I always hate giving a low rating or a negative review to any book. Bringing a novel all the way to publication requires a helluva lot of time and effort, and is an endeavor not to be taken lightly. With Jean Johnson’s A Soldier’s Duty, though, I find myself in the opposite situation, almost having to apologize for giving a book a better rating than it perhaps merits.
As I was reading, I had an issue with the book that, I thought, was major enough to earn it a rating between two and three stars, but somewhat closer to two. Sort of “Yeah, I kind of liked it, but…” When I finished, though, somehow a pleasurable reading experience — you know, just pure, simple enjoyment — had overcome that obstacle, and I found myself in the three and a half star range. As I like to say, the kinder, gentler me almost always rounds up, where once I’d have been more of a hard-ass.
There’s a lot of good, here: From the standpoint of craftsmanship, i.e., the mechanical aspects of writing, I found absolutely nothing to complain about. In a publishing world where copy-editing seems to have become a luxury writers can’t afford, or, worse, think they don’t need, Johnson and her editors are to be congratulated. In addition, Ia is a likable character, though a bit of a caricature, too, at times. Action scenes are well-written, if pretty over-the-top. Plot-wise — sorry for the Watergate-ism — a surprise or two would have been nice, but, at least, the plotting is consistent. The world-building is not astonishingly original, though the idea of a precog who also has the strength and speed of a heavy-worlder is, I thought, a nice touch. The details were quite realistic, especially boot camp. Kudos to the author for all of the above.
So, what’s that bugbear issue? At the first battle scene i,n an reading update on another forum, I commented that a precog with other psi powers could easily become a Mary Sue character, but that Johnson had avoided that pitfall. Alas, my praise was premature.
In the next major action sequence, we find our intrepid heroine surfing atop rampaging flood waters on a piece of metal roofing, then balancing as she leapt from log to tree trunk in the churning waters. It was like Tarzan swinging through the trees, fergodssake. You could almost hear the percussive rhythms of the Rite of Spring in the background. Later, we learn she can deflect blasts from a laser weapon with her sword. Un huh. Sure she can. And, oh, yeah, she can control people’s minds. In fact, she can pretty much pull any psychic trick out of her asteroid that the situation requires.
In short, what had been an exciting tale, and quite interesting character study becomes, to a large degree, the stuff of comic books. All that’s missing are the “Craaak”s and “Zap”s and “Kapow”s. However, unlike comic books, the fact that our protagonist can overcome every obstacle removes any element of surprise or suspense, which might have elevated this from a decent book to a great one. It was kind of like reading the early Dresden files novels: Major problem? Oh, yeah, Harry just happens to have a spell for that very issue.
Still, despite the very Mary Sue nature of a character who can circumvent — for which, read “abliterate” pretty much any obstacle, however formidable, and defeat any foe, however powerful, and despite the outrageous blood-letting — yeah, I get that it’s part of the Bloody Mary legend Ia’s trying to create, but really! — this turned out to be a very enjoyable book. So much so, in fact, that, as I said, I raised it a point and a half from what had been my estimation during the course of reading it. Yes, it is over-the-top, egregiously so. But, it was damn fun. And that, folks, is a very good thing, indeed.