Orphan Brigade is the second entry in the Sim War series and continues the combination of excellent writing with strong characterizations. Although both in the series are technically novellas, neither feel rushed or frustratingly short – they are decided worth the investment of time. The books provide a solid and nuanced plot that is both intelligent and grounded and the perfect length for the story being told.
Story: Jander Mortas isn’t going to be given time to recover from the loss of his comrades or the surprise of an alien infiltrator. The government doesn’t know what to do with him and they aren’t happy their most secure base was almost breached. But Jander’s father is the most powerful human in the universe and gets his son released eventually. Jander isn’t pleased and opts to return to the military, joining the orphan brigade. Meanwhile, his sister will do all she can to destroy her father – even if it means running straight into a trap herself. And above it all, their father plays a very deadly game of war and politic while trying to protect what’s left of his family.
In Orphan Brigade, the world opens up a bit as we get three POVs: Jander, his sister, and their father. Each has a secret to reveal and a different perspective on the SIMs that serve the purpose of rounding out the story. Oddly enough, though, my preference would have been to stick solely to Jander and the military sci fi aspect of the story. With the addition of the father and sister, we veer more into space opera/politics and away from the more fascinating SIM battles of military sci fi.
O’Neil’s strength in the first book was the very grounded and human storytelling. Each person felt unique and distinct rather than cardboard cliches shambling along to propel a story. I was less invested with Jander’s sister and father and preferred to get back into the war scenes with the orphan brigade. The political side just didn’t feel as real or grounded as the military story and I came to resent the break up of the battle scenes with the more mundane politics.
As well, though I greatly appreciated women of strength as with Jander’s sister and his father’s politician lover Reena, both women were a bit one-dimensional in their characters. Reena as a lawn mower and Ayliss as single-minded to the point of self detriment. The men in the story are all allowed weaknesses and nuances that the women weren’t (this was the case in the first book as well). But I’ll always take fierce women over male-interest rocket scientist supermodel cliches any day.
Orphan Brigade was much slower than the first novella, which was all about survival. I admit to skimming in several places as the descriptions seemed a bit too dense to be necessary to follow the story. That said, the book isn’t a techno-heavy sci fi with endless discussions of gun types or how space travel happens. At heart, it’s a personal story and the consequences of the war. The casualties are always high.
The above thoughts are really nitpicks for a solidly written and engaging series. Each book has a definite arc with a surprise or twist at the end. As well, there are some very distinct and clever ideas about alien races in here that I found to be very imaginative. Little details, such as the mutilation of specific parts of soldier’s bodies by the SIM aliens made a lot of sense and added dimension and intelligence to the story. This isn’t a gung ho guns and ammo type of series and it is very thoughtfully written.
After the first book, I eagerly awaited this second book and it did not disappoint. The scope broadens and we get new characters; but the heart O’Neill puts into his plot and characters has remained consistent. I greatly look forward to the third novella.
Reviewed from an ARC provided by the publisher.