Andromeda’s Choice, William C. Dietz (ACE, 2013)

(Military Science Fiction, Science Fiction, Space Opera)

andromedaschoice1Grade: Γ — (Gamma) A good or even fantastic book within the genre, possibly worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that is likely to be unappealing to individuals who are not fans of a given genre. This is the highest grade that many very good books that are part of a series can receive, since series require an investment in reading that normally only appeals to fans of that genre. 

In brief:

It’s not often that a sequel exceeds the first in a series, but Andromeda’s Choice is such a book. William C. Dietz‘s new novel follows on from Andromeda’s Fall and so serves as the second volume in the Legion of the Damned. Effectively, if you liked Andromeda’s Fall (which I did), you will love Andromeda’s Choice.

220px-William_C._Dietz_Comic-Con_2008Following on the story of ‘Cat’ Carletto (a.k.a. Andromeda McKee) this book not only ratchets up the tension, but builds upon the characters already introduced while adding new characters that I quickly came to care about.  It is definitely a ‘does what it says on the tin’ adventure book, but also has some hidden depth that includes shades of grey and gives the reader something to think about.  It pulled me in and I was sorry when it was over.

Setting:

This is a prequel to the Legion of the Damned series, set in the far future of near galactic space. Cybernetic technology is high enough to put brains in robot bodies, and FTL exists. Other intelligent species also exist and Human space is an Imperial State with a single Empress holding the reigns after having assassinated her brother.  The later stages of a massive political purge are still on going, and the protagonist (Andromeda McKee/Cat Carletto) has found refugee in the Legion.

LEgionOFDamned2In Depth:

I really liked this book, so much so that when I finished it, I really couldn’t get into the next novel on my review list because I didn’t want to leave the Legion of the Damned universe.  It takes the characters introduced in Andromeda’s Fall and builds upon them, while also introducing some really excellent secondary characters and situations that pulled me deeper into the world.

Like its prequel, Andromeda’s Choice is the story of Andromeda McKee, a sergeant in the Legion – the futuristic descendent of the Légion étrangère: that elite military unit known to most English speakers as the French Foreign Legion. Key to this future Legion are cybernetic troops – large anthropoid T1s (who are heavily armed and capable of being ridden), the tank-like Quads (which double as Armored Personnel Carriers), and the flyforms (brains in planes, as it were).  Though there are some individuals with terminal diseases or otherwise mortal conditions among their number, these brains in robot bodies are almost entirely made up of criminals who received the death penalty and are given the option of being resurrected after execution.[1]  Of course, there are also normal ‘biobods’ among the Legion, and our protagonist Sergeant Andromeda McKee is one of these.

285_Quad_In_Action-1-1Unbeknownst to her comrades in arms, Andromeda is not who she pretends to be.  She is in fact Catherine ‘Cat’ Carletto, a former member of the elite class[2] turned fugitive from the political purges of the usurper Empress Ophelia.  Like many members of the Legion (real and fictional) she has hidden herself in its ranks, but unlike most of her fellow refugees from the law, killer robots (called synths), death squads and secret agents have been tasked to ensure the purges are complete.  Fortunately, the Empire thinks Cat is dead – at least until Andromeda’s heroic actions in combat accidentally draw her to the attention of others….

I won’t go on, that would be spoilerific.  Instead I will note that while the original series pulled me in due to the cool concept of its criminal-cyborg troops, the pull of this series is definitely our protagonist Andromeda/Cat herself. By the beginning of this book, she has become known as The Steel Bitch, and is a serious, kick-ass action hero with twice as many scars as any two of her male counter parts.  Indeed, unlike many female action protagonists of speculative fiction, Andromeda’s physical beauty is consistently being whittled down by her years of combat.

LegionaireOfTheDamnedFor me, this is one (of many) elements that sets Andromeda apart in the world of Military Science Fiction.  There is a common thread[3] in much science fiction and fantasy that focuses on female characters who are unaware of how attractive they are.  Through the story, they slowly come to realize that they are in fact beautiful.  There are many reasons why this archetype exists[4] and why when done well,[5] it works beautifully.  Here, however, we see the opposite – and to that end, I think we see a message that many women could benefit from.

At the beginning of the last book, Cat/Andromeda, was a beautiful woman who knew it.  She had perfect… everything… and though she put value in her intelligence, she also put a lot of weight in her appearance.[6]  Throughout that book, and this one, however, we see her slashed, stabbed, whipped, shot, etc. etc. etc., and rather than dodging the issue with medically magic healing, we see Andromeda scarred, and we see the psychological impact of that.  We see her sense of self and identity ripped away as she loses her privileged life and physical “beauty,” yet we also see her gain a stronger, deeper sense of self – one based on her skills, talents and values.  Rather than vanity, she gains a humble sense of worth – a sense of self tied to her character and actions instead of her appearance.

Legion-of-the-Damned-2To me, this seems an important lesson to portray in novels: that a woman’s sense of value need not be tied to their physical appearance; that their actions and accomplishments mean more than how good they look.  This is not a criticism of those books that show women gaining a sense of beauty after they earn a sense of pride in themselves, but rather this is a wonderful complement to that: a woman for whom physical beauty becomes unimportant in the face of actual accomplishment.

To that end, for the most part this book avoids objectifying Andromeda. There is, however, one scene early in Andromeda’s Choice where she does face a sexually threatening moment.  I am unsure how I feel about that scene, because on the one hand it is tied to the central threat on her being and I like the way Dietz has her deal with it, but on the other it does put her in the face of being a possible sexual object.  I suppose, however, the real world does frequently treat women that way,[7] and avoid it all together would be unjust to the reality women face.  Besides, in this book we get to see a woman fix that situation without requiring rescue.

1781728Beyond her status as a woman, however, Dietz manages to portray Andromeda in a manner than neatly avoids some of the worst clichés in Military Science Fiction protagonists.  For one thing, Andromeda is not both Good and Right. In fact, she is pretty far from perfect.  Throughout this book she makes some pretty bad choices in this book. The reasons she makes them is totally understandable and builds sympathy, but they are the wrong choices and there are consequences to that. Compare that to some other heroes and heroines in Mil Fic – who are always right, and it shows a well thought out protagonist who is more than a hero – she is a human.

What is more, Andromeda is not just sometimes wrong, she is not even always good. As I pointed out in my review of Legion of the Damned, the Legion does some pretty questionable things, and is fighting for some pretty questionable causes.  Forget for a moment that they are serving a totalitarian monarch who assassinated her brother and committing the kind of political purges that would make Stalin look restrained, let’s look at the Legion itself.

The Flag of the REAL French Foreign Legion: whose professionalism and valor have stood since 1831.

The Flag of the REAL French Foreign Legion: whose professionalism and valor have stood since 1831.

Most MilFic show the Military Units at the core of their stories as either good guys that are sometimes stuck in bad situations, or bad guys against whose incompetence and/or moral poverty the protagonist must struggle. Throughout the Legion of the Damned series, however, the Legion is shown as neither one nor the other.  They are not villainous, nor incompetent, nor in any way “evil,” as it were, but they do some pretty dubious things. For example, forcing men and women to get their brains put in boxes so they can spend the rest of their lives in combat.

Beyond that obvious issue, one of the central plot lines of Andromeda’s Choice is a large scale engineering project by the Legion that is undertaken in order to instigate a war between the different tribes of the indigenous population of the planet they are occupying.[8]  Once accomplished, they intend to mop up the mess and so better pacify the populations.  These are the protagonists!

legion-of-the-damned-gameHere too Dietz manages to side step another cliché, for the Naa, the indigenous population in question, are not really fooled by this.  They have their own motivations, and their own politics and while the Legion is plotting to betray them, so they are plotting to betray the Legion at the same time.  To that end, Dietz neither condescends to, nor glorifies the native populations of his world.  They are as heroic and deeply flawed as everyone else.  They have complex internal politics, they have cultural differences between the tribes, and even greater cultural differences between the regions. They are neither ‘Nobel Savages’ nor ‘Orcs’ by any other name.  They are people clouded by as many shades of grey as the Legion is.

Thus another reason why I like Andromeda so much as a character.  She sees them as people, she sees what the Legion is planning to do and knows it is morally wrong – but she goes ahead and follows orders and even fights heroically in that cause.  Why?  Because she is a sergeant, following orders and fighting for the welfare of her fellow soldiers.  A totally realistic character with sympathetic motivations even she is doing the wrong thing: an action hero fighting for causes she disagrees with for all best reasons.

Speaking of characters and character depth, Andromeda’s Choice focuses a great deal on character development and growth both in existing characters (most notably Larkin), as well as some really good new characters added to the mix.  Her new officer, Lieutenant Dero, is an immediately likeable and competent CO, but the most notable newbie is Major Hasbro, the slightly eccentric Engineer who she finds herself reporting to.  Indeed, I am particularly fond of Hasbro because his portrayal is both amusing and believable. He manages to be eccentric without being the kind of individual who would have been thrown out of the forces right away.  He is brilliantly described and though I almost immediately got an image and understanding of the character, that understanding only grew as the story progressed.  Highly highly enjoyable.

So, in brief:[9] This was a great action tale that had some great characters and further developed on of the best female protagonists in Military Science Fiction.  A must read for Mil Fic fans or people looking for a new breed of kick-ass female protagonist, a good read for anyone looking for action adventure. 


[1] Actually, it’s a lot more complex than this, so for a full discussion see my review of the Legion of the Damned for a description and review of the book that introduced this series.

[3] So common, in fact that is lies somewhere between a ‘trope’ (god I hate that word) and a cliché.

[4] i.e. it creates a flaw in an otherwise Pollyanna/Mary Sue character; it allows an author to have a physically attractive character whose primary sense of self is based on their intelligence, competencies and personality rather than their status as a “pretty girl”; it accurately reflects the sad reality that a great many women are self-conscious about their physical appearance, seeing only their imperfections; it accurately reflects the fact that many girls who are average or even homely as teens actually do grow more physically attractive later life; due to the previous two points, it allows women readers to more closely associate with the characters, since many of them have felt this way at some point in their lives; etc.

[5] For example, Honor Harrington and the titular character in Elizabeth Haydon’s Rhapsody series.

[6] Indeed, one of my criticisms about that book was that while this came across clearly, I would have like to have seen more scenes with Cat as a vain member of the elite so that we knew her personality a bit better.  Maybe a short story?  Please….

[7] And indeed, they face it in the military far more than we would like to admit.

[8] Indeed, the core mission of this book adds another element of enjoyment – it’s an engineering project! This is one of the few times in Mil Fic that I have actually seen a really good, action packed adventure focusing on the endeavors of Combat Engineers.  My colleague over at Future War Stories will be delighted.  He’s been calling for some stories based on the adventure of Sea Bees and/or the Army Corp of Engineers for some time.  While this is still the story of a cavalry unit protecting such Combat Engineers, the role and nature of those men and women lie close to the heart of this tale.

[9] too late, sorry, but brevity is just not my forte

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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One Response to Andromeda’s Choice, William C. Dietz (ACE, 2013)

  1. Pingback: A Holiday Sale on Strings on a Shadow Puppet! | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

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