A Review of Orphanage

Orphanage (Jason Wander, #1)Orphanage by Robert Buettner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting and entertaining first book in an undoubtedly decent series. I read someone comparing it to Chris Bunch’s The Last Legion series and I’m glad I read that because that thought occurred to me as I was reading it, but I pushed that thought aside as irrelevant, but then apparently it wasn’t. I’m glad to see I’m not the only person who thought about that. You see, I really love Bunch and his military sci fi series.’ I think they are excellent and I think Bunch writes some of the best military sci fi out there. Now I think Buettner might be close to Bunch. The only difference is Bunch uses some wicked humor in his books in his dialogue between characters, while Buettner generally does not. Otherwise, the military tactics are there, the action is frenetic, the butchery is shocking, the apparent “realism” to those who have been in the military is significant, and they are excellent writers writing excellent books. Of course, there’s that huge detail I haven’t touched on yet that every reviewer mentions. I don’t know why I bother, but I guess I will. Starship Troopers. Yes, Orphanage is a lot like Starship Troopers. There, I said it! Happy? The book follows a new infantry recruit as he trains to fight a slug-like alien enemy busy destroying major Earth cities with huge projectiles from one of Jupiter’s moons (Ganymede). There are also supporting characters such as a school friend who becomes a major pilot and a stereotypical drill sergeant. A huge secret mission is launched to go to Jupiter, take the fight to the enemy, and save humanity. Starship Troopers anyone?

Jason Wander is an orphan. His mother is killed when the city she lives in, Indianapolis, is demolished by a huge projectile sent down by the slugs, as is the case with cities all over Earth. Tens of millions of people, hundreds of millions, are dying as cities are obliterated. Jason doesn’t handle it well and beats up his teacher in school, is sent before a judge and is given two choices: jail or the Army. He chooses the Army. We follow him through basic training and it’s interesting, but what’s really interesting is that the world’s military is really out of date. No major wars have been fought in a very long time. There certainly are no interstellar fleets to go kill the slugs. No great plasma weapons, or anything like that. But as cities keep getting wiped out, the governments (mostly the US, I believe) come up with a one time possibility – take “orphans” – soldiers with no families left – train them, send them on a giant ship up to Ganymede, and attack the slugs in a winner take all battle/war for supremacy. It’s a gamble, but it’s all they’ve got. Unfortunately, all they’ve got, too, are weapons from the late 20th Century and a huge starship dating from a similar time, for the most part. And it’s going to take hundreds of days to get there!

Jason is one of 10,000 soldiers chosen and trained, quickly, and then loaded onto the ship. One of his old buddies, Metzger, is the pilot. He becomes friends and combat colleagues with a fiery little female Egyptian solider he calls Munchkin. Jason develops a relationship with his own landingship’s pilot. So, there are big plans on how they’re going to go in and land and then proceed to take on the slugs. Then it’s time. They take off for the surface and his ship is second in line, but things don’t appear “right.” The first ship disappears, and then his love/pilot starts shouting a warning and makes a crash landing, killing herself in the process, and the whole line of ships landing starts crashing into the moon’s surface that was supposed to be composed of a completely different type of surface with mountains elsewhere. What they land on isn’t compatible with what can hold their ships. It’s a blood bath. Thousands die. About 2,000 soldiers survive the landing, only 20% of the invading force. Nightmare.

Things get worse. The force heads off looking for shelter and discovers some caves that look safe. They set up a defensive perimeter and people bed down in the caves. Jason wakes up in the middle of the night, thinks he sees some shadows moving, realizes he does, and realizes the slugs, nearly invisible, are in the caves, and are suffocating soldiers as they sleep! He attempts to wake everyone he can and people start firing, but they lose hundreds of more soldiers that night and morale plummets even further. All this before they even face the slugs in battle.

Finally, they get out onto the battlefield the next day. I believe by that point, Jason’s been promoted from Specialist Fourth Class to something higher, can’t remember. The field promotions start coming fast for everyone. His general really relies on him a lot, for reasons I never fully understood. I could go on with details, but suffice it to say that the troops keep getting whittled down as they face tens of thousands, maybe even more, of the slugs who march straight at them and the human soldiers just take horrible casualties. Promotions keep coming and Jason keeps rising up the ranks. Soon he’s a captain, then a major. By attrition. Munchkin is still with him. She and Metzger have gotten married and she’s pregnant with his child. Jason’s “spook” buddie, Howard, comes to believe the slugs have a “hive” mind/system, that there’s really only one master slug and that they’re being pumped out by this master slug and that if they could kill this slug, they could kill them all. But how? And meanwhile, they keep coming by the thousands and humans keep dying. Soon, there are fewer than 1,000 soldiers and Jason’s general has been taken away after pinning his insignia on Jason, making him general of all the human forces, youngest general in human history. Jason really feels like this is surreal, he’s not cut out to be a leader, he’s a follower. But he gives it his best shot. He and Howard and Metzger come up with a plan to kill with master slug and end the war. It won’t go over well with everyone and it’s got to be a little lucky to work, but if it does work, it should end the war. The slugs make one last push, while the soldiers try and hang on again. Metzger takes the ship in orbit and soars down into the skies overhead toward the slug area and plows into what had appeared to be the headquarters buildings, blowing himself and the whole area up in a near mini-nuclear explosion. And all of the slugs fall over and die. It worked! He sacrificed himself, Munchkin is devastated, especially since their son, who Jason delivered, will never get to see his father, but the Earth is saved and the 700 remaining soldiers – out of 10,000 – have been saved! General Wander helped save the Earth. He’s a hero. Earth has sent a small fleet some time ago with reinforcements and they arrive shortly to help and to take the survivors home.

I’ve already started on the sequel, so I know a little bit about what happens next, and I won’t say anything in this review, but I really enjoyed this book. It was hardcore military. Took itself almost a little too seriously, if it’s possible to say that. Whereas Bunch’s characters could let down and goof around in between missions and even during firefights, just for some levity, it didn’t seem that was Buettner’s style, which is fine. Every author is different. He doesn’t have to be Chris Bunch. It’s just that it’s a little more somber. Again, that’s okay. Just be prepared to laugh a lot less than you will with Chris Bunch. Nonetheless, non-stop action, lots of blood and guts, fascinating tactics, good story, good potential for an interesting series. I’d like to give it five stars, but I have concerns with some of the decisions made by the officers above Wander, especially his commanding general, particularly as relating to his nonstop field promotions all the way to general within days. It just doesn’t seem that realistic to me and I find it hard to believe there weren’t other soldiers just as or more qualified than him to be promoted to those positions that quickly. Just not sure if I fully buy it. Still, four solid stars and definitely recommended.

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