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Review – The V’Dan (First Salik War #2) by Jean Johnson

Reviewed by Marlene

I grabbed The V’Dan because I love Jean Johnson’s writing. I have enjoyed all of her books, including her fanfiction, and her military SF series Theirs Not to Reason Why is one of my all-time favorites. If you like character-driven military SF, start with A Soldier’s Duty.

terrans by jean johnsonBut The V’Dan is the second book in her prequel series to Theirs Not, The First Salik War. I raved over the first book in this series, The Terrans, over at Reading Reality. I expected to love The V’Dan just as much. Instead, I leave the story a bit frustrated.

First, for the record, while it is not necessary to read any or all of Theirs Not to Reason Why before tackling The First Salik War, I think it is necessary to read The Terrans before reading The V’Dan. It’s not just that most of the setup is in The Terrans, but also that The V’Dan is of necessity a middle book, and I don’t think the reader will know enough or care enough about the characters to enjoy this one without the first book.

I said that The V’Dan is a middle book. For those not familiar, the traditional narrative arc in most stories is a rise to the end of the first third of the story, a fall to the end of the second third, and a rise to the conclusion, catharsis, happy ending at the end of the final third.

In a trilogy, the second book always sits squarely in that fall to the trough of the second third. Things get darker and darker, and then darkest just before they turn completely black in a seeming ending or failure.

Think of The Two Towers of The Lord of the Rings, or The Empire Strikes Back of the classic Star Wars trilogy. They both end in dark places for important narrative reasons, but it hurts when the story leaves the characters in the lurch like that.

The story in The V’Dan is also much, much more a political story than it is an action story. In The Terrans, the Terran United Planets ship Aloha 9 rescues the survivors of a V’Dan crew from becoming dinner for the Saliks. After the spectacular rescue, the Terrans bring the V’Dan back to Earth. It’s not that they don’t want to return the V’Dan to their home, it’s that they need the resources of Earth to find it first.

Along the way, the V’Dan are introduced to the Earth of the 23rd century, a place that has learned some hard truths on the road to peace and prosperity, but looks like a future and a political system that would be marvelous to live in. There are a lot of commentaries on the way we do things in the 21st century, and I found them all the be both sharply pointed and extremely cogent.

However, the other things that are discovered during the V’Dan’s brief visit to Earth are quite interesting. The V’Dan are us. 10,000 years ago an ancestor they call “The Immortal” scooped their ancestors off of our Earth and seeded them on V’Dan. While there have been 10,000 years of genetic and cultural drift, we are definitely their progenitors.

But about that drift…one of the big changes is the V’Dan response to the extreme number of histamine producers in their atmosphere. They developed a virus that basically prevents the whole planet from dying of anaphylactic shock just from breathing. We don’t have that virus because we don’t need it. But the virus produces a pattern of colored markings on the skin of the V’Dan, and these “jungen” marks appear at puberty. The V’Dan have extreme cultural taboos and prejudices about what the jungen-less can and cannot do or be, because those laws are designed to protect children.

The Terran humans are jungen-less, but they are manifestly not children. And when the Terrans bring the V’Dan survivors back to V’Dan to set up diplomatic relations and trade technology, the V’Dans as a society are completely unable to cope.

So most of the story here is about the degradation of relations proceeding apace as the V’Dan degrade the Terrans at every single turn. It is like water wearing away at stone. Every interaction produces at least one nasty exchange where the V’Dan refuse to treat the Terrans not merely as equals, but just as ordinary adults. The Terran embassy can’t buy food because the merchants don’t believe that a “child” should be handling that much money. The Terrans can’t buy liquor either, but the restriction on food purchases was the one that got me.

The way that the Terrans continue to act as responsible adults in the face of increasing disrespect is thoughtful and mature, but they also don’t back down. Nor should they. While they could as individuals make their lives easier with some makeup or tattoos, that would constitute giving in to the V’Dan cultural prejudice that has no basis in fact, something that Terra has finally gotten past in the last century. They don’t want to go back to cater to someone else’s blind prejudice.

What in the end drove me bananas, is that as much as the cultural divide was well documented and well portrayed in all of its fits and starts and one step forward two steps back jerky momentum, something failed for me in the dismount.

I expected that relations would fail in the end. While there is hope, it was clear that there is going to need to be a break, a crisis and a reassessment for the V’Dan to get their heads out of their prejudiced assholes.

This is where we get to the villain of the piece. Well, sort of. The Terran Ambassador, Jackie Mackenzie, and the V’Dan Crown Prince Li’eth have a gestalt partnership. Their minds are intertwined, and if they don’t stay together, they will both die. The existence of this relationship seems to drive Li’eth’s older sister, the Crown Princess and designated Heir, out of her tiny mind beyond all reason.

The overall villains of this series are unquestionably the Salik. They plan to eat us all. While they are repugnant, they make sense from their own perspective, and we know what that perspective is from information provided in The Terrans.

The V’Dan need Terran technology to fight the Salik. While the V’Dan have the ability to generate artificial gravity in their ships, they are still using FTL technology for propulsion and something that seems even slower for communication. They also still use fossil fuels for energy in all applications including space flight. And their hulls are like tissue paper.

The Terrans have developed OTL (other-than-light) travel, which is much faster than FTL. The Terrans have close to instantaneous communications capability. They have a substance that is impossible for sensors to read through for space ship hulls, and they have developed hydroenergy for propulsion and for hydro-bombs.

In other words, the V’Dan need us to help them fight their war way more than we need them. The Empress, Li’eth’s mother, sees that. She has constant problems with her own perceptions of the Terrans as jungen-less children, but she fights that prejudice for the good of her people. She does her best to let her head rule her actions, and it mostly works. It’s not that the prejudice is not there, but that she knows she must work past it.

At the end of the story, the Salik attack and the Empress is critically injured. The Crown Princess is now Regent, and her first action is to throw a temper-tantrum. She both demands that the Terrans give the V’Dan all their technology and demands that they act as properly subservient children and do whatever the V’Dan want with no rights for themselves. The scene is long, and it is necessary. If this were acted, the Crown Princess would be doing a lot of scenery chewing.

The end result is predictable at that point. The Terran Ambassador closes the Embassy and takes ALL of the Terran technology with her. And instead of scenery-chewing, what we see on Jackie’s side is a stand up and cheer moment. She does the right thing at the right time for the right reasons, even though that decision may result in her death. And she knows it.

Where I got hung up is the Crown Princess, her over-the-top reaction and then her complete lack of understanding that the result was the logical consequence of her own behavior.

Why did this bother me so much? The Heirship is not strictly hereditary on V’Dan. The Heir is chosen from the family, but it is the best qualified who is chosen, not automatically the oldest. So it doesn’t have to be her and it can be changed at a moment’s notice and she knows it. Also, she has been trained to be the Heir for 20+ years. She should know better than to put her temper and prejudices before the needs of her people. And that statement is not about her feelings, because we feel what we feel. But she is supposed to have been trained to make sure that her actions benefit her people, and at this junction, they are the farthest away from that principle as they could possibly be. The Crown Princess is an adult in her late 30s or possibly early 40s. The childishness of her temper tantrum would have worked if she actually were a child, but in an adult it made no sense to this reader.

There may be reasons for how she behaved. It is certainly possibly that one of the many factions influenced her behavior through mind control. Or she’s been angling to knock her mother off the throne and take over for years. But we never see enough of her behavior or her mind to know what is driving her. Unlike the Salik, who are totally repugnant but make sense, I at least lost the sense that she had a clue about what her behavior should be, which seemed wrong for the position she had been entrusted with.

There is a lot going on in The V’Dan. In many ways, it is a quiet story until the end. We see relations deteriorate, but we also see a lot of relations. We get to see much, much more of Ambassador Jackie MacKenzie in action both as a psi and as a gifted ambassador, and the woman is absolutely awesome. She is a terrific character, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. I would read this series just to follow Jackie’s adventures.

As much as the ending of The V’Dan drove me crazy, I really, really can’t wait to see what happens in the next book, tentatively titled The Blockade. It looks like things may get darker yet before they finally turn towards the light.

I have whole spaceships full of mixed feeling about this book. I read it in a day, eventually giving in and just sitting down to finish. I say this in spite of how much trouble it was for me to read. This is the first time in quite a while that I’ve been forced to read print. Print which in this case was tiny and tightly spaced. As a Baby Boomer, one of the things that may force us Baby Boomers into ebooks is the ability to infinitely adjust the font. It is much easier to make the font bigger than to make one’s arms either longer or shorter, or to find the brightest light in the universe to read tiny type.

But I felt compelled to finish this. The way that Jackie tries and tries and tries to make the relationship with the V’Dan work. The frustrations and actual physical and mental discomfort that Jackie and Li’eth experience in order to slow the pace of their Gestalt pairing so that his people can grow accustomed to their relationship. The ultimate failure of that attempt is heartbreaking and costs too many lives to no purpose. The beginnings of relationships that Jackie develops with the other races, and how those relationships in the end assist her is marvelous.

But I experienced villain failure at the end, so I reluctantly give The V’Dan a B+. As much as I love the world the author has created, and as involved as I was with the story, for me, it just didn’t stick the dismount.

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By Marlene

Marlene is a librarian, ebook advocate, science fiction fan, and RPG fan who lives in Atlanta. She and her husband are owned by three cats, just ask them. She's a geek and a nerd and proud of it. She's also an avid reader of everything, including the back of the cereal box, and has been blogging since April 2011 at Reading Reality and is a reviewer at Library Journal as well as active on Goodreads.

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