A century or so from now, Earth has achieved interstellar spaceflight and is beginning to colonize its galactic environs. Then it encounters the Mantis Empire, and first contact does not go at all well. The military fleet sent to defend our colonies gets a thorough shellacking, and there’s every indication the Mantes plan to continue their offensive until every human being is obliterated.
Specialist Harrison Barlow is a Chaplain’s Assistant, one of the few survivors of the strike force sent to planet Purgatory and now imprisoned there in a mountain valley within a lethal force barrier. It’s a miracle he’s alive at all—the Mantes don’t usually take prisoners, and the chaplain he was assigned to support and defend is dead. Barlow, along with the rest of the survivors, scratches out a living on Purgatory day-to-day, expecting their captors to swoop back in at any moment and finish them. He builds a small stone chapel in accordance with his chaplain’s dying request, and silently tends it for anyone who comes looking for a quiet moment of reflection. He often wonders why he persists in this memorial duty—and why people insist on coming to him for spiritual guidance. He’s not a pastor, a guru, a prophet, a real chaplain, or even a particularly good soldier. He’s just an ordinary guy trying to do the right thing.
Then one day, a Mantis comes to the chapel with questions of its own, and Harry Barlow discovers he may be humanity’s last chance for survival.
Chaplains don’t come up much in classic military space opera—sometimes they’re a side character, a Jiminy Cricket-ish conscience for the commander or somebody to deliver the requisite toss-off prayer before battle: Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition! Being a retired military guy myself, and having known a few chaplains in my time, I found it refreshing to read a story that not only takes the chaplain’s role seriously, but ponders how it works in practice and what it means in the context of military community, present or future.
Torgerson also does something you don’t see much in conventional military space opera…he opens by presenting us an utterly defeated member of an utterly defeated Earth fleet, going through the motions of a passive task that seems meaningless at first glance—a man marking time as he waits for death. Where’s the space battle? Where’s the power-suited infantry? Where’s the Earth-shattering kaboom?
It does arrive eventually, and it’s worth the wait, because this is a story that aims for something more than bang-zoom. Yes, it’s a tale about how a war might be resolved by means other than force of arms, but it’s mostly about that man in the little handmade chapel, lighting lamps and dusting pews in the service of a God he can’t comprehend, on behalf of people who are clinging to their last shred of hope. He’s not a chrome-plated hero, or a spiritual paragon. He cares about the people around him and is trying his best to do the right thing as he sees it, moment to moment.
As it turns out, that’s enough.
The Chaplain’s War pulled me in immediately, and it held my interest well enough to motivate me to chew through it in a couple of sessions of steady reading, which is always a good sign. It didn’t quite hit all the right notes with me—by way of plumbing Harry Barlow’s character and backstory, Torgerson intersperses flashbacks from a familiar basic training program, in agonizing** detail, complete with a bullying nemesis and a couple of insightful mentors who immediately recognize Barlow’s potential and help him find his military vocation. Torgerson is a Warrant Officer in the US Army Reserve, so he hits the experience and the jargon spot-on, but I found myself wishing for less time in backstory and more focus on Barlow’s immediate crisis. The aliens, while interesting, seemed to grasp humanity a little too easily, and considering the amount of planetary-scale carnage leading up to the final resolution, I would have expected it to be more difficult for the two sides to come to terms. Still, it’s a good story, and an absorbing read, and I liked it very much.
What I found most interesting were the faith issues Barlow wrestles with, and I think they deserve a follow-up post devoted to them, which I’ll try to crank out later this week. In short, though I wasn’t entirely satisfied with that element of the story, it’s remarkable to find it playing such an important role in this sub-genre of science fiction. and I thought Torgerson handled it with sensitivity and intelligence.
From Baen Books, 368 pages. Battlefield violence, coarse language (military guys swear a lot—it is what it is), and a couple of non-explicit sexual situations (which actually display a high moral standard in situations where it would be easy to take the low road). Older teens and up.
**Maybe it only seemed agonizing because it brought back so many lovely memories of my own time in basic training. Ack.
>>This review is based upon an electronic advance review copy of the book provided to me free of charge by the publisher, a courtesy I appreciate, but which does not guarantee my recommendation. I strive to evaluate every book I review purely on its intrinsic merits.<<