Tag Archives: Karin Lowachee

Interview with Karin Lowachee


[Karin Lowachee is an award-winning SF-novelist. She has published three novels – Warchild (2002), Burndive (2003) and Cagebird (2005). This interview was conducted via email for wotmania’s Other Fantasy section, and can also be found on the Wotmania Other Fantasy Message Board and the Other Fantasy Blog of the Fallen.]

For those of us not familiar with your work, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

Well, I draw a line between my background as a person and my work in general, mostly because there aren’t any straight lines as to why I write what I write, at least not in the superficial aspects. I was born in Guyana, South America and moved to Canada when I was about 2 years old. I graduated from York University’s Creative Writing program with an Honours degree, but what that all says about me as a writer is pretty slim. I do tend to prefer that people read my work without knowing anything about me as a person, because frankly I don’t think it’s important, or should be, to understand the books themselves. I can say that for some reason in early high school I became very interested in issues of war and devoured a lot about Vietnam and WWII in particular, and that probably carried through to when I began to write publishable stuff. I’m interested in all aspects of history, science, art, film…you name it and I’d like to learn about it, generally. I suppose that makes me the ‘right’ personality for a writer. You have to find fascination with the world from all angles. That may be, perhaps, the most important aspect of me that’s relevant to my writing.

Without giving away major spoilers, could you introduce your three novels for those of us unfamiliar with your writing?

The 3 novels – Warchild, Burndive, and Cagebird – chronicle the beginnings of an arduous peace process between warring species, from 3 different points of view, one per novel. It’s a macrocosmic tale about the ramifications of war on children told through the very specific and internal experiences of 3 young men who have been impacted in different ways. I sometimes think of them as ‘anthro-psychological military science fiction’, with the emphasis being on the first part of that phrase.

What literary influences might have shaped your writing? And – this might be the same question, really – do you have any particular favourite novels and authors as a reader?

The ‘marker’ books that I remember being influenced by, consciously, were books like: The Outsiders (and all the works by SE Hinton), The Chocolate War, Watership Down, Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, Psion, Cyteen, Tigana, For Whom the Bell Tolls, As I Lay Dying, China Mountain Zhang, Ride With the Devil, Lonesome Dove, Fight Club, Shakespeare, as well as many poets…the list goes on. I was drawn to them for different reasons and at different stages in my development as a writer, where I was noticing technique and things like that. I still do that, I’m still influenced by great writing and try to learn from them. All the works listed above are favourites of mine.

Your first novel, Warchild, won the Warner Aspect First novel award back in 2002. I believe this means a shortened wait before the novel was published? How was the experience of writing and publishing different for your next two novels?

The WAFN contest really allowed a young, unpublished writer like myself to get their novel read by a big house publisher, with no agent and no contacts. It’s really incredible for me to think, to this day, that my book won and was given the opportunity to be read by the public. I’m really grateful it happened, obviously, because it’s so difficult to get your foot in the door. I began to work with some fantastic editors who have faith in me. The process was pretty much the same for all three novels, except there was a lot less stress in the last two because at least I knew the process through the first book. Doing anything for the first time can be harrowing and though being a published writer has pretty much been my dream since I was a kid, it was still nervewracking because I didn’t want to screw up. Once I realized that as long as you hand things in, communicate, and work hard on your stuff, it turns out all right. It excites me still. I love the process of writing, from my computer to publication. I’m not one of those writers that actually really hates any part of the process, maybe because I still walk around in wide-eyed wonder that I’m given the chance to do what I love. It’s hard work but I love it.

Of the three novels you’ve written, do you have a personal favourite?

I don’t. This is cheesy, perhaps, but they really are like children and I love them all for different reasons. Burndive and Cagebird took longer to warm up to, though, I have to admit. Probably because they put me through hell. I often need time and distance from my writing to actually see it objectively enough to appreciate it for what it is at the time. I always think I can improve but I don’t think any of it is total trash, mainly because I did the best that I could do with what I had at the time, and I have to accept that. That balance seems to keep me motivated and sane.

Cover art is, in some ways, a major hot topic at the moment. What did you think of art for your three novels? And now that (if I understand correctly?) Orbit has taken over the Warner Aspect imprint, do you have any concerns about new cover art? (My personal favourite would be Cagebird – Yuri was so beautifully rendered!)

I liked the cover art for the novels; Warner was pretty open in the second and third books to ask me my opinion which was very gracious and an interesting process – though of course the final word came from the Art Department, Editor, and artist (Matt Stawicki). I understood how Warner was marketing the books. I think if Orbit reprints them I really won’t have any issues with the art because so far all of Orbit’s covers are absolutely beautiful. They are swaying away from the ‘typical’ SF artwork and breaking new ground, and I think it’s fantastic.

I’ve been noticing a trend in your three novels to, well, examine the male body as something that can be wounded, invaded, trapped – the male body as vulnerable. (As someone on wotmania put it, Why a Graphic Male Rape Scene?) I found it interesting that each of the three novels looks at this issue from such a different point of view. It makes for phenomenally thought-provoking reading. I’m trying to make this as open-ended as possible, so I’ll just ask for your thoughts on the matter? Is this an issue you consciously decided to explore through three (and more?) novels, or was it a side-effect of the world and the world-views each character represents?

I’ve read your commentary on that ‘issue’ and I suppose in general the reasons were a bit of both and a bit of other things. It began to be conscious by Cagebird, the fact that I was drawing contrast among the three protagonists (Jos, Ryan, and Yuri), but I never put agenda before story/character, so the things that they went through grew organically out of their lives and points-of-view. For me, I was very specifically writing or exploring 3 very different people in a microcosmic way in order to tell a macrocosmic story. And because of that there could be no excessive puppeteering from me. I write from a psychological standpoint, I plot from a psychological standpoint, and if there are any ‘themes’ or ‘issues’ that manifest from that I run with it on the second or third pass of the book, but I don’t go into it thinking I am Making A Point, and I certainly didn’t go into it thinking I was Making A Point about the male body.

What happens when you decide to write about young men in war? Or disenfranchised children in general? Many common themes will manifest no matter what. I did have in mind that I needed to be as honest as possible with these guys and not cut corners just because it’s unpleasant or just because it’s science fiction and the focus tends to be on whizbang. This is stuff that happens in real life, science fiction for me is a metaphoric literature, and in fact through my research it seemed that reality was far more horrendous than what I was even writing. By the second and third book I was conscious of the fact that I was interested in examining specifically young men in a way that I did not necessarily see a lot in science fiction, but that didn’t mean that the realization dominated what I was doing from a character standpoint. Rather than say they are young guys vulnerable or survivors or any sort of label, I approached them as human, reacting as humans do in those specific situations, and taking into account that their gender holds specific complexities…just as writing a female would.

As a corollary, I wonder if you have any thoughts on what it is to be a female writer, writing about male sexuality, and how it relates to the male victim of rape. Do you think that female authors address this issue more readily than male authors do? (Would it be fair to ask why?)

I don’t think of myself necessarily as a female writer; I think of myself as a writer who has specific interests, many of which have yet to be explored. I think as soon as I start boxing myself in and thinking of outside issues then those outside issues might influence what I do unduly. I do not want to be the Female Canadian Writer Who Writes About Male Sexuality. Because that isn’t true, really. I write about aspects of humanity as I see it. My protagonists so far have been male; I wrote about war. War tends to be a male sphere, but I wasn’t interested in writing gung-ho, alien slaughtering, macho men. Whether my choice to explore further than that is because I’m female, who knows. I rather think it’s because I’m the sort of person who prefers to dig way beneath the layers of people, regardless of gender, race, sexuality or geography, and be as honest as possible with what I might find.

I understand the need to classify or label themes or things that are found in my books, but I didn’t write a male rape because it was something simply interesting to examine for whatever reason. In fact I really hated writing those scenes. They are not things you do for fun or on a whim or just because you might have an agenda, or heaven forbid because it’s ‘edgy’ — at least that’s not me. I dealt with the issue because it was important in order to tell the character’s story, for people to understand what they went through, and perhaps to realize that this isn’t fiction in that sense. This happens to people: males and females. It happens in war, it happens to exploited children, it impacts those children into adulthood. If I was going to write about a child slave ring and didn’t at least discuss that rape happens it would be insulting and dishonest. But these realizations were all byproducts to the character exploration. I begin with the character, always. This is his story, this is her story. This isn’t my story.

I don’t know why female authors in particular do anything. I can only speak for myself and I’ve always felt a little off-center to what others generally do. I really don’t tend to pay attention to what others do either, at least not in a comparative way. Of course I read female writers and appreciate them but I’m not going to necessarily clump myself in with them as some sort of subset. I’d rather concern myself with myself and be as individual as I am. Other people do a fine job of compartmentalizing my writing, which is inevitable and not wholly unappreciated, but it’s not something I think much about beyond being aware of it.

I hesitate to make generalizations about other writers of whom I know nothing of their processes or their interests and approaches to their work. Everyone is different and I respect that in other writers. I have rather strong views about how I approach my work, but not so much about others because I simply don’t know enough about other writers and their approaches. Perhaps if I were writing a dissertation on female writers in this particular ‘issue’ I would feel the need to explore it. It’s interesting but it’s not something I overly concern myself with; if there is a trend of female writers exploring male victimization, well…I wasn’t aware of it when I wrote my books and it doesn’t influence what I choose to write. If women tend to deal with these issues more readily than men, I’m sure I could conjure some psychological generalizations as to why, but I’m not convinced that would be all that helpful or even enlightening coming from me.

Speaking of children in times of war, I’ve been wondering about the three protagonists’ relationships with their chosen and unchosen mentors – Jos with Niko the Warboy; Ryan with his bodyguard, Sid, and his mother; Yuri with Estienne who is both sexual peer and mentor; and all the three of them with Cairo Azarcone – and I’ve been thinking about the delicacy of a relationship where a child depends on an adult, the power dynamic where an adult can betray you, exploit you. How much of such betrayal factor into the war situation? Would the violent personal exist without the violent political?

The relationship between an adult or anyone who is older and holds that mentoring position (unconsciously or not) with a kid has the potential for damage on the younger person. Though it wasn’t wholly conscious at the time of writing, in the first draft anyway, I think there is a parallel that can easily be drawn between that personal, microcosmic situation of the characters and the macro situation of the war, where vast governments direct things that ultimately filter down to individuals and affect them for good or ill, especially in a war situation. There is a responsibility that oftentimes gets forgotten by the dominant power, when selfish needs (like Falcone’s) override the good of people in general.

All three novels feature Battlemech Bear in some form or the other – books, toys. In some ways it feels like Battlemech Bear is the only form of entertainment the children get, Soldier Barbie for the children of war. Is this the commercialisation of war, or the politicisation of commerce, or “just” the infiltration of both into playspaces that should stay innocent of either?

If it came across as the only form of entertainment, that was unintentional. Ryan does play sports, go to ‘movies’, and that sort of thing, but Battlemech Bear was supposed to be a pervasive toy or children’s cultural icon that spanned genres: art, games, vid, plushies, robots, books … sort of like a war-influenced Winnie the Pooh with a continuing saga behind him and his friends (there were other characters in his platoon, after all). It’s definitely a character that EarthHub would support, but in my mind there were subversive aspects to him too, depending on which part of his marketing you looked at. In the manga or some of the vids, there would be underlying messages that hardly supported the war. As the kids grew older they might’ve picked up on that.

The EarthHub government is at war with the striviirc-na, ostensibly over an inability to share resources and acknowledge territorial rights. And it’s fairly obvious that in the most important of ways those are not the things that are being fought over at all. The three novels seem to chart for a middle course, but negotiations with the other can be very difficult when half your own species doesn’t want to negotiate at all. Jos, Ryan and Yuri aren’t all technically “symps”, but they all do stand on the margins. Is marginalisation the key to sympathy? To looking beyond “Otherness” into communication?

It’s very true what you said. On the outside it seems to be about territory and the like, but there is a deepseated xenophobia, resentment, and perpetuating revenge that is driving much of the war as we see it in the books. And this is speaking for both human and alien sides.

I think standing on the outside of anything can give you a better perspective and hopefully garner compassion. This isn’t always the case, of course, because Falcone and pirates in general are also outsiders who look on things in a very different way — they feel entitled. I think for people like Falcone, standing on the outside of something just perpetuates a cold distance and with that a lack of compassion. But I think there is something to having the shoe on the other foot, so to speak, or walking in someone else’s shoes. That was very much the thrust of Ryan’s narrative. He had a very limited view from where he was, but put into the middle of something unfamiliar and uncomfortable, he gained a better understanding. And that understanding isn’t about dismissing your own situation, but putting it into perspective. This was his father’s hope by hauling him onto Macedon, aside from keeping him safe. This was the captain’s way of educating his son in some harsh realities in as much of a controlled environment as he could manage, as a parent.

They all went through specifically terrible things, and because of those trials they saw the wider situation from a different angle, a more enlightened one. Because I do believe if you’re open to it and get out of your own sphere, you can better understand things and through understanding hopefully gain some compassion. And with compassion does come a desire to make things better for people. People like Falcone wouldn’t necessarily gain that enlightenment, it’s an individual thing…which of course is manifested in any war. There are plenty of people who may understand the plight of others because they’ve been through the same thing, but they simply do not care. Then again, the line of that thinking has its own specific origins. There is personal damage in some way with people when they stop caring about the needs of others in even the most broadest sense. Who knows where it begins?

We see the striviirc-na from three very different points of view in the three novels – the reader needs to filter the striviirc-na through these individual lenses (and obviously it is easiest with Jos) – to walk that delicate path towards compassion. What was it like, writing a well-developed alien species through the eyes of young men who weren’t fully assimilated within that alien culture? (Or their own!)

That was a lot more conscious of a process than some of the other things. Early on I really was aware that I was writing an alien species through some specific filters, and that was the point. They’re aliens and unless we see things through Niko’s eyes or someone similar, there wasn’t going to be any grand, near-complete understanding of the striviirc-na. They’re alien in every sense of the word, from how they look to the reasons they do things, and I pretty purposely did not explain some of their actions because I think, realistically, even with Jos who had the most contact, he simply would not understand and maybe even more realistically, he or Ryan or Yuri wouldn’t always want to. Not everyone would go around with a burning desire to be empathetic toward aliens. This was reflected in how Jos interacted with Niko as well. Some things about Niko he didn’t get and would never get, and understandably so, because Niko grew up among the striviirc-na and Jos simply doesn’t agree with how he does things sometimes. Without spoilering the first book, we see that illustrated specifically at the end.

It was a fun challenge to write because it was like dealing with an extra layer of distance. We’re already filtering the story through the point-of-view of the character – we are always in their heads. So seeing an alien species through those specific biases was a lot of fun, it requires writing and thinking in layers. You are still trying to project to the reader a general, truthful impression even if your point-of-view character doesn’t know what you know and won’t see what you see. How do you tell a macro story through a micro point-of-view? I found that extremely fun to write. It makes the reader work, to leave their own biases at the door the best they can. Some people do and others don’t, and that to me is an interesting thing to elicit in readers. Hopefully it makes them question their own points-of-view about some of the issues raised in the books.

Will there be more novels in the Warchild universe set around the lives of young men? Or will we be looking at the ways in which war can affect, and be affected in the exploitation of young women as well?

Ideally I would like to, but that is not for certain.

That last question was a cheating way of asking what’s next in the works, to be honest. Will your fourth novel be set in the Warchild universe? Or will you be looking to break new ground from what you’ve done before?

I don’t like to talk too much about works in development, but it is safe to say that my next book won’t be in the Warchild universe. I will be breaking new ground with myself and hopefully it will also be something interesting and fresh for readers. If it’s not apparent already with what I’ve written so far, I don’t like to take the easy ways out. My next stuff
will challenge me and hopefully challenge readers too.

Thank you for being so kind as to answer these questions for us! We wish you the best for your future work.



Cagebird by Karin Lowachee

Karin Lowachee’s Cagebird, released in 2005 under the Warner Aspect imprint, is the third novel set in her Warchild universe. It can be seen as a parallel novel to Warchild and Burndive, covering a large amount of the same time period, and quite a few of the same events. This time, however, our protagonist and narrator is Yuri Kirov, pirate and erstwhile villain. We’ve been trained across the course of two previous novels to see Kirov as a negative character by virtue of his deeds and his allegiance – pirates as represented by Vincenzo Falcone are, after all, the self-centered instigators of violence from Jos’ and Ryan’s points of view, unredeemed by any desires to work for the human/striv races, focussed entirely on their own (often perverted, always commercialised) desires. Cagebird, without turning Yuri into a victim without agency, is an attempt to change this black-and-white picture into a more nuanced chiaroscuro.

Lowachee’s previous novels were notable for their thematic shifts in person and tense, moving her protagonists from their un-intimate and not-completely truthful narrative stances to a first-person (and in Jos’ case, present tense) narrative that stood for their readiness to look at their past and present without flinching – and therefore to face their futures with some degree of maturity. Yuri Kirov’s narrative begins in the first-person present tense – by the thematic rules established in the previous novels, he straddles the thin line between falsehood/lack of agency and the final stages of the ever-incomplete Bildungsroman narrative: “All my thoughts are honest, bitch. [Pg. 7]” It makes Cagebird a brutally truthful novel – Yuri doesn’t spare the reader from event, evaluation or emotion, and the change from Jos’ and Ryan’s sometimes frustrating dialogues is both a relief and a burdensome complexity.

Yuri Kirov is twenty-two years old, and he’s incarcerated in an EarthHub prison following the events of Burndive. And Black Ops agents offer him a choice: work for them to bring down Falcone’s still-extant pirate network in exchange for freedom, and protection for fellow-inmate Stefano Finch. Yuri agrees, as much for Finch as for himself. The novel follows Yuri and Finch as they reintegrate with Yuri’s pirate family and untangle the layered game the Black Ops agents are playing with and against them. Interspersed with this forward moving narrative is Yuri’s reminiscences of his life, from childhood to just before his capture – this past-tense narrative takes up about half the novel. This past-tense narrative (practically a different, cleaner language) offers both the story of Yuri’s life and a shift from his hard-bitten, resigned, harshly organic present-tense dialogue, which is dense with analogies to blood-flowing and -letting, tactile and painful. (The shifts put Ryan’s wordsmithing and Jos’ direct lies to shame, and I do think that whatever it’s other faults, Cagebird is the strongest stylistic novel of the three.) This narrative, obsessed as it is with the permeability, the breakability, of the human body, controls what Yuri allows us to see and know. (Mark!)

Yuri’s home colony was destroyed when he was four years old – it is taken from granted this was due to “strit” (striviirc-na) action. Yuri’s family, minus his MIA mother and younger brother (and dead grandmother) are relocated to a refugee planet where his father indulges himself in a downward-spiral of despair and resignation and Yuri runs wild with Bo-Sheng, a slightly older boy. And when Marcus Falcone comes to recruit them for his ship, they’re easy prey. If one reads this novel immediately after Warchild, the differences between Yuri’s and Jos’ parents are frighteningly clear: Jos’ parents taught him to mistrust Falcone’s brand of exploitation, Yuri’s father did not. And more worrisomely, Falcone is shown to be a man who can learn from his previous mistakes: his interactions with Yuri are the extreme opposite of his behaviour in Warchild, and one cannot blame the ten-year old for trusting him as he would trust a parent. (His own parent has proved remarkably unworthy of that sort of dependant trust, after all.) In many ways, this is Falcone’s novel – he dominates Yuri’s narratives as he dominates his ship, and one can extemporise much of his character and his positions in the war against the striviirc-na through Yuri’s musings.

Yuri grows up a pirate protégé – Falcone’s protégé – and when he is thirteen is indoctrinated as a geisha. His relationship with the other members of the hanamachi – his geisha peers and mentors – could stand for his aims and goals and needs through the entire novel – his need for a family, his need for agency – to be in control of his life and loves. [Yuri’s prominent relationships in both of the narrative strands are disturbingly dependant and fraught with the (often fulfilled) potential for betrayal. His relationship with Stefano Finch in particular is one that I would have liked the novel to have taken even further – to whatever conclusion – because in its current state it seems not a relationship that can last beyond Yuri’s (and Stefano’s) healing and maturation to adulthood. It makes for a strangely resolved and yet unresolved closing.]

It’s an ambitious novel, and I think it’s simultaneously the strongest and weakest of the trilogy. It’s strengths lie in its emotive dual narrative, it’s unflinching gaze at a brutal and violent life, seen from the perspective of someone currently too fragile to deal with that life any longer. It makes few excuses, offering the unpalatable truth that perhaps excuses and even reasons cannot apply. It has extraordinarily beautiful prose, with strong characters and the possibility – but no more – of a happy ending. It shows us an aspect of the Warchild universe that that until now has been firmly villainised, and offers a faintly different perspective on how this part of the universe works.

The problem with Cagebird is that, while it fills in the Warchild universe, it does not take us ahead in the timeline – specifically, the timeline of the war/peace negotiations. Yuri’s life as a pirate is rooted in battle action and is tangentially related to the events of the war, but the novel has little direct impact on the overarching events that in Warchild and Burndive affect the protagonists’ personal lives. Yuri’s present tense narrative contains few surprises – in fact, it is depressingly predictable once you’ve read the previous two novels, fitting into patterns of surprise, betrayal and personal development. The past-tense interspersions have their shocking moments, where Yuri refuses to hide a traumatic event – and given that he is surrounded by people engaged in illegal activity and is Falcone’s personal protégé, trauma is not a rarity.

But there it is. Cagebird does not take our overarching plot forward. It even repeats – without giving us a radically new perspective – certain events from Burndive. (It does offer a great deal of potential for a fourth novel in the virtually unexplored new territory offered by Black Ops machinations, but in this novel the Black Ops remain a deus ex machina, unexamined and somewhat remote.) I imagine that if one reads the three novels in order, then Cagebird can come as a bitter disappointment, despite its stylistic, thematic and emotive power. It doesn’t offer a new story. Cagebird does work very well as a stand-alone novel – which is how I read it, before buying Warchild and Burndive and reading those in order.

The illusion of control is brittle at best, and Yuri is no longer capable of lying to himself – or to his audience. In a world full of blacks and whites Yuri must negotiate to find and accept the greys in the violence of which he is both subject and object, so that he may look not to his broken self but perhaps to something better. Cagebird is a powerful (if unsuspenseful) addition to the Warchild universe, one that opens new territories for future books to explore, but can stand well enough on its own if it so chooses.


Burndive by Karin Lowachee

Karin Lowachee‘s Burndive was published by Warner Aspect around 2003. It functions as a sequel/stand-alone related novel to Warchild. I only heard of Lowachee a year ago, and so cannot be certain, but given that Warchild won the Warner Aspect First Novel Award I imagine that hopes ran high for Burndive, with people wondering if it could match Warchild’s bitter fluency. Burndive delivers, but it is a very different novel, and in some ways, I think, more ambitious.

Ryan Azarcon is nineteen years old. He is the son of a daringly rebellious war hero (Cairo Azarcon, whom we saw a great deal of in Warchild) and Austro’s public relations officer (Songlien Lau, who is sleeping with Ryan’s bodyguard, Tim Sidney/Sid). He’s met his father in the flesh thrice his entire life. And recently, ever so recently, he was a bystander at a terrorist attack in Hongkong, an attack aimed at least partially at his paternal grandfather (Admiral Ashrafi, who adopted Cairo when he was eighteen – a full year younger than Ryan is now). And the boy is doing Silver, Austro’s version of pure recreational drug.

The opening of the novel is almost deliberately geared to make one dislike Ryan. He’s a teenager, and is described quite exhaustively in terms that would fit quite well in a romance novel. He’s a celebrity, and the text seems uncertain how to present it to the reader – what happens is very close to the Paris Hilton effect – even before he does anything wrong, you’re not quite disposed to like him. (And he does so very little that is right.) He complains. He is snide, sarcastic, and cynical. And uncomfortably observant.

Ryan’s third person narrative allows him, without necessarily lying (that’s bad PR!) to avoid discussing the traumas that he has suffered, and the daily pains that he still must face. The third person narrative is one that lacks a certain intimacy. It mimics the constant media reporting on his movements, the infringement on his mobility, privacy and person. There is no familiarity, no comfort, when everyone know your name. In the third person narrative, Ryan’s inner and outer dialogue use words as an attack device. While laying bare his needs and reasons for sympathy it closes the reader off from him, it’s simultaneously extremely good writing, and extremely awkward reading.

Ryan’s control over his words is in stark contrast to his control over his body, and who has access to it. From the media (“meedees” in Ryan’s parlance) to unknown assassins, his personal space and bodily integrity are constantly threatened, and his narrative reflects a constant preoccupation with bleeding, with cutting – the breaking of the skin, the loss of life fluids. There’s a shock to the system that reverberates all the more because so much time and effort has been put into protecting him, by adults who all care for him but cannot completely connect with him. Yet his threatened body only reminds him that he has survived, over and over. That’s part of the problem. (Mark!)

As the novel progresses, Ryan’s father takes him aboard his ship, the Macedon, and takes him to Chaos station, where he is in negotiation for peace with the striviirc-na, an alien race with whom the EarthHub government is at war (ostensibly over territorial and resource disputes). This is a chance to see the striviirc-na from a point of view that is not Jos Musey’s. In Warchild, Jos spends formative years among the striviirc-na, and in many ways understands them as a “normal” human being might not. Ryan’s reaction to them, to their “Otherness”, their non-human, non-animalness, is controlled fear and mistrust. This is one of the few moments in the novel that doesn’t work for me, mainly because Warchild has spent so much time making sure that Jos and Cairo Azarcon deal with the striviirc-na, calling them by the name they choose for themselves, rather than the human derogatory term “strit”, which Ryan uses with great gusto, along with “symp” for “sympathiser”. I can see why Ryan speaks the way he does – unlike Jos, his introduction to the striviirc-na is not at all gentle – and his thought processes are not more than usually narrow, but after Warchild, it arouses a sharp dislike for the young man, and a wish that someone would make him shut up and listen for a change. (But words are his weapons, and he won’t let anyone wound him with them if he can help it.)

[It’s a nice note, by the way, on how Ryan might hate being consumed by the media, but when their reports are about Others who are not him, is quite pleased to be a consumer.]

Another note that doesn’t work completely for me is the reintroduction of almost all of Warchild’s supporting cast into Ryan’s story. I can see how Erret Dorr and Jos Musey can entwine into Ryan’s tale – Dorr is an offensively extroverted and intrusive young corporal with Issues hanging off a very large chip on his shoulder and a mysterious (unsexualised) closeness to Azarcon Sr, while Jos is detailed by Cairo to take Ryan in hand and familiarise him with the ship. But all of the others – Evan, Aki, even Sanchez, who is a very unpleasant character and seems to exist for the sake of getting in people’s way – seem to enter Ryan’s sphere of notice arbitrarily, because they had to be there somehow and this was how it was done. By the end of the novel their dynamic has shifted quite a bit – in part due to Ryan’s internal stabilisation – but it never rings quite true to me, since I am never convinced it could exist in the first place. [I’ve not found a single other review which found this a problem, and likely I am picking at straws.]

In some ways, I think of Ryan as a bridge – he connects the protagonists of Warchild and Cagebird (more on this note later), and thematically, within the novel, he is the body upon which negotiations are conducted – between humans and the striviirc-na, between all of his various parents/mentors, between his new peers on the Macedon. War and peace, on their macro and micro levels, are always waged on the bodies of bystanders. And in some senses, Ryan can be this bridge because, for all the pain he suffers (and we need not minimise that pain, or dismiss it out of hand, simply because it does not match Jos’, or Yuri’s, or Cairo’s) he has been protected, and loved, by grandparents, parents, and bodyguard, through all of his life. None of his guardians may have done a perfect job, but who does? Ryan gains the luxury of feeling unsafe, and the greater luxury of finding a centre where he can face the uncertainties of the life and the family he is born to because he has that family to begin with.

Near the end of the novel, we meet Yuri Kirov, a pirate – protégé to Falcone, whom we met in Warchild. Yuri is the protagonist of Cagebird, the third novel set in this universe, but in Burndive he is introduced before we even meet him as the man, the boy, who chose what Jos and Cairo did not choose – he is a pirate, Falcone’s protégé, and his choices mark him as evil. But when Ryan finally meets him, there are these moments – short, but distinct – of understanding, of sympathy. Ryan’s role in this novel is, continually, to face the new, the unfamiliar, the unsafe and to find in them something worth holding to, something to connect with. He stands between Jos Musey and Yuri Kirov, who both have difficulties in making deals because they cannot use words, cannot reach out and touch people. But Ryan learns. It shows most clearly in his final narrative, made strongly and clearly – and somewhat naively, for his is, still, very young – in the first person.

You rarely get to choose the traps that close around you. You do get to choose how you react once you’re there. Burndive follows Ryan Azarcon, who at this age can never really be free, and asks of him what he might do when he finally is. It’s not an easy Bildungsroman , or even a complete one. But it is, perfectly, enough.


Warchild by Karin Lowachee

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.