Brothers In Arms, by Ben Weaver

brothers-in-arms-by-ben-weaver coversGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: EOS
Published: 2001
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by Bluejack

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Ben Weaver mixes the best sensibilities of military science fiction with a little Star Wars style magic. The result builds from a boot-camp tale with a twist to an exciting, fast-paced adventure.

Scott St. Andrew is fortunate enough to have escaped his dreary home-world by virtue of acceptance into an elite officer school (South Point, consciously modeled, of course, after it’s Earthly namesake). There his good fortune ends. He is worst in his squad, and if his peers didn’t hate him for bringing down the team average, they would hate him for his deformity — an unusual birthmark specific to his home world. When he’s not screwing up, poor St. Andrew is contemplating quitting.

He never gets the chance. War breaks out and school is no longer in session.

Weaver does some interesting things here. Foremost, the story is told in first person, and the framework makes it clear that not only will St. Andrew make it through training, he will survive the war. This is a daring authorial choice Weaver, because it undermines the tension of the piece. He pulls it off, however, by successfully replacing the ‘Will it work out for him?’ into ‘How will he manage it?’ And, while we know our boy will make it, Weaver signals early that no one else is safe.

This becomes a tale of high heroism, but even when the Star Wars elements come in, there are no easy moral choices. There is no good versus evil here. In fact, Weaver does a splendid job depicting the incredible confusion of war, both minute-by-minute tactics, and the grunt’s-eye-view of strategy. The war is, effectively, a civil war, splitting what was an integrated military into opposing camps, complete with some shared technologies, information systems, and, of course, traitors. Nothing’s simple here.

Weaver never backs up. There are very few infodumps here to give the reader a clear picture of what’s going on. We know what Scott St. Andrew knows, and we see that he has woefully insufficient information to make delicate moral choices. Some readers may long for a bigger picture here, but Weaver’s choice succeeds in conveying the multi-layered confusion of war.

Weaver also confronts another horrible truth: in war, people must kill other people. Other good, honorable men and women who are simply doing their jobs. He pulls no punches here.

Despite these many virtues, Brothers in Arms is structurally flawed. The core transition in the novel occurs when the officer candidates are rushed through a final conditioning process, which turns out to be an alien technology. This is sort of an instant Jedi Knight injection. While the results of the process are only inconsistently accessible, Weaver digs himself a bit of a hole by making the results too powerful. When the Force is with young St. Andrew, it sucks all tension out of the narrative. Moreover, the fact that the conditioning combines with his birthmark mutation to make him super-ultra powerful is a far too easy turnaround for all his earlier last-place finishes. Weaver attempts to force the boy to earn his stripes even so, but we move into the somewhat silly world of superheros in order to pull it off.

A second fairly major flaw: the first third of the book sets itself up as a strongly character-based coming of age story, but these elements drift without much satisfying resolution as war overtakes the story. While this may also be realistic, as a work of art it leaves a certain disappointment. I found myself wondering if major parts of the novel had been chopped out — one imagines first novel pressures forcing Weaver to keep the story moving at the expense of character development.

Whatever the origin, it resulted in an anti-climactic conclusion. Fortunately, the book has found an enthusiastic audience and Ben Weaver has more novels ahead within which to explore his (surviving) characters.

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