Sci-fi Novel Review: Warchild by Karin Lowachee

If I’m looking for excellent sci-fi from the 2000s that has been largely forgotten, the first stop has to be the recommendations of Janny Wurts. Our tastes aren’t exactly the same, but she is a tremendous champion of character-driven speculative fiction—and a pretty good writer in her own right—and her recommendations have taken more than their fair share of my favorites list, including Carol Berg’s Lighthouse Duet, Sherwood Smith’s Inda Quartet, and Sarah Zettel’s The Quiet Invasion. So when the 2023 Bingo board included a Published in the 00s square, it was time to mine the TBR for recommendations that I hadn’t already followed. And the result was Warchild by Karin Lowachee. 

The reason Warchild languished on my TBR so long was that it’s military sci-fi, and I tend not to love that subgenre. But I was promised a character study under the space navy, and it was clear from part one that Warchild aimed to deliver. The opening section is written almost entirely in second-person—a perspective that will be repeated later during an especially traumatic scene—and details the lead being raised and groomed by the pirates who destroyed his former home and killed his family. The graphic details of the abuse are studiously avoided, but it’s clear what kind of story this will be, even as the tale moves into a more traditional training arc and thrusts the lead onto a ship known for finding itself in the middle of major conflicts. There’s definitely an overarching war plot here, but Warchild is a character story first and foremost.

Fortunately for me, that’s exactly the kind of story I like best—enough plot to give the tale structure and definition, but a character exploration at its heart. The second-person opening was dreadfully breathtaking, and the momentum from that first section easily carried me through the well-worn training arc and enlistment in a new crew. The latter sections were written well enough, though I may gripe a little about time dilation that didn’t totally work and a villain much too clearly foreshadowed. But they weren’t in my sweet spot as a reader, and in themselves, they didn’t offer much beyond an above-average take on a familiar story. Solid, certainly, but not exceptional. 

But there was always the lingering promise that every dangling thread from before would come due, and in the final section of the novel, they converged in a spectacular way. Confrontation of trauma, ethical quandaries, epic battles—every bit of character and plot-related groundwork comes together in a final quarter that was absolutely impossible to put down. The overarching plot comes together in a way that’s both wildly exciting and narratively satisfying, and it does so in a way that puts the lead’s inner struggles front and center. And it’s an effective standalone (though Lowachee has written other books in the same universe), so readers don’t need to commit to a full series to see a full character arc. 

When picking a numerical rating, I’m not quite sure how much to ding Warchild for my relatively minor complaints in a middle half that is good-but-not-great. But regardless of whether I’m slapping it with a 17 or an 18, it’s an easy five stars, and I’m shoving it in the face of anyone who enjoys character-driven sci-fi and doesn’t mind a lead working through a lot of darkness. It’s a wonderful book. 

Recommended if you like: character-driven sci-fi, military sci-fi, themes of working through trauma. 

Can I use it for BingoIt’s hard mode for Space Opera, Dreams, and Character with a Disability, and it’s also a First in a Series (of sorts–the sequels follow different characters) and is written by a POC Author. 

Overall rating: 18 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads. 

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