Jason Wander returns in Orphan’s Journey, the third in Robert Buettner’s slant on the Military Science Fiction Genre. As Orbit Books took over the reins of many of the WarnerAspect titles, I was pleased to find out Robert Buettner’s Jason Wander novels were among the books slated to continue. Jason has saved humanity a couple of times, so what does Buettner have in store for Jason this time? This time round, Jason is hurtled across the galaxy with some friends to a distant planet with some very familiar residents.
After the conclusion of the Slug War(s), Jason and Sergeant Major Ord, one of Jason’s closest companions from the Slug War, are running what amounts to Black Ops missions, assisting governments who are allied with the U.S. behind the scenes. When Jason gets overzealous, his higher-ups pull him from these missions and gives Jason a very special assignment. In an orbiting Military Facility, a recovered Slug interstellar-vessel is under tight wraps. In fact, this is the only Slug vessel still intact. Also on this orbiting facility is another of Jason’s old infantry-mates Munchkin and her son Jude – Jason’s godson. Rounding out the returning characters is scientist Howard Hibble, who has been charged with getting the Slug vessel running again. The problem is, human reaction and hand-eye-coordination isn’t accurate or fast enough to get the Slug vessel running. This is where Jude comes into the story – having been birthed on another planet (Ganymede to be specific) during the Slug war, his reflexes and acuity have a different set of parameters than those of normal humans making him the only human truly capable of piloting the Slug vessel.
After convincing Jude and reassuring his mother that Jude will be safe, Jason, Howard, Ord, and of course Jude attempt to get the Slug vessel moving. Unfortunately for them, the effort is successful, too successful. Soon the Slug vessel is moving and blasts out of the orbiting Military Facility and into uncharted territory – beyond the galaxy and the reaches any human has ever traveled. It is at this point in the story where the feel of it shifts from a Heinlein-esque Military SF to something different.
Jason and crew eventually land on a planet inhabited by dinosaurs and two very familiar species – humans and Slugs. The Slugs are using humans as slaves in order to harvest Cavorite, the stones that fuel the Slug vessels. In order to fend of the slugs on this ‘new’ planet, Jason has to convince multiple warring tribes to unite for the greater good. There’s a man-out-of-water feel to the story that evokes the sense-o-wonder of a planetary adventure with a good dose of modern sensibilities.
Buettner had some decisions to make when he wanted to continue Jason’s story – he could have retold another alien invasion and military repulsion of the attack or expand Jason’s story. In Orphan’s Journey, throwing Jason across the galaxy may have been the best thing he could have done. We are familiar with these characters and even slightly familiar with the situation, but the setting and implications of those combined elements are what ultimately make Orphan’s Journey a successful continuation of an already entertaining series.
Jason still seems almost dangerously larger than life and able to solve any problem that comes his way, but that’s part and parcel with the protagonist of such novels. His role as savior maybe a bit over-the-top for some, but Buettner balances this out with a lot of internal doubt on Jason’s part. Still, some may be put off by a protagonist who seemingly succeeds at nearly every turn. Buettner’s short, sometimes too short, chapters work very well to keep the pace flowing very quickly. With foreboding statements at the end of most chapters, Buettner makes it very difficult to put the book down for any prolonged period of time and as before, Jason’s first-person perspective/voice works very well as a narrative device. The Cavorite is something of a MacGuffin, but more essential to the plot than most MacGuffins, and with the other aspects of the story, are balanced very well by Buettner’s economic pacing. Despite being the longest of the four Jason Wander novels, Orphan’s Journey was still and exciting, action packed, page-turner of a read.
I should also note, as I often do in my reviews, the packaging/design of the novel. I thought Fred Gambino’s artwork on the first two volumes worked very well – a nice convergence of classic imagery with a modern approach which is not unlike the novels themselves. As Orbit took over the series, they redesigned the dress and covers to give the books more modern look, with photo-realistic images from Calvin Chu. The new covers/books stand out equally as well, with little star numbers on the spine to indicate the volume of the series, and will likely grab fans of the Halo franchise and/or Mass Effect and even Battlestar Galactica looking for something similar.
The first two novels in the Jason Wander series worked hand in hand with each other, and you get a sense that they tell one story complete in and of themselves. Then Buettner decides to reshuffle the deck with Orphan’s Journey and take the characters and readers into some fantastic new territory. It is only a minute question, but I have to wonder if Buettner was planning such an over-reaching arc for Jason all along. After reading Orphan’s Journey, it seems to me that Buettner has long-range ideas of where humanity, Jason, and the Slugs will be going, how they will get there and just maybe, how humanity got there. While Orphan’s Journey will not necessarily change the stories of the previous two volumes, it strengthens them and places the shape of their part in the grand scheme in a different light, as well as placing humanity itself in a different light. In effect, this novel could work on its own since Buettner provides enough detail to keep new readers up to speed. Fans of the previous two novels will likely enjoy this one and be eager for the fourth volume, Orphan’s Alliance. I know I am.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford