The Short Version: John Perry and Jane Sagan, along with their adopted daughter Zoë have made a life for themselves on a new human colony. Things are pretty ordinary, but that’s not so bad. Still, when the CDF comes calling and asks them to lead a new colony – the auspiciously named Roanoke colony – they jump at the chance for a little more adventure. That adventure, however, will end up changing the very balance of power in the cosmos.
The Review: So if the first Old Man’s War novel was a typical space battle novel and the second more of a heists/Bourne/special agents in space novel, then this third could be considered a bit of a space Western. Not in the Joss Whedon way – but rather in the “little outpost fighting against invaders” kind of way, like the Alamo. And when it boils down, that’s really just about all this novel actually is. For all of the hefty political stuff happening around the edges, the crux of the novel is the Roanoke colony and its struggle for survival. The politics, worldly though they might be, are only a means to a plotted end.
And so looking at the novel in this way, does it stand up? I say yes. Firstly, it’s damned fun to see John and Jane again. Scalzi’s writing is easy-going and propulsive as ever, but I think it’s these characters that really make the series so special to me. That said, there are a couple things that are brought back somewhat artificially – to make the plot more interesting. Jane’s forced reintegration into the Special Forces, especially, seemed a bit forced – as though it was in the service not so much of the plot but of having her kick some ass and then also as a bonus “here’s a little tidbit dropped at the end of the novel that I won’t spoil but it makes it all okay, right? Okay bye!” plot device. But I liked John’s assistant/secretary and I liked Trujillo, the most boisterous of the colonial leaders. Poor choice of name though, considering he’s in politics. Anyway.
Things start off as you’d expect for any colonization sort of novel, albeit with the big caveat that something HUGE goes wrong very quickly. Well, I say “wrong” – unintended or… unexpected, actually, might be the best term. But beyond that, you’re looking at the typical shipwrecked castaway story. The colonists do the best they can and a large part of the novel is them coming to understand the territory they’ve been handed. There’s the big, overarching galactic threat… but when you’re struggling to grow your crops, that takes a back seat, you know?
Actually, I would much rather have seen the plot stick around on the minutia of Roanoke. Or not even minutia – there’s a whole subplot of the natives of Roanoke, a humanoid-ish but millennia behind us species, that gets completely dropped about halfway through the novel. Obviously, larger-universe concerns had to take over but… the “werewolves” don’t know that. The first half of the novel, as a result, feels cheapened by the second half: it seems like none of it really mattered.
Of course, that’s also kind of true. None of it really does matter. There’s a whole lot of political brinksmanship that happens and it’s all a little bit hamfisted… but that doesn’t really matter because it’s still damned fun to read. See, that’s the thing: I can nitpick the issues I have with the plotting and the way things shook out, but I burned through the book just like I would’ve as a nerdy 7th grader at recess. That, to me, is worth sacrificing a little subtlety and nuance.
Rating: 3 out of 5. That lack of nuance and subtlety – as well as the somewhat clunky plotting – makes the book, in retrospect, less enjoyable than the first two novels. I’m all for big expansive universe-shaking stuff – but don’t do it at the cost of the little stories, the pieces that are most intriguing and interesting and maybe even “unique” about these books. I’m told that the fourth book, Zoë’s Tale, has a bit more depth on the character side in a non-plot-driven manner. I hope so. But, then again, I’m also not crazy about losing John and Jane from the main thrust of the plot. Here’s hoping whoever picks it up will be just as engaging.