Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Better Part of Valor, by Tanya Huff

This week I'm taking a look at The Better Part of Valor, which apparently is the second in a series of science-fiction books written by Tanya Huff. These books, I think, follow the adventures of Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr, a member of the Confederation Marine Corps. I imagined this would be a pretty by the numbers space opera pulp adventure nonsense which I have a special fondness for, but there's something about this book that just doesn't sit right with me for some reason. I'll try to define it in the post, but I think it's a lot of little things that add up in the long run.

The biggest problem, and I'm really trying not to hold this against the book, is that this is actually the second book and this is where I came into the series. This is definitely my fault as a reader and I probably should have started at the beginning rather than jumping in. I say this because I rapidly felt out of my depth as the book continued and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what exactly was going on and the backstory to the world. Fortunately there was a fair amount of exposition included to make me not completely lost, but I was left with the feeling I should have listened to the first book instead.

The plot basically goes that Sergeant Kerr has been ''recruited'' by a major general for a top-secret reconnaissance mission. A very large and mysterious ship has been discovered floating out in space, which doesn't match any known Confederacy, Alliance, or Other ships. A squad of twelve marines is being put together, along with a hotshot marine captain of a politically important species in the Confederacy parliament, to investigate the ship and find out what the heck it is and who sent it. If you've been around sci-fi as long as I have, you know we're just waiting for something to happen on the ship. Personally I was betting money on horrifying face-eating aliens, but the result was more..subtle.

One of the things I was confused about was whether the author meant for this book to be a parody or not. There are a couple of things that kind of felt like it should be a parody, such as one of the characters totally expecting the big, friendly marine everyone likes to buy the farm on this operation and being super mad about it. It's almost like he can see the red shirts they're wearing. There's also everyone chanting ''Ours is not to reason why'' when confronted with something they don't fully understand. Although personally that saying bothers me because that saying refers to a military disaster that happened because someone failed to reason why. And finally there's the incredibly vain, out of touch, Zapp Brannigan-esque marine captain who butts heads with the competent Sergeant Kerr. I will say I liked the Will Shatner voice the reader affected to read that character's lines, but it also made it feel like a parody even more. The problem is there were a bunch of serious things too that felt like the author was trying to play everything straight.

There are also things that just don't make sense, further made obvious by the characters pointing them out. For example, to put the marine team together for this mission the major general decides to pull twelve different marines from twelve different units on the logic that the media doesn't follow individual marines so it'll help keep this mission a secret. This of course proves entirely wrong as the idiot captain let word slip to the media, who followed Sergeant Kerr to the super secret mission anyway and could have, conceivably, just followed Sergeant Kerr without being tipped off. And as Kerr herself points out, they don't have a lot of time to put twelve different marines into a functioning combat unit, a disadvantage when you're going into a ship possibly infested with face-eating aliens. I think you probably could have pulled a squad of twelve or even a full platoon of about thirty to fifty marines and discreetly shipped them somewhere else via military transport. I mean, the galaxy is a big place and I'm sure the Confederacy military is a fairly large organization with millions of people. The media can't possibly devote their time to following platoon sized units being moved around. It'd be a little odd, sure, but not unusual. Or heck, just move an entire unit like a regiment, and then pull a company or platoon or squad or whatever you need while the regiment's on shore leave or whatever.

Another thing that doesn't make sense is the level of freedom and access the media has to the military in this series. This is explained that the majority of races in the Confederacy are actually pacifists and so they don't understand military needs. Which is why when war broke out with the Others, the Confederacy recruited humans and a couple other warlike species to make the Navy and Marine Corps. And apparently the media can force the military to tell them everything going on in any military operation anywhere in the galaxy, but the reporters aren't required to answer any questions the military asks them unless they want to. Like, I understand that your main enemy, so far as you know, isn't capable of communicating with you on an understandable level, but it makes sense to not have the media telling all your military secrets to anyone who will listen.

Finally there's a whole subplot where Sergeant Kerr deals with a civilian salvage pilot who actually found the mysterious ship in the first place. They start out not liking each other and Kerr makes it abundantly clear she doesn't like the salvage pilot from the start. But by the end we have an ''Oh look, they really do like each other!'' Moment. So my question is, where the hell did this trope come from? Someone told me to blame Jane Austen, but seriously why should characters who can't stand each other want to get together by the end of a book? There should be some reason they're attracted but if you don't like someone, you don't like someone. I just never really understood it and it's a larger issue because it's used in a lot of other works, but it was sort of another detail that bothered me.

Overall I feel like this book is okay at best, but not terribly good. Leaving aside my confusion at entering the series partway in, there are just a lot of other things in the series that don't make sense. On top of that I'm not entirely sure if this is trying to be a parody or if it's trying to be played straight. If it's being played straight it's almost too melodramatic for its own good, and if it's a parody it's too subtle to be very funny. Personally it just doesn't fire on enough cylinders to be worth pursuing further.

- Kalpar

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