Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Once A Hero


Once A Hero,
cover art by Gary Ruddell,
Elizabeth Moon,
Baen Books, 1997,
ISBN: 0-671-57842-1.

Some people will not read or like this book, simply because it's SF, or because the world building involves details on a mobile space ship repair station, or because they are uninterested in and have no sympathy for a military millieu.

I've read the story several times and enjoyed it each.

Because of the hero.

Esmay Suiza is the most junior officer in the history of Fleet to command a patrol vessel in combat against a flag ship -- and win.

As the most senior surviving officer (a lieutenant, junior grade, technical track, not command) following a mutiny that replaced the former captain who was in league with the enemy, she believes the victory credit belongs of the surviving crew and sheer luck, not to any natural ability to command she might possess.

After a court of inquiry to assess her conduct and decisions as captain and a court martial over the mutiny, though vindicated, she is sent to the station in deep space.

Of course, another of the Empire's enemies, the Bloodhorde, have plans to take the station, and events again force her out of the self-image she has believed and carefully cultivated: a self-image based on a grievous childhood trauma and reinforced by her family's treatment of that trauma. They said it never happened, though her nightmares tell her otherwise.

Esmay is a wounded hero, a tortured hero. She is also a very strong and believable hero. Her essential character and ability, though damaged and disguised, are not defeated by it. She is emphatically not a little puddle of angst.

Too often, the abused childhood trope/backstory trauma is used as a superficial motivator of the Tab A and Slot B variety, a wimp-out device, or tossed in as convenient, formula sympathy generator, by mere fact alone.

Even if SF/ space world/ military, is not your thing, I would recommend the novel as an illustration of how to integrate that popular facet of psychological nuance and character construction into a story.

One A Hero is a prime example of one of the ways to do it right.


Reminder: Robyn has a Pay It Forward contest. Easy rules. Play for book money.




35 comments:

kmfrontain said...

What I wouldn't give for a used bookstore filled with very old, English language fiction. Or even a library of the same. *sigh*

On the other hand, it would be one more distraction I would need to resist.

I am currently listening to an Edgar Rice Burroughs audio book when not able to go onto the computer. Talk about world building. And be verb reliance. Readers don't really give a shit about being "told" a story, I guess, until they get habituated to not liking something. I always did have that theory. Looking at this old classic is a case in point.

Bernita said...

"Readers don't really give a shit about being "told" a story, I guess, until they get habituated to not liking something."
I agree, Karen. And they probably still don't, though public tastes do change.
Writers, however, agents and editors are not the the average reader.

kmfrontain said...

No, they are not. I do like a story written with more active verbs, over all.

The Moon book looks interesting. I'm guessing from the cover that it was published in the 80's or earlier. Would be interesting to note the style/attitudes/incorrect information of the authors time period. Some authors seem better at "fuzzying" facts so fiction will work at any time. Perhaps it's a lesson learned from having read earlier books that no longer fit with known facts, like the John Carter of Mars books.

laughingwolf said...

sounds like a book i can 'live', as only the best can do that...

thx bernita....

Bernita said...

I do too, Karen, but sometimes get irritated/amused by the didoes some writers go through to avoid an "is/was" when it would do the job.
It's a '97 release and current with SF tech assumptions, I'd say.

Moon is always good, Laughingwolf. Her cultures, both group and general, read realistic to me.

BernardL said...

The abused childhood, even if an integral story key, should be left out of queries or blurbs. Thanks to all the Hollywood idiots, explaining away the challenges of the rich and famous with woebegone childhoods, agents and publishers probably suppress the gag reflex when they see it mentioned. Intriguing review though.

haunted author said...

Thanks so much for bring this book to our attention. You are right- it is the kind of book I would probably give a miss, just because I'm not crazy about Sci-fi. But I will read any genre if the story/charectors are good. I'll put it on my to-read list.

When I was a teen, I loved R. Heinlein- this sounds like that kind of book, action wise, I'm not so sure about charector wise- he was not the most sensative of writers, though I liked him because his women charators were not wimps. I also read the ERB Mars books- couldn't get into the Tarzen ones, though I gave it a go. Like kmfountain, I love old English language fiction. I adore Jane Austin. I love Wilkie Collins. I love old Gothic Romances.

Bernita said...

Bernard, if I see the phrase "haunted by demons of his/her past" one more time on a book blurb, I'll gag.

Haunted, Moon's characters are always strong women, and they do more than just survive.

Rowan said...

I enjoyed that and the entire Heris Serrano/Esmay Suiza series. It's about eight books, I think. Very strong characters (male and female) and very believable. Moon remains one of my faves.

Right now I'm reading the Soldier Son Trilogy from Robin Hobb, and the main character there is just as believable. That and she got basic training just right.

Robyn said...

Once a Hero sounds right up my alley, mostly because I'm a sucker for space station stories. That enforced cohabitation is a rich environment for character development.

archer said...

This sounds worthwhile.

I was raised on SF. I'm in love with Colonel Ripley.

Bernita said...

Rowan, it's so satisfying when they get the military details right.

I think you'll like this one, Robyn.

It certainly is worthwhile, Archer, on many counts.Even the politics are interesting.

Josephine Damian said...

Alert the media! It's official!

Stuart Neville, my Prince of Darkness, and the writer formerly known as "Conduit," has landed an agent - and not just any agent - but literary powerhouse and legend, Nat Sobel.

His agency, Sobel Weber Associates, New York, represents a few scribes you might have heard of: James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, American Tabloid), Joseph Wambaugh (The Choirboys, The Onion Field, Hollywood Station), Pulitzer winner Richard Russo (Nobody's Fool, Empire Falls, Bridge of Sighs), F.X. Toole (Rope Burns - adapted for the screen as the multi Oscar winning Million Dollar Baby - and Pound for Pound), Robert Jordan (the Wheel of Time series), Tim Dorsey (the Serge Storms series), and many more.

Oh, Nat also loves him some cats. My kind of guy.

And how did Stuart get on the Uber agent’s radar? I’m going to steal a bit of Stuart’s thunder and reveal to my blog peeps that Mr. Sobel scouted him on the Internet. That’s right – a big name agent was scouring the online crime magazines and plucked our man from obscurity. (of course I’ve been singing Stuart’s praises loud and clear since last fall when I first read his work in Agent Nathan’s Bransford’s writing contest). To those of you that don’t believe agents are poking around the world wide web looking for The Next Big Thing – here’s your proof. Here. Is. Your. Proof.

So do stop by and give a big shout out to the literary world’s best and brightest rising star!

http://conduitnovel.blogspot.com/

*shake my booty*

Having already read Stuarts’s manuscript (it already holds the distinction of being only one of four books I liked well enough to finish this year) GHOSTS OF BELFAST, I can tell you it’s nothing by clover ahead for this blessed son of Northern Ireland.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Josephine.
That's very encouraging.
Congratulations to Conduit.

Demon Hunter said...

Bernita,
I will definitely have to check this book out. It's not usually what I'd read either, but since I do love genre fiction, I'll give it a whirl. :*)

Bernita said...

My Demon, even if I didn't like Moon and Sf/F, I would keep this book around for the skill it displays in the handling of this trope

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds right down my alley. I have not read anything by this author although I've seen the books. This makes me want to look more closely.

Bernita said...

Her high fantasy, "Deeds of Paksenarrion" is also excellent, Charles.

raine said...

Sounds like a good read.
Thanks for the heads-up, Bernita.

writtenwyrdd said...

I like Elizabeth Moon's Herris Serrano series which this one spun off from. I read the first of this series and it was too much like David Weber and I'd sort of read a glut of military sf and couldn't stomach any more (for about the last five or six years). Been thinking of rereading Once a Hero after all these years. Might do it now you've prodded me!

Style of writing and changing reading taste has affected me in that books I have read a dozen or more times sometimes seem badly written now, or boring. I've been reading too many breezy, chicklit lighthearted or urban fantasy novels when picking up Dune for the thirteenth time felt like work.

Shakes head. It's sad, I'm becoming a lazy reader! I couldn't even get past page 25 of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norril...

writtenwyrdd said...

charles, if you read any of her books, read the trilogy of the Paksannarion books. They are among the read a dozen times books on my shelves. Those are extrapolations of Tolkien's Middle Earth, set in a time long past the end of the LOTR. Don't read the other books that are prequels, though. Terrible stuff.

Bernita said...

Only if you like the grenre, Raine.

Written, some of those chicklitty books are so lightweight one needs an anchor to hold them on the desk. I agree about the prequels to the Pacsanarrion trilogy.

laughingwolf said...

i will look for her stuff, for sure :)

Rick said...

Another Moon fan checking in. I didn't especially like the childhood trauma theme in this one, but it was tastefully and plausibly done.

Moon knows her way around military culture, and she has a gift for being convincingly vague about details of physics and technology. She does not actually write hard SF, but she catches the glint of sunlight on a spacecraft, so it feels hard.


I'll also add my name to those who would love to see 21st c. writing veer back from the Hemingway/hardboiled thing to a richer descriptive style.

Bernita said...

Rick, I don't care for the childhood trauma theme, period; but, as you say, here it " was tastefully and plausibly done."
I look at it differently. She tends to include those details that the character might reasonably be considering at various points in the story.

Rick said...

Regarding details I mean something geekier. Moon does not quite provide the information you need to reconstruct an engagement, but no one would notice who wasn't trying to diagram the thing. The normal reader, even a hard SF reader, sees the destroyer through the sub's periscope, so to speak, and figures it must be in range of whatever torpedoes are being used, because the skipper just said "Fire one!" and the whole thing feels right.

Ello said...

This is a good post because I had someone critique my WIP and say that it bothered him to see the old hero who is unsure of himself bit. A person who doubts himself is a classic example - when does it become cliche? Just like the tortured hero has become cliche. But these are true human traits. I guess the hard part is walking that line from keeping it real and avoiding the caricature.

Bernita said...

Ello, I think that must have been merely a personal response.A doubting hero is not a cliche. The opposite would be a total conceited asshole.

Jennifer said...

I love sci-fi - what I wouldn't give for a bookshelf stuffed with those old space operas and such. Luckily there is the Baen free library - adn I've signed up for the free Tor e-books. Now I just need more time to read :-)
!
Sam

Chumplet said...

I look at that cover and hear a seventies 'chick-a-bow-wah' rip in the background.

fairyhedgehog said...

I enjoyed this book but I got bogged down later in the series. I began to feel it was just more of the same.

I loved Moon's book Remnant Population. Now there's a strong female lead and an old woman too. I also liked The Speed of Dark about an autistic guy.

For military science fiction, I liked Tanya Huff's Confederation books Valor's Choice and The Better Part of Valor.

I love hard sci fi and I'm interested on everyone's take on how Moon achieves the illusion of this.

Bernita said...

For my taste, it's a crappy cover, Sandra.

Fairy, have you tried the "Vatta's War" set by Moon?

fairyhedgehog said...

bernita: I have trouble remembering which was Vatta's War and which was The Serrano Legacy. I've read quite a few of both but in the end I found them rather formulaic.

ChrisEldin said...

Bernita,
Okay, this is the second time in two weeks where you probably think I'm tailing or copying you, but I swear I'm not!!!!

I have a post about female superheroes---went to see Iron Man with Thing 1 and Thing 2 and got to thinking about the lack of big screen female warriors/super heroes. Would like to see that reversed!

:-)

Bernita said...

chris, Esmay, the hero of this book,, is not a super hero. She just has a natural talent for command.
We're writing about two totally different aspects of character.