Monday, January 24, 2011

Book Review: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

Title: The Ghost Brigades

Author: John Scalzi

Publisher: TOR

Year: 2006

Page Count: 320 Pgs

OLD MAN’S WAR did something for me when I read it last year. It proved to me that sci-fi books don’t have to be super-hard SF with tropes that required a degree in astrophysics to understand, or be entirely based on politics. It proved to me that John Scalzi writes the kind of sci-fi I can not only enjoy, but  sci-fi that I can immerse myself in and escape.  Don’t get me wrong, I like my share of harder SF, but Scalzi just writes enjoyable fiction that can be ingested on so many other levels. Now when people ask me to recommend sci-fi, John Scalzi is one of the first names out of my mouth.

THE GHOST BRIGADES is Scalzi’s second book in the same universe of OLD MAN’S WAR. A universe where old people are drafted into the Colonial Defense Forces as humanity attempts to carve out its own niches in an ever-warring bunch of systems and planets. In the last book we were introduced to the Special Forces VIA John Perry’s love interest Jane Sagan. We found out that Special Forces are actually not live old people at all, but rather the consciousness of old people who died between when they signed up and had their brain scanned, and their subsequent military service and switch to new bodies. Therefore they are called the Ghost Brigades as they are technically...ghosts. This time around we don’t see John Perry, but rather we get more insight into Jane Sagan, and the Special Forces as a whole VIA our new protagonist, a Special Forces recruit named Jared Dirac. Jared is special because his consciousness is that of a traitorous scientist named Charles Boutin who gave BrainPal information to a race of aliens that are humanities enemy.

That’s where we start out, and what is great here is we get the same training process that John Perry went thorugh in the first half of OLD MAN’S WAR, but from the POV of Jared and the Special Forces. They are more connected and work more as a unit. They don’t have previous personalities in new bodies, and are essentially new constructs that have to be taught everything at a sped up rate. So you have soldiers who are only a year or two old that are weaned on only war and interacting as a mind-connected unit. It presents such an interesting look at the same things we saw in the first book from a completely different perspective and to me that was ingenious. Something that could have felt boring and repetitive, feels instead fresh and new.

As the second half of the book takes off Boutin’s memories start to surface within Jared and the CDF scientists and commanders hope to be able to control him and find out just why Boutin defected and what the other side knows. Jared finds himself going through a few transformations, some of which get him very close to Boutin himself, and what is very interesting here is watching Jared’s reactions to these situations and wondering if this was happening to me, how would I feel? Sagan is well used as a character and we get a lot more insight into her feelings, her way of thinking and we see just why John Perry ended up so attached to her (beyond the obvious that is). Jared really is the shining beacon in this book though. For a book that is a lot about human consciousness and how the brain thinks and how a brain would interpret the soul of another person entering into a new body…it is a surprisingly enthralling read. I found that the actions sequences were great, but that I was just as interested in the quieter, conversation-based scenes. In fact, this book has oodles more emotion infused into it than its predecessor. The last section contains some of the most heroic, heartfelt and genuinely human scenes in any sci-fi I have yet read. This is definitely Scalzi’s strength as his stories’ attachment to humanity and all that entails. The inclusion, for example, of a child’s stuffed Babar toy as part of the narrative makes for one of the more touching scenes of the book, and it also serves in one of the more caustic ones. 

THE GHOST BRIGADE builds on the first book, and achieves a whole new level for me of interest and excitement. There is believability about the science involved in these books, and Scalzi is adept at talking about his tech in layman’s terms that not only makes it easier to understand, but fun to read about. Contained herein is also the strains of a melody that will make up a longer thread arc for the other books in the series. Mysteries about the Conclave and the CDF and CU’s  true purposes are yet to be revealed, but more light is shed on those and I am sure they will play a bigger role in the other two books.

Scalzi, with his VERY readable books, has fast-tracked his way to the top of my sci-fi author list. THE GHOST BRIGADES is a well thought out, clever and exciting read that qualifies as one of those damn books that keeps you up long past your bedtime and makes you late for work in the morning…but to be honest I am totally not complaining!

I wholeheartedly look forward to the next book THE LAST COLONY.


  1. Don't know if you've read it or not, but if you are in the mood for some "harder SF" I would seriously recommend "The Gods Themselves" by Isaac Asimov. The scientific premise of the book is both amazingly simple and very complex at the same time.

    Conceptually breathtaking.

  2. Sounds good Anonymous. I've only read Asimov's robot books, so I might be in the market for something else by the man. will check it out!



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