Having finished reading the first book in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, I was really looking forward to the second, to see the continued adventures of John Perry, but that’s just not what happened, in fact, John Perry doesn’t appear in the second book at all, he’s only mentioned a handful of times and really, that seriously affected my enjoyment of the book. Old Man’s War became so much about Perry that having a largely different set of characters in the sequel, aside from being in the same universe, was very disconcerting.
That aside though, let’s see how The Ghost Brigades makes it through the ringer.
When one of the best scientists in the Colonial Defense Force turns traitor and it looks like three of Earth’s worst enemies are joining forces to destroy them, they need to know why Charles Boutin went rogue and therefore clone his body and implant his mind into a new Ghost Brigade soldier. The memory implant doesn’t take and new soldier Jared Dirac goes through his regular training, but something is different about him and over time, the memories of Boutin start to surface until he and his Special Forces brethren, led by Jane Sagan, lead the charge to recover Boutin and stop what could be a hellacious war against Earth.
I guess Scalzi was trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice, although to be honest, he didn’t really succeed. Sure, I ended up enjoying Dirac as a character somewhat, but he just never had the gravitas or the emotional center that Perry did and I thought the book suffered from it. At least with Perry, you never thought that he might turn traitor at any moment, which is something that was a constant danger with Dirac. Also, while Sagan had a significant role in the first book, she was never a character that I formed a real emotional bond with and here, she still had a standoffish nature that didn’t get me that enthused about her or her troubles. Sure, she was constantly at the edge of death, as is everyone in these books, but I never felt really worried that she might buy the farm. I never had the kind of closeness to any of the characters as I did to Perry and Scalzi played the same game here that he did in OMW, where he tried to get us emotionally invested with secondary characters, only to have them die off camera. I no more felt bad that Dirac’s girlfriends died than I did when Perry’s friends did. It’s war. People die. Big deal.
On the other hand, he keeps trying to make us curious about the godlike Consu, we know they have amazing technology far beyond the rest of the alien races, we know that they meddle in the affairs of others for reasons so far unknown, but for the second book in a row, I found myself not really caring that much because there isn’t any real sign of background machinations, they don’t seem to actually want anything, they handed out some technology to the Rraey in the first and they engineered sentience into the Obin, but these don’t seem to be linked in any way, in fact, the Consu really strike me as bored children playing with powerful toys. Hopefully we’ll see that there’s really a plan in the future.
That’s the thing, I really like this universe that he’s created, I want to know more about the universe and the aliens and how everything came to be the way that it is. I think his CDF ideas are interesting. I just don’t particularly care about most of the characters that he’s telling the story through. Maybe I was just hoping for more Perry, no, I was definitely hoping for more Perry and when I didn’t get it, I just didn’t get the same level of enjoyment this time around as I did the first time, maybe because we got so much of the same story, the creation of the super-soldiers, the training montage, the exploration of the BrainPal, it was all in the first book, they spent too much time doing it again here. Yes, I know you didn’t have to read the first book to get what happened here, but for those of us who did, it was too samey, at least for my taste.
So my review, in a nutshell, is if you read the first book and you liked the first book, prepare for a lot of deja vu. It’s not bad, it’s just not going to knock your socks off because there’s a lot of repetition. Once you get past that, you get a nice space opera story that could have some real implications for the future of the universe, but let’s be honest, you don’t read books for future implications, you read them to be entertained in the here and now and in that, The Ghost Brigades didn’t quite get there for me.