published in 2000
Tanya Huff is one of those science fiction writers I vaguely knew about but never had read anything from, nor to be honest, had heard much about. One of those authors that steadily plods along, has a decent following and career but never quite had a breakthrough novel. I never really had a reason to take a closer look at her work, until I found myself in the English Bookstore last Friday looking for something light to read and Valor’s Choice caught my eye. I’m always on the lookout for good, enjoyable military science fiction and continuously disappointed by what I find on the shelves, when even a cursory glance is enough to show me that yet again my expectations are set too high.
And yet my standards for mil-sf are set so low already; all any story has to be to get me to read it, is to beat the Weber minimum. If the politics are less annoying and rightwing than David Weber‘s, the writing can be just as awkward, as long as there’s something interesting the writer is doing with their story. Literary qualities be damned, just as long as you tell a good story. Tanya Huff, from what I saw in the bookstore seemed capable of delivering at least that much, so I took a gamble on her. You may guess from the fact that I’m reviewing this already that she more than succeeded: I started reading this on the way home from the bookstore and had finished it on Saturday evening.
Valor’s Choice is not necessarily a good novel: Huff’s writing is servicable, slightly better than it needs to be to tell the story she wants to tell, while her characters for the most part are the usual stereotypes found in any military story, with the plot cleverly swiped from real life. For those who know their military history, the cover above gives a huge clue to which particular Victorian battle is re-imagined here, not for the first time in science fiction. None of this matters however, as the story that Huff creates out of these less than inspired ingredients was gripping enough that I had to keep reading to see how it all ended, even if I could guess the broad outlines of the story almost from the start and knew roughly what the payoff would be. That is in fact part of the payout of mil-sf for me, similar to the denouncement of the murderer in a classic detective story. What a good mil-sf story needs to do is give you a set of stock characters you can quickly bond with, follow them through the everyday routines of military life for a while with all its absurdities and annoyances, then give them a chance to win a victory against overwhelming odds, or at the very least a heroic death — craven betrayal by their civilian masters is optional though common.
What Tanya Huff gives us is staff sergeant Torin Kerr, a “battle-hardened professional”, who has just herded her mixed company of Human, Taykan — elf like aliens with an insatiable sex drive and few scrubles whom to share it with — and Kray — true omnivores who take a great pleasure in nausating their comrades in arms with what they eat, dead or alive, through a particularly nasty encounter when her and their well earned leave is cancelled for a sensitive, high profile engagement. They have been voluntered to serve as a honour guard for the Confederation diplomats visiting a newly discovered alien race, the lizardlike Silsviss, to get them to join the Confederation before the Others can do this. As the Silsviss are a typical warrior race, there needs to be an elite force of Confederation troops there to impress them and Torin and her people have been chosen for this role. Bad enough, but made worse for Torin when she discovers her new 2nd Lieutenant, the Taykan di’Ka Jarret, is the same Taykan she had just spent a very nice evening recuperating with…
The Confederation is a coalition of species that had amiably lived together in their corner of the Galaxy for a long time, long ago having become enlightened enough to realise space is big enough to share. That lasted until the Others came, who wanted it all for themselves. These elder species having long outgrown the need and ability to wage war, they needed more primitive species to fight for them, which is where first humans, then the other two warrior races came in, taken into the Confederation in return for their fighting skills. It’s a setting that’s been used both before and since, with the novelty here that for once these elder races do not seem to be corrupt and manipulative, at least so far.
So Torin, Jarret and the men and women of their company ship out to the Silsviss homeworld, to suffer through endless parades, visits and diplomatic gatherings, until one day, on their way to yet another city, their shuttle is shot down and they crashland into one of the nature reserves set out for the Silviss’ young adult males, who in the grip of their hormones, spent their years of puberty in huge gangs fighting each other, becoming the perfect warriors. Lost in the middle of the reserve, with no way out for the company and the civilians it has to protect and with several dead already and more wounded, Torin and co have to find shelther somewhere and wait for rescue from the Silsviss authorities, if they weren’t the ones that fired those missiles, that is. They find it in a small storage facility that’s normally used to feed the roaming hordes of hormone crazed, hyper aggressive teenage Silsviss males that has now surrounded the company, vastly outnumbered by the thousands of Silsviss coming for them…
And so the scene is set for a heroic defence, as this small band of marines is preparing to defend themselves against these vast hordes of Silsviss, their only consolation being their superiority in weaponry, if not numbers. Even so, if they can survive is anyone’s guess…
As I said, I’m a sucker for these sort of stories and Tanya Huff is as adept at tugging at the heartstrings, at bringing out the heroism of siege warfare as somebody like David Gemmell is. Valor’s Choice is a good entertainment, a story that in everything is slightly better, slightly smarter than it had needed to be to tell it’s story. As such it stands head and shoulders above the Weber Minimum, as well as the majority of mil-sf novels. I think I will read more of Huff.