I fell in love with Tanya Huff’s writing back in 2010 when I read her urban supernatural “Blood” series, which twisted standard horror tropes into something new and kept up the tension while still mixing in humour.
I didn’t realise that, after the Blood series, Tanya Huff wrote a series of Hi-Tech SF military novels. I found them by following one of my favourite narrators, Marguerite Gavin, on audible.com and ended up consuming the first three books in the series back to back in less than a week.
As soon as I started the first book, “Valor’s Choice”, I knew that I was reading something far more original and compelling than the Kris Longknife military sci-fi series.
Tanya Huff has created a satisfyingly complex universe, in which the Elder Races of the Confederation, who view themselves as too evolved to take the lives of sentient beings, recruit three less evolved races, including Humans, into the Confederation, on condition that they fight The Others, who are expanding into Confederation Space, taking lives and seizing real estate.
All three races serve in the Marines and the Navy in integrated units. The Marine Corps structure and culture have been adopted from the Human model but has been adapted to accommodate the needs of the other two races. The books come alive through the interaction of the different races within the tight-knit structure of a Marine Platoon, generating real camaraderie laced with wit, cynicism and loyalty.
At the heart of the books is the indomitable Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr. She is the NCO you’d want to be commanding you in a fight: calm, resourceful, brave but not reckless, skilled at getting officers to do the right thing and a Marine to the core.
In “Valor’s Choice” we see her assembling a platoon of battle-seasoned troops to serve as an honour guard for what is supposed to be a diplomatic mission to bring a fourth warrior race into the Confederation but which turns into a battle against overwhelming odds.
Tanya Huff brings to life the way Staff Sergeant Kerr shapes her newly formed platoon and coaches a green Lieutenant without undermining his authority. By the time things went wrong, I’d started to care about the platoon and applaud Kerr. I was also impressed by the way Tanya Huff referred to the clichés of the genre while stepping around them and keeping the narrative fresh.
The diplomats the Marines are protecting are from the “civilised people don’t kill people – they pay uncivilised people to do it for them” Elder Races: one bird-like, one spider-like and one a sort of slow-moving Big Foot. As well as making each of these races distinct, Tanya Huff manages to use them to provoke some thoughts about the relationship between those who fight and the civilian politicians that they fight for.
When the big battle finally came, the action was fast, tense and believable and the deaths on both sides carried an emotional weight. The resolution of the mission was surprising and clever and satisfying. So much so, that I immediately read the next book in the series: “The Better Part Of Valor”.
In this book, Tanya Huff resists the temptation to build on the relationships created in “Valor’s Choice” and has Staff Sergeant Kerr pulled from her platoon and sent to lead a specially assembled recon team to explore a big yellow alien ship the has been found adrift in Confederation space. The ship is not what it initially appears to be and soon Kerr and her new team are fighting their way through.
Tanya Huff rings the changes by introducing an incompetent, media-hungry Lieutenant, appointed for political reasons and a liability to everyone around him; a new set of Elder races – this time scientists and journalists; and a maverick human salvage operator.
“The Better Part Of Valor” isn’t a repeat of the first book in a different setting. It expanded my view of the Confederation, giving the first hints that the Elder Races might have a hidden agenda and questioning the real nature of the invasion into Confederation space. It also looks at the relationship between the Marines and the Navy, showing how vulnerable Marines are in space and how much they depend on the Navy for cover.
The action is a little less intense than in “Valor’s Choice” but the plot is more complex and the environment more original. The resolution of the novel left a tantalising hook on what would happen next, so I went on to “The Heart of Valor”
This was one of those times when I was happy that I wasn’t reading the books as they were published as there was a five year gap between the novels, while Tanya Huff published other things. Perhaps because of this, the Tobin Kerr we meet in “The Heart Of Valour” has matured and progressed. She’s now Gunnery Sergeant Kerr, she’s in a relationship with a civilian and she’s been trapped in an endless briefing cycle, related to the events on the alien ship in “The Better Part Of Valor”. When she’s offered an temporary escape from this to accompany and recuperating Major to “Crucible” a planet used to train Marine Recruits under live fire, she jumps at the chance and finds herself yet again in the midst of an unexpected fight. This time all she has is raw recruits and the support of a civilian doctor and a Major who is recovering from dire injuries.
I found this book more thoughtful than the first two, although it was still fast-paced and action-packed. There is a more in-depth look at the three species that work in the Corp, there is an element of intrigue that can’t be dealt with by firing weapons and blowing things up, and the weight of the extra responsibility that Kerr is now carrying is clear to see.
This book opened up a whole new set of challenges for the Confederation and left me hungry for more but I decided to give myself a couple of weeks before i dive into the next one: “Valor’s Trial”.