Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi (TOR, 2006)

Science Fiction, Military Science Fiction Book review

John-Scalzi_2006_The-Ghost-BrigadesGrade: Δˡ  — (Delta Prime) A good read, but only if you like the genre (or subgenre).

In brief:

Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi is the sequel to his tremendously successful Old Man’s War, and in it, Scalzi both succeeds and fails to live up to his potential. This novel focuses on the Colonial special forces, or Ghost Brigades. While it is a good read that delivers on some of the more subtle nefarious hints he places throughout the first book, it’s narrative occasionally falls flat and its use of large info dumps is likely to turn off readers who are not fans of the techy-side of Science Fiction.  Even so, I enjoyed the tale for what it was and think that it will appeal to Military Science Fiction fans, particularly those who enjoyed the first novel.


Mid-to-Far Future, with life on Earth not shown in this novel, but we know from the previous book that it appears fairly recognizable.  Technology in the extra-solar system colonies, however, is extremely advanced, bordering on ultra-tech.  Faster-than-light travel (FTL) and advanced biology is normal in the Colonies. Earth is run by normal governments, but the Colonies are run by a private organization that seems to be akin to the British East India Company.

Human soldiers (the focus of this book) are bio-engineered super-soldiers, with some going even further than that.  The titular Ghost Brigades, which are Special Forces have advantages both in the nature of their origin (telling would be a spoiler for Old Man’s War), and in some of the modifications they receive

220px-John_ScalziIn Depth:

Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi is a bit of a mixed bag, for while the author managed to produce some elements that truly appealed to me, certain parts of the narrative fell flat.  The story begins with Jane Sagan, a character who added a good deal to my enjoyment of the first novel, but it is not really her story.  Indeed, it is the story of Jared Dirac,[1] a new ‘recruit’ for the Special Forces known as the Ghost Brigades.  As such, we get to be introduced to the technology, biology and interstellar politics through his very innocent eyes.

Here then lies part of the problem with the narrative.  There is a fairly large chunk in the beginning of the book that serves as an introduction to the technology that makes the Scalzi’s Ghost Brigades (e.g. space marines by any other name) different from his regular troopers.  The problem is that some of this technology was introduced in the previous novel, and even to a reader who had not picked up that book, Scalzi goes on a bit too long with his exploration of how cool the tech is.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, it comes back into play at the end of the book, but I suspect he could have reduced the ‘fun with guns’[2] that dominates the early part of the book and had a better story for it.

ghostbrigade2As a result, the first half of the book was perfectly acceptable mind candy for someone who likes Mil Fic, but not really all that engaging.  Then, a little less than halfway through the novel, Scalzi finally drops the other shoe and pulls us back into the central narrative of the tale.  I won’t go into how he pulls it off, but he does and I suddenly became personally re-engaged in the tale.

In brief, without any real spoilers, I’ll just note that he finally pulls the trigger that is hinted at both in the first book and in the first half of this one, and makes his world much more interesting. Unfortunately, he also reveals something in this novel that might better have been left to the next one, but that is beyond the point.  The book suddenly picks up again and transforms from a gadget-shoot-em-up to a slightly more poignant story.

To that end, I think this book will appeal to fans of Military Science Fiction, but is probably not going to appeal to those who do not like such books.  The book definitely does not fall into either the Pollyanna Space Marine nor “Good and Right vs. Evil and Wrong” pitfalls that plague the genre, but I still feel the first half of the book won’t appeal to people who don’t like the subgenre.

Thus, while Ghost Brigades did not quite live up to its full potential, it was a fun read with a bit more too it than many such tales.

[1] Yes, most members of the Ghost Brigade are named after famous scientists, though some are named after famous science fiction authors.  It is a fun bit of the tale that does make sense in the narrative.

[2] First off, I should note that when I say fun with guns here, I don’t mean that literally.  I mean that he spends a little too long looking at the cool-ass development of all his technologies.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am as guilty of getting into technobabble and cool-ass-gadget exploration as the next person and I suspect that most MilFic fans would not even blink at the time he spends exploring the implications of his technology… but even so, for me at least, it did come across a bit too much like someone who loved his own concepts.

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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3 Responses to Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi (TOR, 2006)

  1. I would say that the Special Forces that were so heavily billed in Old Man’s War didn’t really live up to the hype in this book. I think the problem is that the Special Forces were billed as an shadowy, mysterious ultra efficient force but once they were pushed into the spotlight and the mystery was taken away they really didn’t look all that impressive (special needs rather than special forces as a friend of mine once said [perhaps a little unkindly]) The problem I think is a character or characters with no uncertainly are boring but add in those uncertainties and all the things that make them cool and interesting sort of evaporate.

    It was a book worth reading but not one I think worth re-reading.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      You have agood point there, and the difference between the regular soldiers and Special Forces didn’t live up to the hype.

      I think Scalzi was trying to play up the morality of what he was crating in his special forces, making them seem so childlike etc. Yet in doing so, he really didn’t make them seem all that powerful. Addionally, instead of focussing oon new abilities, he really just rewrote his cooll.stuff from the first bok, making thefirst half a bit of a recap in excrutiating detail.

      What’s more, given the nature of the antagonist in this story, one would think theywould figure out what the secret weapon was supposed to be.

      Even so I did like the morality elements he put in and the ever shifting nature of what one thimks one knows aboutwho is up to what.

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