The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

The Ghost Brigades

AuthorJohn Scalzi

Pages: 384 pages
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction
Release Date: February, 2006
ISBN-10: 0765354063
ISBN-13: 978-0765354068

When I first picked up John Scalzi’s first novel, Old Man’s War, I had every intention of hating it. Scalzi was bloody popular, hilarious, had droves of fans and, well… made me kind of jealous. His novel couldn’t possibly be worth the hype, right?

Almost as soon as I started the novel, though, I realized just how wrong I was. Old Man’s War was great – fresh, funny, brutal, contemplative, full of character – and I simply couldn’t bring myself to feel anything but. I wrote a glowing review and promptly went out in search of the sequel, The Ghost Brigades. Was Scalzi a one hit wonder? Or could he pull it off again?

Yes. Yes he could.

The Ghost Brigades, a standalone follow-up to Old Man’s War, continues in the tradition by offering a novel of fun, thoughtful and brutal military Science Fiction with a contemplative thread of philosophy. Where Old Man’s War tackled the idea of what makes us human, The Ghost Brigades is the story of choice. Many authors let the message in their novels overwhelm the storytelling, but Scalzi deftly handles the philosophy and weaves it delicately into the well drawn narrative. Terry Goodkind should take note.

The Ghost Brigade, after which the novel is titled, were one of the most intriguing aspects of Old Man’s War and it seems Scalzi knew it. A genetically engineered group of super-soldiers, the Ghost Brigade are essentially the guinea pigs of the Colonial Defense Forces, the first line of defense against all the terrors of the world and the ones who get thrown in to do the dirty work that no one else will; officially, they barely exist. The Ghost Brigade was only lightly touched upon in the final third of Old Man’s War, but were easily one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel. The Ghost Brigades, believe it or not, is their story, and Scalzi doesn’t disappoint on the promises made in Old Man’s War.

The story is mostly told through the eyes of Jane Sagan, a character from Old Man’s War and a member of the Ghost Brigade, and Jared Dirac, a newly cloned soldier brought to life for a singular reason: to house the recorded consciousness of a renegade genius bent on bringing war to the human race. Dirac’s story has much more focus than Old Man’s War – which was rather lackadaisical and meandering – and through extensive use of well-drawn dialogue and frenetic action scenes, the pace never lets up until the final pages.

The Ghost Brigades, unlike its predecessor, is told through a third-person point-of-view and I often found myself missing the introspective character pieces found in Old Man’s War, made possible by the close to the chest point-of-view. I wasn’t able to connect to Dirac or Sagan in the same way that I could to John Perry, the first novel’s protagonist. Still, Dirac’s situation and background (or lack thereof) is enough to create a compelling character whose internal and external dialogue had me thinking.

I mentioned earlier that Scalzi tackles the ideas of freewill and choice. I have to commend his ability to discuss big, philosophical ideas in a way that doesn’t bog down the narrative and character. Scalzi isn’t necessarily exploring new territory or redefining the genre, but the way he handles the ideas help set him apart from all the others.

Scalzi’s drawing together the makings of a great universe and I’ll certainly be hunting down copies of the next novel in the cycle, The Last Colony and taking a look at his upcoming young adult novel set in the same universe titled Zoë’s Tale. The Ghost Brigades is a great follow up to Old Man’s War and with it I can’t help but admiting the John Scalzi’s the real deal, folk.

  • JPR July 7, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    I agree with your review completely. For some reason I expected Old Man’s War to be a bit of a fluff novel, and was prepared to not like it and not pick up the rest of the series. Instead I loved Old Man’s War, and The Ghost Brigades, and eagerly picked up The Last Colony. I think that you will find The Last Colony to be a treat. It continues the growth of the series and has convinced me to pre-order Zoe’s Tale (despite my aversion to a YA novel set in an existing universe.) Scalzi’s humor, characterization and “message” of free will, and accepting the consequences of the exercise of that will, continue to bring me back to read him repeatedly.

  • thrinidir July 8, 2008 at 2:49 am

    So you really got to it as quick as you said you would; commendable, because I rarely don’t manage to :). Great article Adam.

  • thrinidir July 8, 2008 at 2:51 am

    Adam, Aidan…sorry for the slip of the tongue.

  • heather (errantdreams) July 8, 2008 at 8:56 am

    Can ‘Ghost Brigades’ be read solo, do you think, or do you need the context of the first book? It sounds fascinating, but I’m not sure I’m as interested in the first book, and I’m so far behind in my reading that I’m loath to pick up any extra books other than those I’m really interested in.

  • aidan July 8, 2008 at 9:55 am

    JPR – It looks like The Last Colony comes out in Mass Market Paperback in just a couple of weeks. You can be sure I’ll be picking that up right away and then proceeding to read it in a couple of days. I’m officially on the Scalzi bandwagon.

    I’m actually a big fan of YA novels, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what Scalzi pulls off with Zoe’s Tale. I should try to get a review copy.

    Trindir – I know how hard it is to actually get to novels sometimes, but I made absolutely sure that The Ghost Brigades was at the top of my list.

    And don’t worry about the name! With a name like Aidan, I’ve long ago become used to people getting it wrong. No worries!

    Heather – You certainly can read The Ghost Brigades all on its own. Scalzi does a good job of catching the reader up on the essentials of his universe and the plot, and most of the characters, are completely self contained.

    If anything, reading The Ghost Brigades may inspire you to go back and check out Old Man’s War to find out more about the events alluded to in The Ghost Brigades.

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