You know, despite the orgies and bloodshed and torture and death and murder and mayhem and mutilation and manipulation and general carnage and awfulness, there’s just something so *sweet* about these books.
No, seriously, I’m not kidding. There’s a kind of intermittent tenderness that offsets all the more clichéd fightin’ space marine stuff. I’ve never seen it done before. What makes it better is that it’s never cloying, it just sort of comes out of nowhere, punches you in the heart, and vanishes again before you’re really prepared for it. For instance: our Fightin’ Space Marines are geriatrics from earth, recruited into the infantry and given new bodies genetically based on their old ones. Their souls are transferred to the new body, and the old ones are chucked. Fairly standard wish-fulfillment stuff, right? No big deal. Basic comic book technology. But: in the first book in the series, the protagonist - safely ensconced in his new form - walks across the room to his withered original body, takes his old head in his new hands, and says “Thank you.” Then he takes his wedding ring off the finger of his old hand and puts it on his new one. It’s all he has left to remember his long-dead wife by.
That’s just so *nice,* you know? It chokes you up a bit without really putting any effort into it. It’s a neat trick, and Scalzi effortlessly pulls it off. In fact, those of you who read my review of “Old Man’s War” a few weeks back may recall my raving about it, claiming it was the best Fightin’ Space Marine book ever; better even than The Forever War and Starship Troopers. I also raved about his seemingly effortless transparency as an author, his ability to tell the story well yet inconspicuously, without his own voice and style getting in the way.
Alas, he doesn’t quite manage to pull that off here
PLAY BY PLAY
“The Ghost Brigades” takes place several years after “Old Man’s War,” and is entirely based around Jane Sagan, a character introduced in the second half of the previous book. She becomes embroiled in a mystery that might bring about the destruction of the Colonial Union and the end of Humanity itself.
Once upon a time, there was a brilliant-but-perhaps-a-bit-unhinged scientist named Charles Boutin who was involved in consciousness transfer technology. After his family was killed in an alien attack, he went ‘round the bend, faked his own death (It’s easy when you can use clones) and vanished. Several years later, Military Intelligence - and Jane Sagan - find out about this, and attempt to figure out where he went, what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and who’s helping him. Their first bid is to make another clone of Boutin and load a recorded copy of the original Boutin’s soul into it. This doesn’t work, but rather than waste a perfectly good Fightin’ Space Marine, they put Boutin-sub-3 into combat. The second bid is a straight ahead military mission to break up the alien alliance bent on attacking and wiping out humanity. The third bid is where things start getting more interesting.
Ultimately the good guys win - some of them, anyway - the bad guys lose - mostly - some new allies are made - kinda’ - and in a genuinely touching coda, we see the emergence of a sweet new little family amidst all the blood and horror.
Obviously I’m being a bit more circumspect with my “Play by Plays” on this book than I usually am. If I’m reviewing War of the Worlds, or some fifty year old crap by Heinlein or Asimov, I don’t mind telling you that Rosebud is a sled and Bruce Willis is actually dead. On more recent books, I don’t like to give away the punch lines unless I have to. Apologies.
There’s no getting around it, this is simply not as good as the first novel in the series was. In the second half, it comes really really close, and there are a few individual scenes that are better than anything in its predecessor, but in the end it just doesn’t sing and dance like its predecessor did. Understand I’m not saying it’s a *bad* book. In fact, it’s head and shoulders above most of the space combat crap out there now, and it’s quite a bit more ambitious than the prequel, but it’s just not as good.
Part of the problem is that the book starts about seventy pages