by Tanya Huff
Review by Barton Paul Levenson
Warning: This review contains a spoiler.
Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr of the Confederation Marines is a female warrior in the Heinlein tradition; very formidable, very competent, sexually reckless (she thinks nothing of treating a lover as a one-night stand). Her background isn't explored very thoroughly in the book, but it doesn't need to be; she's a reasonably pleasant viewpoint character caught up in interesting situations.
Interesting as in, "May you live in interesting times." The Confederation, 72 species including humanity, is at war with the unreasoningly hostile Others. The Confederation has just made contact with a new species, the reptilian Silsviss. Torin and a platoon she selects are made the honor guard for a diplomatic mission. This is done because the Silsviss are militaristic and aggressive and the diplomats believe they would prefer to see real combat soldiers in an honor guard. It's just a diplomatic mission, and nothing is expected to go wrong.
But of course it does. There's some amusing interaction with the locals, including a deliberately staged (or at least, not actively prevented) interspecies bar fight to see how each species does in personal combat. But while flying surface to surface to finalize a treaty, missiles hit the Confederation ship and force it down in a remote swamp.
There are many more male Silsviss than females (19 to 1, which I find hard to believe), and the males, like the young males of C. J. Cherryh's hani, are weeded out by being sent to rural preserves and forced to fight one another. It's in just such a preserve that the ship comes down. From then on, it's a matter of defending the small high-tech group against the many low-tech attackers. This isn't as clichéd as this quick description makes it sound; Huff is careful to set up the action so as to avoid the settlers vs. Indians trope. (In fact the battle is based on the 1879 Battle of Rorke's Drift in the Zulu War, according to an afterward by Huff.)
Things get worse and worse. The good guys are struck down one by one as the party slowly runs out of ammunition. Several very clever delaying tactics are used; each one buys them a little time, but the forces arrayed against them are so many that defeat is inevitable. When the good guys are down to their last half-clip, a bunch of likeable characters have been killed, and things look hopeless, the war suddenly ends -- the Silsviss adolescents surrender. The Marines have fought so well, the Silsviss teenagers have declared them dominant, and leave after presenting them with a trophy. Saved by the bell.
This is a good, enjoyable story, except for the very end. Here's the spoiler. It turns out the shooting-down was staged by the Confederation. It was so important to recruit the Silsviss by impressing them with Confederation military valor, the government was willing to sacrifice a platoon of its own Marines to make things work out. Okay, fair enough, governments are often that cynical and this isn't intrinsically hard to believe. But Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr, the book's hero, goes along with it, staging a confrontation with a Silsviss official which backs up Confederation propaganda and ensures the treaty will be signed. In the end, she chooses her government over her friends.
That disappointed the hell out of me. I wanted to like Torin. But I can't respect someone who covers up the murder of comrades in arms to advance government policy. Utilitarians and followers of the philosophy of power will like Valor's Choice; natural rights freaks like me will be appalled. For that reason, and that reason alone, I cannot recommend the book. It's fast-moving and interesting; the characters are mostly likeable, the scientific errors aren't too grating. But it's a well-written book with what I consider an immoral message.
Technical errors: The xenobiology is silly. One of Huff's species, the di'Taykan, have a throat organ that emits sexual pheromones which work on all other known humanoid species. Just throwing the word 'pheromones' into a book doesn't make it good science. The very point of pheromones is that they are species-specific, because from the standpoint of evolution by natural selection, you don't want to attract mates you can't reproduce with. To think that they would work on people from another planet, and not just one species, but several, is ludicrous.
Not only that, but the di'Taykan can tell, by smell, which of a species they've just met is male or female. Do you believe that? I don't.
And another species, the Krai, has a taste preference for human flesh. Ms. Huff, if you eat a death's cup toadstool, you will die, and you have far more in common, biochemically, with that toadstool than you do with someone from another planet. The Krai who eats a human deserves everything he gets, which means at best systemic poisoning and weeks in the hospital and at worst, anaphylactic shock, cardio-respiratory failure and termination within minutes. Man-eating extraterrestrials were a dumb idea when SF writers first thought them up around 1910. They're still a dumb idea.
Another species, the Mictok, are giant spiders. Who wants to bet Tanya Huff has never heard of the square-cube law? I have used intelligent giant spiders in my own SF, but I made them water-breathers, since you could, at least in theory, have an arthropod that size if it were supported by water. There were other technical glitches, but those were the major ones.
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