Review – Burndive by Karin Lowachee

BURNDIVE
Warner Aspect
Hardcover — October 2003

Four out of Five BLINGS

When Karin Lowachee’s first novel, Warchild, came out in 2002, reviewers compared it to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.
Both novels tackled the story of how interstellar war affects children: Card began the story of Ender Wiggin,
raised from birth to lead an army of children against an alien threat; Lowachee told the story of Jos Musey, an orphan refugee cast in the unlikely roles of soldier, spy, and peacemaker.

Both novels offered a glimpse of the psychological and physical pressures under which children become killers while retaining their innocence, and how the human spirit rebounds when presented with the direst obstacles.

Burndive will take readers back to the universe created in Warchild, introducing the character of Ryan Azarcon, as Lowachee examines the uneasy truce between Hubcentral forces led by Ryan’s father, Captain Cairo Azarcon, and the striviirc-na, commanded by Jos Musey’s mentor Nikolas S’tlian, who is portrayed as a terrorist and killer by the EarthHub media.
This is the same media that lionizes Ryan Azarcon as the “Hot #1 Bachelor” of his home station because of his genetically engineered good looks, plays up his infamous father’s activities prosecuting the war, and tests the public relations acumen of his mother, Songlian Lau. The same media that relentlessly pursues any news — good or bad, but preferably bad — because bad news plays better on the Send network that ties EarthHub to its Rim colonies.

The novel opens shortly after Ryan has returned to his home on Austro Station after an aborted visit to Earth. Ryan is suffering from shock after witnessing a terrorist bombing of his grandfather’s embassy and after almost dying of an apparent drug overdose. He is desperately trying to hide his anguish and fear from himself and from his family by using the drug Silver, which briefly lets him forget that he lives in a fishbowl. The only person he might trust to help him is his bodyguard Sid, but Sid is having an affair with his mother, who is seeking companionship to make bearable the strained marriage with her absent deep spacer husband. Acting distant and aloof is a safety mechanism.

Sid and his mother were sleeping together. They had been since before Earth, since he was fourteen in fact. It was a scab on his and Sid’s friendship and the more he picked at it, the more it bled. And the deeper the scar. So he’d learned not to pick at it — too much. Even though he doubted the scab would ever fall away. It was a permanent mark on his inner skin and maybe Sid saw it when they were together. When had they not been together in the last seven years? It got to the point where people who didn’t know why Sid followed him around would ask if they were a couple. It had stopped being funny after Sid and Mom Lau got together and Sid started to get impatient with misunderstandings.
Maybe Sid had learned to overlook the scab.

His home is not a safe haven, however. A failed assassination attempt follows the truce, forcing Captain Azarcon to bring Ryan aboard his ship Macedon, which is where Lowachee starts to neatly intertwine the narrative from Burndive with Warchild. Jos Musey plays an important part in Ryan’s story, reinforcing the theme of children caught in the midst of war. Ryan learns more about his father, a man he has met fewer than a half-dozen times in his life, and Lowachee shows that peace — whether it comes as an end to violence or as peace of mind — is a hard commodity to find.
Rather than compare Burndive to Card’s sophomore foray into the Ender universe with Speaker for the Dead, I’d rather cite his dark novel Lost Boys. While Speaker for the Dead showed Card’s facility for drawing engaging characters, Lost Boys is the book that I remember best because of its heart-wrenching climax. It is not so much a war novel as much as a peace novel, where the casualties are as heavy and the battles as bloody. Lowachee refuses to pull any punches as she draws the reader into the troubled relationship between Ryan and his family, and I challenge any reader not to feel a lump in their throat as they finish the second and final sections.
Burndive is a completely different novel than<from the first, and shows Lowachee’s skill better than a carbon copy sequel. Warchild rightly won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest, was a bestseller, and earned recognition as a Locus Recommended Book of the Year and as a finalist for both the Philip K. Dick Award and the Prix Aurora. Lowachee was a nominee for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. There is every reason to expect Burndive to garner similar kudos and for Lowachee to win the Campbell next year at the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston.

-STEVE NAGY