John Scalzi’s first sequel to Old Man’s War expands his universe and bests the first novel.
Title: The Ghost Brigades
Author: John Scalzi
First Published: 2006
The Ghost Brigades, cloned from deceased humans and engineered for war, function as the special forces of our future military, which protects human colonies against numerous hostile species. Their missions include those that many would be unwilling to perform, and their actions can seem both heroic and ethically questionable.
During the final third of the book, we hear another version of how Earth’s military works, and how the galaxy’s species interact. We hear it from a dubious source, but it makes for a plausible alternative look at a series that has, thus far, only shown its readers how things appear to soldiers within the military—- a military whose Brass controls communication about the universe. This disturbing critique of the world we thought we knew from Old Man’s War has obvious real-world applications. The novel, having already provided us with a number of ethical dilemmas, raises uncertainties about the assumptions under which its protagonists fight…
…Unfortunately, the book continues after the main plot’s conclusion, and destroys much of that uncomfortable but thought-provoking ambiguity in a somewhat heavy-handed fashion. Granted, we realize that the Brass have been misleading citizens and soldiers alike, but not to the degree that our source has suggested. Scalzi answers some of the questions we were much better off pondering over, at least until the next novel.
The final pages seemingly exist to set up the next novel. This seems unnecessary, and I have to wonder if the publishers requested it.
Originality: 4/6. Whereas Old Man’s War used the basic plot of Starship Troopers, Scalzi here tells a story of his own. SF fans will find much of the territory familiar, but handled effectively.
One of the book’s most memorable missions involves an insectoid race. This is hardly a new concept, but I think most readers will find Scalzi’s depiction of their society intriguing.
Imagery: 4/6. Partway through the book, we encounter some particularly interesting genetically modified humans. I wish we knew more about the alien races (also, don’t the other races in the galaxy use genetic engineering? They seem not to– but, of course, we wouldn’t necessarily know if they did).
Story: 6/6. Scalzi knows how to keep a story consistently interesting.
Characterization: 5/6 The book features some fascinating central characters. I particularly enjoyed the handling of Jared and Boutin. I felt that both the aliens and the Ghost Brigade members themselves should have been even stranger than they were.
Emotional Response: 5/6.
Editing: 5/6. Scalzi’s writing has improved, and this book mostly avoids the excessive expository and persuasive dialogue which mark its predecessor.
Overall score: 5/6. The book answers many questions critics raised over Old Man’s War.
In total, The Ghost Brigades receives 34/42.
A third book in the series, The Last Colony, has been nominated for a 2008 Hugo.