A year or two ago I sent Brad Torgersen a message telling him that I thought he was one of the best new writers of sci-fi writing in the field today. I had read a number of his works that were up for consideration for the Hugo Award and felt that they were really outstanding (and yes, I voted for him). So it was that I was really thrilled to see a new book available for review by Mr. Torgersen.
But I am conflicted by this book.
Torgerson understands the military and writes about it very well. I am reminded of authors such as Joe Haldeman and Gordon Dickson and Fred Saberhagen (good company to be among) when I read Torgersen. But this book, while doing a marvelous job of bringing the reader into the military through both boot-camp and war, does so almost to the exclusion of the story itself. In fact, we spend nearly half the book, via alternating chapters, following Harrison Barlow as he trains in the ways of modern warfare. Why? Well, that’s a good question. For the purposes of the story it introduces us to a character or two who will play some part of the action later – though I’d say that this set up is definitely not worth the trouble. But it reads as though this was something that Torgersen was comfortable writing…something that came easy to him and managed to fill enough space to make it a novel. But remove the boot-camp scenes and we still have a complete storyline and the connection to one character could have been accomplished with one chapter, rather than half a books’ worth. But then we would have had a novella. A little harder for a publisher to sell.
When we weren’t in boot camp, we were part of a war with a race that look incredibly like over-sized praying mantises which are referred to by the humans as the mantes. The humans haven’t fared well and are on the verge of being completely annihilated. In fact we open the book on a planet called Purgatory in which a host of humans, once soldiers, are now prisoners of the mantes … mostly left alone but without avenue to escape.
Barlow, who has been the Chaplain’s Assistant since boot camp, continues on with the Chaplain’s wishes, building a church to be a sanctuary for ALL who enter. And when a mante enters and inquires about human spirituality, Barlow begins a relationship with a mante he refers to as “The Professor,” and he may be humanity’s only hope for survival.
Something that is made abundantly clear … Harrison Barlow is not a religious man. He is not a believer. His post as the Chaplain’s Assistant comes about as an appointment, and at the chaplain’s request continues with it. And because the chaplain himself was well-regarded by the men of the platoon, Barlow’s continuing of the chaplain’s wishes earns him the respect of the men (by association).
In addition to writing well about the military, Torgersen creates real people. But in this case, while all the people appear real, they are also all nice. Yes…you read that correctly … all the characters here are nice. Even most of the mantes we meet are nice. And this is kind of a problem. How do you create conflict, especially an inter-galactic war, when everyone is nice? I understand that there’s a point being made here about mis-understandings and the failure to tolerate other cultures or beliefs, but this idea isn’t developed well. We spend too much time getting background on Barlow in military and making sure we understand how he isn’t religious, despite his title as the Chaplain’s Assistant, to make the payoff.
In a book with the word ‘chaplain’ in the title, it certainly would be expected that there might be some religion here. I’m definitely not opposed to religion in my fiction, but I don’t want to be preached to. For the most part Torgersen does a fine job of keeping religion and preaching out of the book (and remember, a point is strongly made that Barlow is not religious). But he (Torgersen) does manage to 1) get in some jabs at Catholicism and 2) publicly reflect on that fact that he thinks Mormons are some of the most fervent and ardent supporters of their faith compared to all the Western religions. I am neither Catholic nor Mormon, nor have I ever been either, but I found this small bit of preaching to be annoying and unnecessary and I nearly put the book down at this point. This felt very much like Brad Torgersen and not Harrison Barlow.
There is also a romance here that feels SO tossed in at the last moment, likely the request of an editor rather than a part of the story. It’s all part of the ‘nice’ attribute – as if it was desired to wrap everything up so nicely and that even the solitary Barlow should feel good in the end.
The change in the mante behavior toward the humans also comes about much too easily, though Torgersen tries valiantly to show us that this is a difficult change for the Queen of the mante. And though we aren’t really privy to the behavior of this race, the fact that they completely obliterated two other sentient races before meeting the humans, and could easily accomplish the task against the earth colonies, any stay would be hard to come by. Except here.
But despite all these little things that nagged at me, there was some really great concepts and interesting developments and characters along the way. I did like the fact that despite all the military descriptions the fate of humanity came down to a couple of individuals talking and learning about one another.
This is not, in my opinion, Torgersen’s best work, and I hope he will focus on story-telling in the future, rather than simply being nice. This one balances out very well. For everything that I didn’t like about the book, there was something that I did like that kept me reading. This one is a clear two and half stars.
Looking for a good book? The Chaplain’s War by Brad R. Torgersen is a military sci-fi adventure with the fate of humanity in the balance, but everything about the book, including the way it wraps up, is simply too nice to be truly engaging.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Chaplain’s War
author: Brad R. Torgersen
paperback, 368 pages