War Cry, Brian McClellan (Tor.com Publishing 978-1250170163, $11.88, 112pp, tp) August 2018.
Brian McClellan is best known for his military fantasy, and War Cry doesn’t represent a change of pace. Teado is a Changer, a shapeshifter. He’s part of a military team stationed in the Bavares high plains, a remote and largely unpopulated area between the borders of two warring nations. Although he’s still young, he’s been there for years, because the war that he’s part of appears to be pretty endless. (It’s not at all clear to the reader why it’s gone on so long without any negotiated settlement.) His team is supposed to harass and raid the enemy with their handful of motorised vehicles and their single plane, but their supplies are low, they feel overlooked – ignored and forgotten – by their own command, and they listen to enemy propaganda on the radio, because it’s more entertaining than their own people’s broadcasts.
They have a pretty grim, hopeless existence. The enemy is building a forward staging post relatively close to them – an airbase and logistics depot – and in what seems like a desperate act of bravado, they decide to do an airdrop on top of the airbase, destroy some shit, and steal one of the cargo planes. Mostly because they’re running out of rations. Teado is their greatest weapon in this assault, since Changers are practically indestructible. The drop goes wrong, though his comrades get away with the plane, and Teado is left to make his way back to the base cross-country, a journey of several days on foot with no supplies while being hunted by the enemy.
On the way back, he encounters a military encampment – a large group of troops that should be his comrades. It turns out that in this war one can’t rely on any certainties, though, much less any allies, and Teado finds himself in a race against the clock to save the lives of his small team – who almost certainly believe he’s already dead.
McClellan’s prose is brisk and entertaining, even when writing about people who are (by our legal definitions) child soldiers. He creates characters here who are distinctive individuals, and makes their struggle in wartime a touching one. There’s no doubt that War Cry is a very readable 97 pages of fiction. But….
There’s an issue that I’ve noticed affecting a number of novellas from Tor.com Publishing, even ones I really like. Several of them feel like half an argument, thematically unfinished, not quite an entire thing. War Cry feels similarly truncated, as though it’s the introductory act of a much longer story. It would work much better as the first third of a novel than as a solitary piece, because while War Cry has many things to recommend it in terms of entertainment and prose, its main character lacks an emotional arc – a complete one, anyway. It’s not experimental and high-concept enough to make that lack feel like a considered part of it – or something that could be overlooked in the cascade of shiny-ness that some other works have had.
Despite being a “Changer,” Teado himself changes minimally between War Cry’s opening and closing pages, making him a rather static character. He’s the only major character in the novella, though, so his lack of a developed emotional arc makes War Cry rather unsatisfying. That said, War Cry is plenty readable, but I can’t bring myself to be very enthusiastic about it.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the August 2018 issue of Locus.
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