Warchild by Karin Lowachee won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest in 2000 and was published a couple of years later. It was followed by two related novels set in the same universe, Burndive and Cagebird. Both Warchild and Cagebird were finalists for the Philip K. Dick Award during their publication years.
Eight-year-old Jos Musey’s parents taught him to hide when he hears the alarms. Afterward, they always return and praise him for remaining in his hiding place, but this time Jos remains in one spot for so long his limbs are going numb without them telling him the drill is over and he can come out now. Jos knows he’s not supposed to leave his spot—he’s supposed to hide in case the merchant ship Mukudori is attacked by pirates, aliens, or the terrible Warboy—but he worries that there’s a simple explanation for his parents’ absence. Maybe they can’t get to him. Perhaps there have been instructions relayed over an intercom that has broken so he can’t hear it. Finally, Jos gets one of his family’s guns and ventures out of his hiding place.
The ship is complete chaos. Armed men are running around, and Jos hears screaming and gunshots. An older boy he knows is dead. Jos shoots one of the men, but he is taken and beaten into submission when he resists capture. He and the other children are taken to another ship and thrown into a dark room together, and Jos eventually learns they’ve been taken hostage by the notorious pirate Falcone. One by one, the children are removed for inspection by Falcone himself, and he takes a particular interest in Jos, a smart and attractive boy. Jos is relieved to return to the room with the other children, but later he awakens to find himself all alone: Falcone sold the other children but decided to keep Jos for himself.
Falcone begins educating Jos to serve his purposes, planning to use the boy’s attractiveness as a tool to get what he wants. When Jos turns nine years old, Falcone treats him to a trip to a station. Jos sees a chance to escape his captor when some sympathizers attack the station and runs. Falcone shoots him but when Jos awakens he’s no longer with Falcone but Nikolas-dan, a human who has turned to the alien side in their war against EarthHub. Nikolas-dan lives on the alien planet and has become a ka’redan, an assassin priest. He teaches Jos the alien language and their ways, and eventually chooses him to be his student and trains him to aid in the war against EarthHub.
Warchild is an amazing debut novel, and I completely understand why it was selected as the winner of the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. It’s rare for a book to be as engrossing as this one is from the very first page, but I was immediately hooked by the intense opening and emotionally invested in what happened to Jos. There’s no setup in Warchild and readers are immediately thrust into the pirate attack on the Mukudori. Since this first section of the book is told from the second person, it’s very personal and you are in the shoes of a frightened eight-year-old. Throughout this section, you’re also very aware of his age, not just because the pirates want to know how old he is, but because of the way his story is told. Details like the way he thinks about his mommy and daddy and what they’ve told him make it very clear that he is quite young. It’s a very powerful beginning, and while it may seem jarring to have the beginning start in second person when it switches to first person for most of the book, I thought this was an excellent choice. In addition to making it seem like you are seeing everything as Jos, it seems as though Jos is trying to distance himself from the memories of this dark time and it gives the feeling that he’s leaving a lot of the more unsettling parts unsaid.
It takes less than 40 pages for Jos to escape his captor, and the next part of the story is not as harrowing for awhile. Of course, losing his parents and friends and spending some time with space pirates leaves it’s mark on Jos, and it’s difficult for him to live on an alien planet with people he’s been taught are his enemies. It is certainly a book that handles some heavy themes with the kidnap and abuse of the main character and the horrors of war, but it never seemed overdone to me (though I should add, my tolerance for darkness in fiction is pretty high). I think there’s enough light in some of the relationships and camaraderie to keep it from becoming too depressingly dark, even if I did find myself questioning who Jos could trust at times. Jos spends time with those on both sides of the war, and I appreciated that both sides contain realistic people, imperfect people but not necessarily bad people. They live through terrible circumstances, but they’re survivors and they do their best to keep going in the midst of the conflict they have been thrust into.
If I have one complaint about Warchild, it’s that the ending was too rushed. I wanted to see more of the aftermath, especially knowing that the next two books are about characters other than Jos! He’s a character I really cared about, and I wanted to know more about what happened to him at the end. I was pleasantly surprised by how emotionally attached I was to Jos and some of the other characters since I tend to think of military science fiction as being dry, even though I shouldn’t. It’s just that I’ve tried to read books before that contain a lot of conflict and action, and I have a hard time reading them if there’s too much focus on those things and not enough on the characters. I’m happy to say this book contains both riveting action and characters.
There’s so much I’d love to say about this book that I won’t since it would get into spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at this: Warchild is now one of my favorite books in the world, and it’s one of those rare books I loved so much that I was truly sad when it ended. I will definitely be reading the other two books set in this universe, and I now really hope to read the remaining five related books Karin Lowachee would like to write someday.
My Rating: 10/10 (I dithered a bit between a 10 and a 9.5 since I did want more from the end, but it’s so rare that I love a book THIS much that I had to give it a 10.)
Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.