Cantankerous and contrary, those are the watch words for this year. The first TBR Challenge of 2017 is short story. Yeah, that ain’t happening. The only thing I have really read, and consequently re-read since the end of December has been Jean Johnson’s space opera series. What we have here EIGHT books, the first five written are one series, and then the second 3 are a second series set in the past explaining the circumstances that lead up to the first series. These books come in at least 3,200 pages depending on which way you count them.
There are two ways to read them. One is to read them in the order they were published, as recommended by the author. The other, the way I did it, is to read them chronologically. There are things you get I am sure from reading them the way the publisher intended, but I am going with chronological.
I suspect though I am going to struggle to articulate precisely what captured my attention and imagination in these books, despite just how deeply I was captivated. I mean seriously, I read them in one great gulp, turned around and immediately started back over, finsished, read one other book, and then started all over again. That puts them in the same camp as Dred Chronicles, Linesman, and Class 5. But oddly, I can not so unreservedly recommend these as I do them. Don’t get me wrong, I DO recommend them, but there are some caveats on this one.
First Salik War describes our world several hundred years into our future. A time when the planet Earth has joined together as one government and essentially one people. We’ve united as one with no differentiation in race, color, creed or religion into one people, a bit pompous and honor bound but essentially well meaning. Psychic abilities have been proven as just another form of energy and can be documented and used in an efficient manner. Which is helpful since it turns out that all those claims of alien abduction were quite true and we have a great an highly technologically advanced enemy in space, the only way which we can counter is through the use of psychics. Meanwhile we are taking our first steps into space outside our own solar system. And the precognitive Psy are ready with a doozy-we are about to meet a whole bunch of aliens, some friendly and some not so much.
Meanwhile in a galaxy far, far away, we meet a people very like our own who have not only their own precognitives, but also a religious icons; The Prophet of a Thousand Years- who foretold this meeting and many other events with directions to save all people as much as possible, and The Immortal-the first Empress of the V’Dan who saved them from a disaster on Earth and brought them to a new planet ruling the under her directions and with directives from the aforementioned Prophet.
So we have Jacaranda MacKenzie, an earth military veteran, politician, and Psy at the head of things for our side. And on the V’Dan side we have Li’Eth, a soldier and Psy for his own people. And when these two meet, sparks fly, worlds collide, and events few could have foreseen (more on that in a bit) unfold.
The V’Dan are not the only aliens out there though. Most of them are friendly and allies, so I am going to give them short shrift in this review because I have a lot to cover, and though they are well done and interesting, I could send a ton of time describing it and not really give most readers anything that tells them whether or not to read these books or not. The one notable exception are the Salik, a creepy frog like carnivore race with a taste for eating sentient species. And that is where most of the conflict comes from.
There is really only one notable thing that needs to be stated up front about the V’Dan, due to the ecology of their world, The Immortal-to save her chosen people used gene therapy in order to keep them well which resulted in them developing colorful spots. In their culture these spots which come with adulthood are what denotes maturity. This obviously creates a great deal of cultural conflict when they meet the people from their motherworld who have no such marks, and furthermore a people who fought long and hard to NOT judge people based on appearance.
So overall it was very interesting the way Johnson handled first contact. The difficulties in communicating, the cultural SNAFUs, the risks inherent micro-biologically when meeting people from different worlds, all fantastically done. This is where I have my hesitation in recommending. While Johnson includes a variety of POC in her books as a matter of course and the people on Earth and her United Planets tend to treat each other as equals, when it comes to how the respond to the other peoples they meet, even counting in the extreme amount of disrespect they are obviously getting, well there was a slight grating colonialist superiority attitude that on occasion made me uncomfortable with the story in the way that I sometimes get reading historical fiction with a Brit in some foreign clime. It was a very similar pompous attitude of bringing enlightenment to the backwards natives vibe. And it is odd, because I even agreed in this case that the V’Dan were in the wrong, but something really rubbed me wrong in how it was written.
But besides that one thing, the stories themselves were fascinating.The way ALL these different aspects were interwoven, the love story, the intriguing hints to the future (or nods to previous events depending on which way the series have been read), the building conflict and eventual (albeit unstable) resolution made for a very satisfying read. And I genuinely like Jacaranda despite finding her a bit pompous.
In fact this has come the closest to reading as “real” to me when it comes to a first contact, building of relationships, and climax of interspecies alliance of probably any space opera/science fiction I have ever read. Frankly, it was that thing I didn’t even know I was looking for and now don’t know if I could live without.
Which brings me to the first five books, 200 years after the First Salik War:
…What if you could see the future? What if you foresaw that, three hundred years from your time, your entire galaxy would be destroyed in an overwhelming invasion? What would you do to stop it, when it would all happen long after you were dead and gone?
These are the questions that Ia must face, and the obstacles she must overcome. Spurred by her teenaged visions of an apocalyptic future, the young heavyworlder woman seeks to set up a series of events, a domino-chain of actions and repercussions that will hopefully stop the coming invaders long after her time has passed. But in order to do so, she must enter the military and engage in a four-front war: an old, barely contained enemy whose twin goals of galactic conquest and lunch terrify all sane sentients; an ancient foe whose technology vastly outstrips anything the Alliance can fling at it; a fanatic, xenophobic religious movement on her homeworld which Ia dares not stop; and her ongoing battle against Time itself.
If Ia fails, the stars and planets of the Milky Way will cease to exist, and so will the countless lives that depend on them. But the odds of her winning the ultimate battle are very, very small, when even the slightest, most innocent-seeming misstep could domino down through time in the wrong way, and doom untold septillions of sentients to a dark and terrifying fall. Bound by the ice of her duty, burned by the fires of her conscience, driven by what she foresees, Ia must become the herald of death herself:
The soldier known as Bloody Mary.
It is so dramatic and teenagery and sumptuously angsty. A fifteen year old girl comes into a blazingly powerful precognitive gift that shows her the end of the universe, with one slim hope of forestalling disaster. And she throws herself into this with all the strength she can muster and develop. A fifteen year old girl forced to grow up overnight in horror…and then really never able to grow up or develop any further, held in personal stasis to this grand and impossible hope as she races against literally Time itself to set up a future that will progress long after she has died.
And that is where I can see this being difficult for some people to get into, because really Ia doesn’t grow or develop as a character, it is definitely a function of who and what she is at the outset…who and what she HAS to be, but it can be a little disconcerting to spend that much time with a character that really doesn’t change.
Nevertheless, I could have hated her, I honestly didn’t expect to like her because on the surface she is the epitome of the special snowflake YA heroine. But it didn’t take too long until I was firmly on her side and completely rooting for her to win. Johnson did a wonderful job of making the special all powerful snowflake a character that for all her powers had flaws that she recognized and owned up to, making her human and thus a character to care about.
The story itself is this pageantry of warp and weft, a breathtakingly complex tapestry woven into the past and present and a future I literally beg Johnson to write, because Ia is the Prophet of a Thousand Years, the one who set The Immortal into play and everything.
On the face of it, the stories are simple, we follow one character’s life as she tries to save the universe, a story that has been told probably a hundred times. But it is just so fascinatingly complex and mind bogglingly complex that it is far away from simple. And the character, I rooted for her, and I hurt for her, and I WANTED her to get more, but knew as well as she did the consequences. Just…damn. It got to me. With a heartbreaking ending. One I keep going back to even knowing what I will be getting.
The author has made some noises that she will write the Fire Girl Prophecies, which would take us further into the future to see how Ia’s carefully laid plans play out, and honestly I need this the way I needed Alexandra Ripley’s abomination of a Gone With the Wind sequel, because I pine. I don’t expect to get a different ending for Ia though, I just really want to read and see the results of her sacrifices, that they were worth it and they mattered. But even if I never get that, I am glad to have read the ones that are here, they moved me.