Monday, May 08, 2006

WarChild by Karin Lowachee

If you ever needed a sign that the rules can be broken, twisted, turned, and thrown out the window, WarChild is it. Even more, it is Karin Lowachee's first novel, so a newcomer can do so if they do so well.

This is a book you will love or hate. The main character is likeable and the events propelled me along, pulling me in despite myself. However, Jos is also driven rather than driving. He has decisions to make but they are points of emotional manipulation, leaving him to question everything he has ever known or accepted. This is not a simplistic book, or an easy read. It's tangled, emotionally compelling and draining all at once, and the type of book that sucks you in and you don't want to put it down.

At the same time as all the above is true, this book broke not just conventional rules, but the ones I've found in my own reading pleasure. I have some requirements in a story, things that I, as a reader, look for. This book does not offer them. Looking back from the end to the beginning, I can start to see the shape of the book, but going along, I could not. I did not know how it would end, but even more so I could not see any probabilities for how it would. And yet, I kept reading. I even made excuses to read.

There's no question in my mind why this novel won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. It's stunning and it works, though there are so many ways that it could have failed. I'm not saying the story is perfect, or the writing either. There were points when I slipped out of the story and one jarring time jump after which it took a moment to readjust back into the story line. But these pale next to the power and intensity of the novel. Really. Give WarChild a try. No matter what, I can't imagine a neutral reaction to this book as a possibility.

I purposefully avoided most specifics because they could prejudice anyone reading on my recommendation and because there is hardly anything I can say that doesn't reveal something crucial. I suppose I can safely mention that there are several factions in the war covered by the novel, and that the alien culture is not only well drawn, but also well characterized from the various perspectives. Sigh. And then I have to censor my next sentence because it would spoil.

I'll leave you all with one other note, one I wrote when reading the start of the novel. This is the writerly bit, I suppose, though it is a readerly reaction as well:

I was forewarned about the second person POV in the very beginning and this is not something I like in general, but I've never let such a concept stop me from trying something before ;). That said, this second person worked for me. Because I couldn't help myself, I tried to figure out why and this is what I came up with: The beginning of this novel is not written in traditional second person, which forces the reader into an awkward state of trying to wear someone else's skin (okay, my definition of traditional second person). Instead (and this is borne out by how the POV transitions), this second person is really first person in disguise. How I read this is as a first person account told through second person in the narrator's desperate attempt to gain some distance from what happened, to treat it as not having happened to him. It's an interesting effect whether intentional or not, and in this case, quite an effective one.

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