War and Genre Fiction: War Cry by Brian McClellan

War: what is it good for, in genre fiction? War stories can provide a framework and reason for pulse-pounding action that compels readers to turn pages. They can be used to examine small unit dynamics, how a band of sisters and brothers forms, reacts to each other, and deals with external pressure. Sometimes war stories present higher strategic narratives, as when characters caught in a council of wars see the conflict as a gameboard, a battle of wits, determination and skill—a game played with human lives, but no less a game for that. There is also the more basic need for stories to have conflict to increase tension and keep the reader’s interest. There are many ways to ramp up that tension, but bombs falling, and the enemy army coming across the trenches at our heroes, is a straightforward way of doing so.

All of these elements are present in Brian McClellan’s novella War Cry. McClellan is no stranger to writing war stories, as in his Powder Mage flintlock fantasy novels, novellas, and stories. War Cry is set in an original fantasy universe, and one with a higher level of technological development than the Powder Mage universe, more of a WWII or Korean War level of technology.

War Cry is the story of Teado. His Ranger unit has been under-supplied for years, eking out their job of harassing the enemy across the high plains of his world without any real support from the higher ups. So when intel comes through from High Command about an enemy airstrip being built nearby—and the prospect of destroying it and taking the enemy’s supplies—Teado does not hesitate to move his unit into action. This leads to a series of events, clashes, and discoveries that have the potential to change the face of the war.

The character dynamics of Teado’s small unit are a joy to read. Under the pressure of war, Teado, Aleta, Ballara, the devil-may-care pilot Rodrigo and the rest of the team come off as a family of sometimes bickering soldiers who are always trying to do the right thing. The strong first-person point of view does mean that we only get Teado’s perspective and thoughts on the other characters, but that tight focus works well here in the short space to give us an intimate, comprehensive look at Teado’s personality and character growth.

McClellan does an excellent job worldbuilding a conflict from scratch and conveying its nature and execution to the reader. How would a fantasy world with magic handle a WWII-era conflict? Very much the way the real world would, in the author’s depiction. The author also made the decision to not coin neologisms when he doesn’t have to: Cargo planes, rifles, motorbikes, rangers, and other common components for war are called exactly that; McClellan reserves invention for his multiple magic systems, such as Teado’s ability to shapeshift, to Change. The magic is additive, not world-breaking; magic users are potent weapons in the world, but not game breakers. Teado’s shapechanged form, for example, as well as the shapechanging forms of the enemy army are ferocious and fearsome, but not all-powerful.

The problems and the questions of war are explored in War Cry right from the beginning. A seemingly endless conflict; a unit on the end of its tether in a number of senses; secrets, lies, the costs and problems of war and more are explored not only through the thoughts of Teado, or via dialogue with other characters, but by worldbuilding and story. It’s relatively straightforward to write a story where the band of brothers (and sisters) fret and complain about their situation, turning a warzone into just another workplace drama in those moments. It’s harder to capture just how strange a shared illusion and reality that war is—and the costs for those who participate in it.

War Cry manages this in the everyday lack of supplies that pushes the platoon to the edge, the ebb and flow of the conflict itself, and how the characters confront the meaning and uses—as well as the absurdity and futility—of armed conflict. We get action beats that are far more than just by-the-numbers action sequences. They illuminate character, goals, and objectives and immerse the reader into the action of the story whenever conflict erupts.

Teado’s unit is composed of Rangers with strong magic user support. This choice means that instead of only straightforward fighting against enemy units as a general infantry story would allow, Teado’s platoon is expected to, and does engage in, conflicts with enemy forces in a variety of different combat situations and actions. The novella thus gives us siege warfare, airdrops, raiding, espionage, and crossing hostile terrain.

Teado and his fellow Rangers’ relationship with the war that has defined their lives for a long time, and so we feel their deprivations, their fears, and the costs, human and otherwise, that this conflict asks of them. The author establishes this early and strongly, so that the main plot of going after enemy supplies feels like the only choice the team can make, as crazy a plan as it is. Everything they do, and all of the plot and the revelations of the novella, fall from the decision made at the beginning.

War Cry in the end provides a very satisfying narrative and story. While this world has plenty of more room for more exploration, with these characters or others, I was particularly gratified to have a complete and whole narrative in this volume. The author has written a sheaf of novels, novellas, and shorter pieces set in his Powder Mage universe, but I have not previously read anything he has written outside of it. Thus, I was very curious as to what his work would be like in a setting far removed from the well developed world of Field Marshal Tamas. I was gratified to find just how well the novella worked for me.

War Cry is available from Tor.com Publishing.
Read an excerpt from the novella here.

An ex-pat New Yorker living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over 30 years. An avid and enthusiastic amateur photographer, blogger and podcaster, Paul primarily contributes to the Skiffy and Fanty Show as blogger and podcaster, and the SFF Audio podcast. If you’ve spent any time reading about SFF online, you’ve probably read one of his blog comments or tweets (he’s @PrinceJvstin).

 

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