“The Ghost Brigades” shows clear signs of Scalzi’s improvement as an author

Having recently read Old Man’s War, it’s not surprising that I’ve just finished reading its sequel The Ghost Brigades. I liked Old Man’s War, but I found some significant flaws in it that hampered my enjoyment. Thankfully, most of those flaws were fixed in the sequel. The alien races aren’t nearly as implausible, not every character has the same dark cynical sense of humor (which is totally a projection of John Scalzi’s sense of humor, I should add), the writing style isn’t quite so absurd, and the cast of minor characters no longer consists solely of cliché cardboard cut-outs. In other words, John Scalzi has definitely matured as a writer between his first (or is it his second?) book and this one. I definitely look forward to reading the third book in this universe, The Last Colony.

Unfortunately, some things didn’t change. The novel is set in exactly the same implausible “science fantasy” universe, with hundreds of intelligent alien species that all happen to have roughly equal military capabilities, wave-of-the-hand FTL (“skip drive”), and a ridiculous over-emphasis on hand-to-hand combat. These aspects weren’t so grating as when I read the first book because I’ve been acclimated to them by now, but I still wish they weren’t there.

And ironically enough, after complaining bitterly that the protagonist John Perry in Old Man’s War was clearly a stand-in for the author, John Scalzi, I actually liked the main character in that book better than this one. The protagonist in The Ghost Brigades is Jared Dirac, a Special Forces soldier born into a cloned adult body. He’s fully intellectually capable from birth, yet has no memories, no past, no personality, etc. Eventually as the book progresses and he puts a few months on he develops more of a personality, but it isn’t one that I particularly feel any empathy for. The Special Forces (the “Ghost Brigades”) are bred from birth to be killing machines. They’re not emotionless by any means, but they are cruel, efficient, subordinate, and very focused on getting the mission done. In other words, not the best choice for a protagonist.

Judging by the progression from book one to book two, I’m guessing that The Last Colony will be even better. If John Scalzi just writes in a better main character, and refrains from having all of his characters exhibit the exact same dry sense of humor that he has, he has the potential to come up with something that is really good. That last part is a particular sticking point: one of Scalzi’s consistent weaknesses is an inability to write characters significantly different than himself. I don’t know if he’s capable of it or not; nothing even demonstrates he’s tried.

The caveats aside, put me down firmly in the “Endorsements” column for this book. Having read the first two in this universe and itching to read the third, I’d say that John Scalzi has done a pretty decent job. I can’t say the same for many other books I’ve read, some of which have left me with little desire to read anything further by the author. So like I said with Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades isn’t great, but it’s a good, fun read. I recommend it.

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