Warchild by Karin Lowachee. ★★★★★
Trigger warning for rape and child abuse
Warchild was an absolutely brutal book. When you look at the thematic material – the effects of war on children’s psychology – it’s no wonder.
Warchild takes place against the background of war between humans and aliens and some humans who sympathize with them. Yet, Warchild is an intensely character based novel centered around Jos, who ages from eight to eighteen over the course of the book. Basically, this is a coming of age story from hell.
The first thirty pages of the book are some of the most difficult. In that short span of pages, Jos’s home trading ship is attacked, his parents killed, and Jos himself kidnapped by an abusive pirate captain. This section of the book (and this section only) was told in second person, which was a brilliant decision on the part of Lowachee. A lot of what of what happens to Jos is implied, not out right stated, but the effects ripple through the rest of the book.
When Jos finally manages to get away, it is because he is kidnapped yet again, this time by an alien sympathizer. He winds up on the alien planet and is trained as warrior in the fight against humanity. It would have been really easy for Warchild to fall into the trap of being either a story about humankind valiantly fighting the evil aliens or the noble aliens resisting persecution by the humans (i.e. Cameron’s Avatar). Instead, it’s never really clear who Jos can trust. The only person that Jos does trust in the book is his mentor, but I was never fully convinced that he wasn’t using Jos as a tool in the war.
Like I said earlier, this book isn’t really about the war. It’s about the impact the war has on Jos. For much of the story Jos is adrift, lost in depths of space, not truly belonging to one world or another. He’s traumatized and isolated and has a whole host of issues.
Warchild was deeply uncomfortable to read, which I think was the whole point. It’s also a deeply powerful book. If it has one weakness, it’s that the alien culture could have been more original – they felt heavily Japanese inspired. I would recommend Warchild but with caution. I think you need to know going in that this is a book largely about child abuse. I’ve seen it be compared to Ender’s Game, but it’s definitely not a book I’d give to a younger reader.