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Those of you who follow me on Twitter have probably heard me babbling about this book, Warchild by Karin Lowachee. It's not a perfect book, but I loved many of the characters so much that it's pretty much taken over my life, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys angsty, subtext-filled m/m relationships, sci-fi, and/or coming-of age stories.



The setting: about 100 years in the future, humankind is at war with aliens called the striviirc-na (SPOILERS: it's all our fault), but we've also got a pretty serious problem with human pirates who steal and sell children. The narrator is Joslyn Musey, who at the age of eight watches his parents murdered and his ship destroyed by a sociopathic space pirate who then abducts him and begins training him to be a sex slave. (Although nothing explicit is ever shown, trigger warnings for rape and child abuse definitely apply.)

Jos manages to get away, though, and is rescued by Nikolas S'tlian, the dashing young human general of the alien resistance forces. (Lowachee imagines him as a young Johnny Depp. [profile] yjudaes and I imagine him as a combination of Rodrigo Santoro and Jon Kortajarena. I'M NOT SHALLOW AT ALL FOR BELIEVING THIS IS IMPORTANT. GOD NO.) Niko, as Jos comes to call him, is not really in a position to be anyone's fulltime caretaker, but he patiently and unsentimentally teaches Jos his language and their history. Soon, Jos accepts his offer to teach him the ways of a ka'redan (or assassin-priest--lots of swordfighting). Although Jos mistrusts everyone and hates being touched, he not only opens up to Niko, but grows to adore him. Unfortunately, Niko is still first and foremost a war leader, so he has to leave Jos behind for four years with his other teachers.

Over those four years, Jos adapts to striviirc-na culture and bonds with his other teachers and his alien classmates, but in the narrative they still go by in a blur. He never stops writing to to Niko or longing to be with him. When Niko does return, Jos gets over his sense of betrayal again and jumps at Niko's offer to accompany him back to space. But things aren't exactly what they seem. Niko confesses that he has something else in mind for Jos: a deep undercover mission onto an enemy human ship. The mission, however, isn't about sabotage, but about gathering information to help open up negotiations and hopefully begin a peace process. Although Jos has a choice, letting Niko down isn't an option for him. He enlists as a marine aboard the Macedon, and from there things...get pretty interesting. Without giving too much away, I can say that the Macedon and its crew are not what they appear to be at first, and that Jos will meet many more people who challenge his loyalties and shape his sense of self.

As I mentioned before, one of the reasons I love this book is the characters. Jos is captivating both as a narrator and as a main character: perceptive, dryly funny, at times poetic, contemplative but extremely strong-willed. Lowachee renders him believably damaged, but beneath the suspicion and anger his kindness and humor are intact. And you can't help but see enormous potential for him in the future. He's a witty (if reluctant) conversationalist, a talented artist, an efficient fighter with (I would argue) an enjoyable flair for the dramatic, a skilled hacker, and a keen observer of people and political situations. He's basically the love child of T.E. Lawrence and Lisbeth Salander. How could that be anything but fascinating? (In case you can't tell, I love him.)

I also love Niko. When writing this, I kept thinking "uuugh, wow, he probably sounds like a real prick, taking a kid in and then basically sending him off to the slaughter like that. Nice going, Sexy Dumbledore." And yes. Niko is far from perfect. But I empathize with his dilemma, and I have a real soft spot for characters who balance pragmatism with heart. He's a war leader, and he wouldn't be believable if he didn't have a certain hardness to him. And he is always honest with Jos, and he never pities or coddles him. The backstory Lowachee hints at is fascinating. His parents were the first to rebel against the humans, and Niko became known as the "Warboy" because from an early age he fought alongside his parents. It's pretty obvious that his parents wanted him to take up their cause; he mentions that his name means "Victory of the People", which suggests some pretty high expectations. His brother's name, on the other hand, is...Ash. Which I don't think means anything but "Ash", unless it's short for something? Niko and Ash's mother is an interesting figure too; she's kind but seems distant and a bit tactless and not especially nurturing with children, and I imagine her and Niko's (dead) father as rather single-minded, loving their children but more intent on training them as military prodigies and devoted rebels than anything else. Lowachee is planning to write novels with her, Ash, and Niko as the narrators at some point, and I fervently hope it happens. So many questions. Was their integration into striviirc-na society as seamless as it appears? Are there any strivs who resent the humans? If Ash is a war leader in his own right, why has Jos heard only of "the Warboy", not knowing that he has a brother? And why did Ash turn out to be such a fucking dick? [profile] yjudaes and I were also wondering if any humans have ever slept with strivs. I say yes. In my headcanon Niko's first love was a male striv who died in battle, and Niko never found love again until--erm--ahem--never mind.

Turn back now unless you really want to know what I think about this >___> Also, spoilers ahead.

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Those of you who know me probably know that I'm an enthusiastic shipper. If I'm alone in a garden I'll find two rocks to ship together, or I'll start thinking about flower sex. But there's also a lot of intentional homoeroticism (and straight out gay sex) in this book and its sequels. There are, first of all, rather few important female characters--I sorta wish there were more--but it's also basically a universe where Everyone's Gay. Except for Captain Azarcon, his son, and the English pilot kid who never shuts up, seriously. Everyone is either gay, bi, or thinking rapturously about the way his teacher holds him and how he smells and the perfection of his muscles (Jos Musey, I'm looking at you, bro.)

Yes, I ship Jos and Niko pretty hard. And I felt bad about it at the beginning. I don't see their relationship as being mutually romantic until Jos is older, at the end of the novel, certainly, but there's a lot of potentially squicky stuff there--unequal power dynamics, the fact that Jos is way-underaged when they first meet, and Jos's history of exploitation and abuse. I totally understand if anyone thinks it's gross and weird to ship it, although everyone I've spoken to who's read the novel ships it as well (even against their better judgment). For me, there are several things that make the relationship appealing.

-The feelings. THE FUCKING FEELINGS. It's pretty blatantly obvious that bb!Jos hero-worships Niko, possibly even has a huge little crush on him. And these feelings don't go away, even after four years of separation. Jos writes to Niko every day and marks off the days until he's back. He's not isolated; he makes other friends, but it's Niko he really wants. And this for me sort of mitigates the suspicions of Stockholm syndrome, IMO. Niko wants Jos to be around other people, even when Jos doesn't want to be. Jos is also perceptive and smart and a pretty keen judge of character. He wouldn't love or be grateful to Niko just for rescuing him--he actually resented him for it in the beginning. No, he loves Niko for respecting his boundaries, for treating him like an intelligent adult, for showing him attention and care. It's pretty obvious, too, that Niko sees Jos as much more than a pawn. He gets Jos the tag with the images of his parents on it (which also shows, I think, how un-possessive he is--he doesn't want Jos to be cut off from his past or his family). A more cynical reader might think this might all be ploy to ensure his loyalty, but I think the moment when his voice breaks and he sounds genuinely distraught shows how true his feelings are:

"'I didn't tell you about coming with me on Turundrlar,' he said, 'because I didn't know if I could ask you--I didn't plan on not wanting--' He stopped.
I looked up in surprise. Never before had he stumbled on himself like this. His eyes were steady and unusually bright."


After Niko asks Jos to do his undercover assignment, Jos is hurt and accuses Niko of throwing him away. Which breaks my fucking heart. And I feel for Niko here too, because, like he said, he both does and doesn't hope that Jos will say yes.

-Even after everything, Jos continues to care immensely about Niko. He is the only person who follows Niko out of the room after he has killed Ash, the only person who understands and/or cares how difficult that had to be and can both challenge and comfort him. He is unafraid of standing up to Niko and telling him that he might have been wrong. But then, ultimately, he takes the knife from him, holds his hand, and caresses his face until Niko--out of guilt or who knows what--can't take it anymore and walks away. Which breaks Jos's heart. This lovely, subtle fic has a take on the moment that matches things I've also considered--maybe Niko was afraid of what he might do or feel if he allowed himself to accept Jos's affection.

And the whole scene with Ash, I think, carries so many undercurrents of their relationship and their characters. Ash helped pirates abduct and smuggle children. Might this have had something to do with why Niko had no qualms about killing him? And Jos, who hates pirates so much that he kills the man who took him, is the one who feels empathy for Ash, because Ash was his teacher.

-The way their relationship has changed at the end. Jos's time on Macedon has changed him; he has found humans his own age that he cares about, and a place that feels right for him. So when Niko says "Tell them that you are mine" and Jos replies "Niko, I'm not yours," as sad as that sounds, I think that's actually very healthy. Jos has a right to feel betrayed. And to assert his individuality. Because, regardless of who he loves or doesn't love, he doesn't belong to anyone. Another meaning that can be read into this is that Niko doesn't act as though Jos belongs to him. After Jos says that, Niko is definitely not unmoved, but he simply lets Jos go and gives him his rifle to kill Falcone with.

AND--I thought this was weirdly romantic in itself: Jos kills Falcone not by shooting him (although he has a rifle) but with a knife. The way Niko killed Ash. The way that ka'redan assassins kill their victims. We know Jos wants Falcone to see his face, but I can't help but read it as his wanting to do it the way Niko taught him, to do it in the ritualistic way that is significant to Niko, gives them something in common and is worthy of Niko's respect.

-AND THEN IN BURNDIVE JOS SAYS "YES" WHEN RYAN ASKS IF HE LOVES NIKO. It's never specified what sort of love Ryan means. Ryan probably means a familial or friendly sort of love, but then, Ryan's got his "Dad Goggles" on and is probably primed to see things in that light.

Of course there's the question of whether all these feelings are romantic or sexual or brotherly or platonic or WHAT. And I don't think there's an easy answer. Jos definitely mistrusts sexual desire and doesn't appear to feel any of his own, but his relationship with Niko definitely has a physical, sensual aspect. Niko is the only person whose touch he not only tolerates but also welcomes. And I can see their physical and emotional relationship being something that they don't define, something that just progresses naturally according to their needs and their desire to be close to each other. Their relationship also hits my "romantic friendship" or "platonic cuddle-partners" kink pretty hard, btw. I honestly can't even imagine them NOT cuddling when Jos visits the Turundrlar or Niko comes to Macedon and they're alone together. Niko seems pretty isolated himself, and it's quite likely that Jos is the first person in a long time who has fulfilled his need for intimacy. I do so love the idea of them snuggled up together on a couch having a spirited discussion about galactic politics or language or art *_______*


So I bet you're asking me, "now that I ship it like a mofo, what's next?"
Sadly, there's not much in the way of fic or art. There's a smattering out there, but the only two fics that I can really recommend are gen, but definitely hint at deeper feelings. Along with Somewhere Beyond Reach (linked above), there's Resting Here by Frostfire, which has Niko and his mother discussing Jos.

And then there's what I'm writing or planning to write, which includes an AU in which Jos is orphaned but not taken by Falcone and is instead taken in by spies who want him to go undercover on a sympathizer ship (includes alien mating rites and porn!); one where Jos takes care of Niko after an assassination attempt and h/c and asexual romance ensue; and one where Niko finds Jos's unsent letters to him many years later and reads them and Feelings Happen.

Also there's a fanmix I made.

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la pellegrina

May 2012

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