(2017) Jamie Sawyer, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 439pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50812-2
War makes for good stories, there is no doubt about that: Enderís Game, War Dogs>, and, of course, The War of the Worlds all have their share of conflict, thatís for sure. But Pariah, the first book in the 'Eternity War' trilogy, has one key element that sets it apart from myriad other sci-fi war stories: the protagonists canít die. What I mean by that, rather than a meta-commentary on plot armour or deus ex machina, is that the lack of permanent death in this far-future universe makes for a fascinating look at the effects of combat on the characters. The characters in question, The Jackals, are underdogs in every sense of the word. They suffer under poor leadership, dangerous missions, and fraying relationships as a group of vastly different people are pushed together to create a fighting force. Pariah has as its antagonists a galactic conspiracy of terrorists, hidden among the everyday populace and sowing havoc in pursuit if cryptic goals.
As a protagonist, Lt. Keira Jenkins is incredibly flawed. She is reckless, impulsive and disdainful of those under her command. Diplomacy certainly isnít her strong point, and her attempts to coerce and communicate with others are what really drives Pariah as a narrative. She is damaged, perhaps the most damaged of her squad, and it shows: everything is either a threat or a way to blow off stress in her world. She is 'extracted' from missions hundreds of time, each incident being the closer she has come to a true death.
This defiance of death through technology forms the core narrative of Pariah. It shapes all of the main characters in specific ways; some respond with violence and fatalism, others a possibly misplaced sort of optimism. It would be easy for this kind of story to typecast the members of the combat squad, but Pariah does a superb job of subverting these tropes; the Russian convict soldier Novak in particular has a superb arc, and often steals the show with some of the best lines.
In terms of world-building, Pariah really shines in terms of its simplicity. There are three main sapient species in the galaxy, and nothing seems to be obtusely linked in an attempt to sequel-bait. Each galactic faction is different and strange. The Shard are a machine race that has seemingly vanished from the Galaxy, and the Krell are a fish-like hive-mind that has only recently made peace with humanity after a brutal conflict. Pariah makes a great statement about just how alien both species are, and the near-total incompatibility they have when it comes to diplomacy with humans. When the Krell fail to communicate with allied soldiers beyond a single word at a time, you know that youíre dealing with an incredible gulf of communication.
In conclusion, Pariah is a brilliant beginning to the 'Eternity War' series. The characters are varied and subverted, and their conflicts shoulder most of the narrative weight. The world-building serves the narrative, and not the other way round, and it makes for impressive military SF reading, on a grand scale.
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