I have a Sci-Fi Month confession to make: I didn’t think I liked science fiction for a long time. I once thought it was a dry and dull genre, full of flat characters who owed their existence to the need for someone to deliver tech-heavy exposition. Now I know the genre encompasses a wide variety of stories after reading many wonderful science fiction books and discovering television shows like Firefly, but the point is: had my introduction to science fiction been Karin Lowachee’s intense, character-driven Warchild series I would have been an instant science fiction fan. I cannot recommend these novels highly enough to those who enjoy character-focused books, though I would add the caveat that they do explore some heavy themes that some may find difficult to read, primarily due to a focus on the effects of war on young people. They’re not utterly grim and hopeless stories without any glimmer of light at the end, but the characters do have some rather harrowing experiences that include rape and violence—and Yuri’s tale, Cagebird, is the most candidly horrific so far.
Cagebird takes place before, during, and after the first two books in the series as it alternates between two timelines: the present one after the end of Burndive followed by the events leading to Yuri’s imprisonment, beginning with the day his home moon was destroyed by aliens when he was only four years old. On that day, he watches his childhood playmate lose an arm in the explosion, and he is later separated from his family in the resulting chaos. With aid from a kind teenager, he is at least reunited with his father and baby sister, but his mother and brother are sent to a different location when the refugees are transferred to a new planet. Five years later he is found by Marcus, a merchant captain, who hires Yuri and his friend to work on his ship—but Marcus is actually the notorious pirate Falcone…and he’s looking for a new protégé.
Cagebird is the most raw and character-driven of the three books, and it is excellent (though Warchild remains my favorite of the three and Jos remains my favorite character). Like Burndive, it takes longer to get going than the first book, and I found it difficult to care about Yuri’s situation in the present timeline after what he did in the previous book. Intertwining this timeline with his past quickly made him both more interesting and easier to sympathize with, and the first section about Yuri’s life leading up current events hooked me. His early years are tragic, and ever since he came into contact with Falcone, he’s been trapped and used. Even after Falcone is dead, Yuri can’t escape the ties created by being his protégé.
After reading Warchild, it’s especially interesting to compare Jos and Yuri’s experiences with Falcone and I’m not quite sure which is more horrifying—reading about his terrible treatment of Jos from the beginning or knowing that Falcone’s benevolence toward Yuri is false and wondering what will happen when the charade ends. At this point, Falcone seems to have learned that he has to be more careful with the boys he chooses to train if he doesn’t want them to betray him or run away the first chance they get. Yuri comes aboard his ship by choice with his father’s permission, believing he’s going to be earning money on a merchant ship, and soon after he arrives, he’s given special treatment as a protégé personally selected by the captain. By the time Yuri finds out he’s on a pirate ship, he doesn’t really care or want to believe other people when they tell him not everyone is treated as well as he since he’s much happier there than he was on the planet for refugees. It’s not until Yuri begins his geisha training at age thirteen that this life begins to fall apart and Falcone begins to show his true colors.
Like Jos, Yuri ends up with emotional scars, but the way they handle their turmoil is very different. In Warchild, Jos withholds the worst that happens to him, but Yuri’s narrative doesn’t shy away from relating his more painful experiences. While events happened in Yuri’s story, I thought they were in the background with the ways in which they shaped Yuri as a person in the foreground. Each of the three books in the series are quite focused on characterization, but this one was less about war and peace with the aliens and more about Yuri himself—the cage that was built for him and his attempts to overcome that and find his own place in the universe.
Though Cagebird as a whole is fantastic, the present storyline was weaker than the storyline of Yuri’s past, and I did not find these sections as interesting even after the first one. They are important to his overall story and did become more compelling later, especially once some familiar faces from other books showed up toward the end (and the very last conversation in the book was priceless as a Warchild fan). I think this was not as captivating as the other timeline largely because the characters in the past were more vividly drawn, and Yuri’s interactions with Finch did not measure up to those with other characters in his earlier life.
Despite this, Cagebird is another excellent novel in what is now my favorite science fiction series of all time. Each book focuses on a different character while building on the previous book(s) and expanding to show a bigger picture, and they’re definitely books I would like to reread back to back someday because of both how they fit together and how incredible they are. Words cannot express how excited I am that a fourth novel in this series, The Warboy, is in progress.
My Rating: 9/10
Where I got my reading copy: It was a Christmas gift.
My Reviews of Other Books in the Warchild Series: