Karin Lowachee‘s Warchild was the second novel ever (there have been only two) to win the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest back in 2001. The hype was extremely localised – I mean, I didn’t hear of it until a year ago, and having read the novel I wonder why.
Eight-year-old Jos Musey lives on the trading ship Mukudori. His ship is attacked by pirates, the adults are killed/never seen again. The children are captured. By pirates. Again, some of them are never seen again. Jos becomes a pirate’s personal belonging… and one day he escapes, only to be picked up by human sympathisers with the Alien Enemy. Things get complicated. Again.
Warchild is full of some amazingly nuanced prose, and it is stylistically a very tightly woven novel. The first sectio, which covers what we can consider Jos’ most traumatic years – his captivity with the pirate Falcone – is told in the second person, past tense. It’s a fluent narrative, the first section, and it speaks of some excellent characterisation. (What happens when you speak in the second person? To begin with, you establish that you are distinct from the person you are speaking to. Jos narrates to his younger self the events that he is unwilling to acknowledge as his own. Another advantage for the speaker is that the second person allows you to command – and Jos commands and cajoles his personal history in a manner that might be Not Very Important in the sense of What Happens, but is crucial in terms of how Jos sees himself, and how his interacts with people later.) This first section contains the muted-and-powerful rendering of a child in fear and bondage, and it is an emotional relief when it is done. The distancing of the self that is accomplished here, however, manifests in different ways throughout the forthcoming narrative – the one thing this novel never gives the reader is an easy answer.
The next section covers Jos’ mentoring by a very different, equally dangerous adult. It is very clear that Jos is safer with Niko, the Warboy, a lead human sympathiser with the striviirc-na, the aliens with whom humanity is currently at war, and yet he, like Falcone, is Jos’ entire world. Jos stays with the striviirc-na until his mid-teens, when he leaves to engage in the war effort, following Niko’s orders. We don’t see enough of the striviirc-na for my liking, but it is delightful to note that that they not one-dimensional, are seen to have more than one culture – the people we do see seem to be an odd sort of Zen Warrior caste – without that inherently meaning that they’re on the brink of civil war.
This is not a novel that glorifies war, or finds that a noble nature flowers under the exigencies of bloodshed (it is not Ender’s Game!). A military force – a successful one, fighting a war on or outside the borders of established political territories – is in literal essence, working on its own, in quasi-independance. (I don’t want to hark back to semi-recent soldiers-abusing-prisoners-in-Iraq scandals, but the association is possible.) All that can be, good-bad-neutral, of an armed force is summed up in the crew of the Macedon, captained by Cairo Azarcon who is a law unto himself and a father – think Old Testament God-father – to his crew. And in Azarcon we have our third mentor.
Jos needs mentors. He’s in his teens, that should be reason enough. But he also never fully healed from the trauma of his childhood experiences with Falcone – a fact that becomes more and more clear as the novel progresses. The distancing one notices in the first section is painfully obvious when Jos must deal with several other, better-socialised peers. And with this distancing comes a rigidity in communication. If Selecting The Right Mentor is one of the main quests of the novel, Thinking In Different Languages might be another. Jos’ fluency with different languages and accents, along with his unexplored gift for mimicry, jar tellingly with his inability to open up, to talk, to establish verbal or physical intimacy with another sympathetic character.
What I truly like about this novel is that it doesn’t allow the reader to pity Jos in a blind unobjective manner. Some very hard questions are raised regarding what exactly makes one a victim – what breaks one person yet hardens another? At what point can you condemn a victim for not resisting his victimisation? At what point does a victim stop being an object of pity and instead a target of a bracing “Get over it already!”? Jos is a vulnerable male body (a vulnerable young male body being used as soldier-fodder in a war, no less), and he takes extreme measures to protect that body. Moments when his defences are breached break apart his carefully constructed first-person narrative and force the reader (and Jos himself) to recognise that vulnerability and find a way to come to terms with it. (Mark!)
Warchild is a tightly plotted novel with a strongly-delineated central narrative character and a nuanced, non-stereotypical supporting cast (the main cast is primarily male, but it’s fairly clear that women play an equal, or at least seemingly equal, role in each of the worlds that Jos is located). It covers several years of a young child/youth/soldier’s life, dealing with his reactions to multifaceted levels of violence and camaraderie. It is not a novel with easy answers – not even at its final, hopeful closing, which is not an ending at all but rather the closing of a prologue to potential.
Children don’t get to choose. Victims don’t get to choose. Soldiers don’t get to choose. Warchild charts the life of Jos Musey, who at some point is all three of these things, and it asks of us whether he is able to choose at all – and what might happen when he does.