Burndive, Karin Lowachee’s Prix Aurora-nominated second novel, is also the second book set in the Warchild Universe. It follows the phenomenal Warchild, a Philip K. Dick Award nominee that was published after it won the Warner Aspect First Novel Award. The third book in this setting, Cagebird, was also a Philip K. Dick Award nominee and won both the Prix Aurora Award and the Spectrum Award.

As the son of Captain Azarcon and Austro Station’s senior public affairs officer, Ryan can’t avoid the spotlight as much as he may wish. When he goes out in public, he has to watch his behavior as he’s ambushed by the press and eyed by people wanting a look at Austro’s “Hot #1 Bachelor.” Ever since he returned from attending school on Earth—and witnessed the deaths of many in an explosion protesting the war against the aliens—he’s just wanted to be left alone to sail Silver, an illegal drug that’s especially difficult to obtain when one is constantly trailed by a bodyguard.

Ryan goes to a flash house on New Year’s Eve after some argument with his mother, who is hesitant to let him attend after recent reports of his father’s encounter with an infamous pirate are all over the media. He spends the evening surrounded by loud music and people, dancing with a cute girl—until he suddenly realizes she’s no longer holding herself up. Her head is covered in blood, and she falls to the floor, dead. Chaos ensues as some party-goers fall, but Ryan gets out alive, even though he’s quite certain the shot that killed his dance partner was meant for him. There’s no doubt in his mind the shooting was connected to his father when news about Captain Azarcon’s recent dealings breaks shortly after the shooting—the captain declared a cease-fire and announced that he was beginning peace negotiations with the aliens and the Warboy, the notorious human sympathizer.

After I finished Warchild last November, it became not just my favorite book of the year but one of my favorite books ever. It’s gripping right from the beginning when eight-year-old Jos Musey is kidnapped by the pirate who destroyed his home, a merchant spaceship. His voice is strong and compelling, and it drew me in just as much as the action. As much as I loved it, I was a little reluctant to read the next book since it was supposed to have a different main character. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Burndive did begin around the same time Warchild ended and built on the same story, but even though I enjoyed it very much, I didn’t think it was as good as the previous book. It took me much longer to become engrossed in the story, and Ryan is not as compelling a character as Jos. Fortunately, he is often accompanied by more interesting characters, including some from Warchild, and this is largely what makes this book a delight to read.

The beginning of Burndive is slow as it spends some time setting up the story and characters. This is very different from the opening of Warchild, which throws readers right into the action. As a result, I found it took me much longer to become interested in Burndive, but it did become more captivating later even though it remained lighter on action and excitement than the previous book overall. By the halfway point, I had a difficult time putting it down because despite not being terribly invested in Ryan, many of the other characters Ryan meets and interacts with keep the book quite readable and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed reading about the characters from the previous book, and because of that I would not recommend reading Burndive before Warchild. It could stand on its own, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much were I not already familiar with some of the other characters such as Captain Azarcon.

Burndive was about war and family with a particular focus on Ryan’s relationship with the father he’s rarely seen since he spends most of his time in space. Captain Azarcon’s character and past are expanded on, and I thought he was the most fascinating and complex character in this book. He’s an intelligent man who has no patience whatsoever with idiocy, which often leads to some pretty good lines of dialogue, and he’s simultaneously a hard and compassionate man: he does a lot to help others coming from difficult circumstances, but he’s also quite ruthless when it comes to maintaining order on his ship. I enjoyed learning more about him and seeing him interact with Ryan and members of his crew.

Unfortunately, Ryan is one of the least interesting characters in the book and his voice and story fall short when compared to Jos’ in Warchild. I think this is mainly because Ryan is a much more passive character who observes but rarely seems like a participant in his own story, which focuses on the consequences of war and fame. He witnessed tragedy, first when he saw the destruction of the embassy on Earth, then later when assassins killed the girl he was dancing with at the New Year celebration. His response to these terrible events is to take drugs and distance himself from others, often by lashing out at them, and his biggest obstacles are dealing with trauma and letting others in. He doesn’t do a whole lot other than react as a character. Ryan isn’t a spy or a war hero, but a fairly ordinary person caught up in large events and his major role in this is observer.

Despite feeling this made him an uninteresting character, Ryan’s reactions are realistic and he’s a believable character. I even felt that my emotional detachment from him fit with his characterization since he did keep others at a distance. He does undergo some character development through the course of the story as he learns the world is not as easily categorized as he’d thought, and he’s not the same person with the same worldview at the end as he was in the beginning. Yet his earlier anger and treatment of others makes him a very difficult character to like at times, even though I could feel some sympathy for him due to the tragedies he endured. I don’t think every character needs to be likable if they have other qualities that make them worth reading about, but I didn’t find Ryan a terribly complex or intriguing character, either.

I enjoyed reading Burndive very much, but I can’t help comparing it to Warchild and feeling it falls short. While I admire the fact that it is a very different book with a very different main character, Ryan and his story are just not as captivating as Jos and his story. It’s a self-contained book, but I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one for that reason—its major strength depends on having some knowledge of the characters from the previous book.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: It was a gift from my husband.

Read an Excerpt

Reviews of other books in this series:

  1. Warchild
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