive who foresees the collapse of human civilisation… unless she takes a specific path, which starts with becoming a space marine.

This is not a good book. The material is derivative (why, yes, we have read stories of space boot camp before) and infodumpy (we will list and describe all thirteen types of ammunition fired by the standard space marine projectile weapon). The writing is clunky and often ungrammatical:

Not that the tunnel was warm, but her exertions were taking its toll.

or simply repetitive:

"I'll cover this mission, and see what help we can get," Sranna asked. "Discreetly, but you'll need whatever help you can get."

(Asked?)

And the lead character has All The Powers: she's a heavyworlder who is stronger and faster than any normal human. She's pre- and post-cognitive to the point that it can tell her all sorts of trivial things (when and where to throw a rock to head off an animal attack on a refugee camp, where and when to move to win a fight) as well as the big stuff (she knows all the things that might go wrong on every mission she's on, and how to avoid them). In her spare time she writes letters like

Hugo is not the best partner for you. Tell him he deserves someone who has more in common with him, and that you are moving. Take the job offer in Capsicum Warren; it will lead to something better. Ignore the job offer in Greenleaf, it's not as good as it looks. Make sure you have moved by no later than TS 2513.10.02. Once you do, look for the man with two earrings in his left ear. Forgive him on the second date, ignore the incident on the third. Avoid the trip to Halfway Warren TS 2633.04.23-27 at all costs, extended family included. The disaster would be restricted to your family, but with far-reaching consequences. Do not go. Otherwise, live long and well.

She's electrokinetic and can control any computer from a distance and heal herself from power supplies. She can grab tranquiliser darts out of the air and throw them back at her attackers. She can put people "into the timestreams", showing them what she sees, and afterwards they are her devoted servants. She can deal on nearly equal terms with the hidden energy beings who sometimes take over humans, and whom nobody else knows about. She's dedicated three years of her life to being perfectly ready to enter basic training. She also has a great singing voice and a gift for improvisational rhyme, as well as naturally white hair (isn't unusual hair colour on the Mary Sue checklists?).

And yet, and yet, Johnson just manages to pull it off, by making the thing Ia is fighting against so huge (and, at this point in the series, so ill-defined) that it seems as though it might just plausibly be a fitting challenge for this person who is so incapable of failure that she has to fake mistakes in order to look realistic. And apart from the infelicities, the writing does a decent job of keeping things moving, particularly in action scenes.

So this is very definitely light and undemanding reading. Do not expect much, and you will not be disappointed. But if you can calibrate your expectations correctly there is definite enjoyment to be had here. I'll be amazed if Johnson doesn't drop the ball when the big nasty has to be described in a bit more detail, but I'll read along and find out. Followed by An Officer's Duty.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:30am on 24 June 2015

    Roger Bell_West: he reads this crap so you don't have to...

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:33pm on 24 June 2015

    Actually I kind of enjoyed it. Enough that I'll give book 2 a go, at least. But yeah, I can't exactly give it a recommendation beyond "guilty pleasure".

  3. Posted by Dr Bob at 07:29pm on 27 June 2015

    I only gave up on 3 books last year... this was one of them. It manages the amazing feat of a lead character who is simultaneously a huge Mary-Sue and an utterly personality-free zone.

    The Disestablishment of Paradise by Philip Mann and At All Costs by David Weber were the others. They were just dull. This was kind of infuriating and dull at the same time! :-)

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 07:35pm on 27 June 2015

    I'd describe your comments as "harsh but fair"; I clearly have a higher tolerance for some sorts of rubbish than you do.

    Not been a Weber fan for a while; I liked the early ones but they started to fade into each other after a bit. (A few years ago Chris skim-read the entire series by skipping any chapter that started with spaceship combat; it took her a couple of weeks, I think.)

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