As I write, the author of The Chaplain’s War (Brad Torgerson; Baen) has recently been one of the subjects of a three-minute hate by left-wingers in the SF community, following Larry Correia’s organization of a drive to get Torgerson and other politically incorrect writers on the Hugo ballot. This rather predisposed me to like his work sight unseen; I’m not a conservative myself, but I dislike the PC brigade enough to be kindly disposed to anyone who gives them apoplectic fits.
Alas, there’s not much value here. Much of it reads like a second-rate imitation of Starship Troopers, complete with lovingly detailed military-training scenes and hostile bugs as opponents. And the ersatz Heinlein is the good parts – the rest is poor worldbuilding, even when it’s not infected by religious sentiments I consider outright toxic.
Harrison Barlow is a chaplain’s assistant in an Earth military that is losing a war with mantis-like aliens bent on wiping out humanity. He and a remnant of the fleet are penned up on a Mantis-held planet, and the force-field walls are literally closing in. Then, the reason they were not instantly wiped out after losing their battle is revealed when Barlow is questioned by a Mantis anthropologist he comes to think of as the Professor.
The Mantes do not understand human religion. They have previously wiped out two other sophont species who engaged in religious practices. The Professor is of a faction among them now thinks this was over-hasty and that some effort should be made to understand “faith” before humanity is extinguished.
In the novel’s first major event, Barlow – with nothing to lose but his life – refuses to answer the Professor’s questions except on the condition that the Mantes call a truce. Much to his own astonishment, this actually happens; Barlow is repatriated and celebrated as humanity’s only successful negotiator with the Mantes.
The rest of the novel cross-cuts between (on the one hand) flashbacks to Barlow’s boot-camp experiences and the events leading up to his crucial meeting with the Professor, and (on the other) the events which follow on a Mantis decision to break the truce while Barlow and his superiors are negotiating with the Queen Mother who initiated the war.
What follows is deeply flawed as SF even if you’re not put off by Torgerson’s religious evangelism. The Mantes are too obviously authorial sock puppets; they (and the Queen Mother in particular) swing too readily and rapidly from being profoundly alien to seeming excessively human-like in psychology considering the given details of their biology and society.
By the time the Queen Mother begins having pangs of conscience over her previous behavior, believability has already essentially collapsed. The Mantes have become humans in funny-hat carapaces. Lost is any of the illusion, so necessary in fiction but especially in SF, that the author’s characters and his setting have any causal autonomy.
The ensuing redemption narrative is so obviously manipulative that it’s wince-inducing. It gets worse as it goes on, and the ending is positively mawkish. Even a religious person should squirm when an apologia is this clumsy.
Then we get to the essential anti-rationality of the author’s religion. There are several crucial beats in the plot at which the day is saved by what the author none-too-subtly hints is divine intervention; I think this is a direct crime against science fiction’s core promise that the universe is rationally knowable. But this book is a tepid mess even if you don’t see that as a problem.