When the Rich Go to War: A Review of Ironclads, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Science-fiction is everywhere, and one of the most present variations is that of military science-fiction.  The audience can always tell when a story inhabits this genre.  If it is a book, it is told in first-person.  There will be several main characters, usually male of varying ethnicities, whose bond is like a brotherhood.  There will be one female character, initially looked at with distrust, but eventually accepted as an equal with the original group.  The genre is concerned with the role of the military.  It will ultimately decide that force is not the right way forward, but force is required on occasion.  The best of these stories will take all of what makes it military science-fiction and transcend them in some way.  Most stories will not accomplish this.  Most stories will be perfectly content to use the same, time-tested formula and craft and experience that is primarily fun to read.

Ironclads is written by Adrian Tchaikovsky, a British author primarily known for his epic fantasy series, Shadows of the Apt.  He is also the 30th winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Aware, receiving the award in 2016 for his novel, Children of TimeIronclads was announced as a limited run of 1,000 copies, each copy signed by the author himself.  There must have been additional copies printed, however, considering it is listed as available online at the time of writing.  Normally, a review would never cover the circumstances in which I purchased the book, but the events colored my reading experience.  When the book came back into stock after it’s first listing, I immediately placed an order, only for the website to cancel my order because it was sold out.  I waited again, and placed a second order when it was back in stock.  This time, my order shipped.  I received a copy of a manga with someone else’s name and address on the package, which I returned to the seller.  My copy of Ironclads was never found.  I waited again, and, finally, on the third order, I received my copy of the book.  Pristine condition, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s signature in sharpie on the first page.

Ironclads takes place an indeterminate amount of time in the future, measured both by the technology present and the progression of American culture.  In Tchaikovsky’s future, the largest religion in the United States is the Church of Christ Libertarian.  We do not learn much about the religion, other than they believe in fairly Calvinist teachings and will resort to violence if anyone takes the Lord’s name in vain around them.  The book seems unsure as to whether we should take this religion seriously, and it comes off as a fairly ridiculous concept in the end.

The main action of the story takes place in Sweden, during on ongoing war launched by the United States and its allies.  The book never lays out exactly why the war was launched, but socialism is brought up several times and Ironclads is very clear about how powerful American corporations are in this future.  While the regular army dies in the trenches, the scions of these powerful companies stroll in wearing high-tech powered armor, flaunting the most powerful weapons on the planet, and acting as the new nobility.  Their power is implicit.  When a scion walks by the main characters, they stand in awe, as if watching a prince.  The main plot involves our heroes sent undercover into Sweden on a search and rescue mission to find one of these scions.  Ironclads makes it very clear that the scions do not go missing.  They do not get killed.  They do not get captured.  They do not suffer in war.

On the other side of the war, allied with Sweden, is Finland.  The Finns in Ironclads are used a sort of boogeyman in the beginning of the novel.  There are rumors about their special forces operating in near-supernatural ways, and they do not seem to operate by any of the established rules of the world.  Their technology is markedly different from what we see of the United States and Sweden.  Where the world advanced their mechanics, the Finns of this book advanced in biotechnology.  The one Finn who joins the main characters, Viina, is described as something other than human.  People are so afraid of the Finns and what they have done to themselves that the books uses them as an alien presence.  At first, Tchaikovsky asking us to treat the Finns as a threat seems silly, even in reading the book.  Then one remembers the story of Simo Häyhä, a Finnish sniper who killer between 505-542 Russian soldiers during the Winter War in 1939-1940.   Suddenly, the Finns seems like the most terrifying people on the planet, and Ironclads gains a new level of tension.

After finishing Ironclads, I am not sure what the point of this book was.  It’s short, only a little over 150 pages.  More of a novella than a novel.  There is little character development, and the action is fairly sparse and moves very quickly.  The Church of Christ Libertarian, which seems like it could have been used as an interesting critique of the state of Christianity today, is nothing more than a throw-away line.  The main moral of the story seems to be that corporations are corrupt and evil, but that is no surprise, either to readers of the characters.  When the twist happens, you will not be surprised, even if Tchaikovsky treats it as a revelation.  However, it is already summer, the time for fun stories that do not demand much from the reader.  As John Grisham would say, this is a beach book.

Ironclads may be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 6 days

Next on the List: The Rabbit Hunter, by Lars Kepler

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