Harrison Barlow was a chaplain’s assistant in the first of humanity’s wars against a technologically advanced conqueror race. Harrison and thousands of other soldiers were rounded up by the insect-like enemy, who humans call the mantis race (mantes is the plural) and held in a prison camp on a planet called Purgatory. Harrison, carrying out a promise to the chaplain who died, built a chapel that was open to everyone. That action intrigued the scholar class of the mantes and led to a cease-fire. As The Chaplain’s War, Brad Torgersen’s novel based on his original novella, progresses, that cease-fire breaks down. The book questions whether humans and mantes can ever co-exist.
There was a lot to like in this book, and there were definite weaknesses that affected my enjoyment. Ultimately, Harrison, the likeable main character, kept me reading, even when I chafed under some logical inconsistencies or pined for world-building. The first fifty pages of the book are a discrete story (I’m guessing that’s the original novella, “The Chaplain’s Assistant”). We see various human reactions to the prisoner of war camp, and we meet the mantis Harrison calls “The Professor.” The Professor is interested in the concept of spiritual faith, because the mantes don’t have one. We discover that the mantis race annihilated two previous sentient races, and each of them had spiritual systems. The scholars were disappointed that they didn’t get a chance to study those species before they were annihilated.
Harrison, while he has unofficially become “the chaplain,” doesn’t seem to have been raised in any particular faith, and isn’t even sure he is a believer. He is a good man; he is keeping his word to the chaplain, and he is a source of strength and comfort to those around him. The first fifty pages were the strongest part of the book for me.
In the next section it is several years later and Harrison is commanded to attend a peace-talk between the leader of the Terran fleet and the Queen Mother of the mantes. Harrison meets his old mantis friend The Professor, but the talks don’t go well and soon Harrison, the human Captain Adanaho, the Queen Mother and the Professor are marooned on a strange planet in the middle of a shooting war.
The section on the planet is suspenseful and thought-provoking, and is related to another novella, “The Chaplain’s Legacy.” Unfortunately, this section of The Chaplain’s War is also interspersed with Harrison’s backstory of basic training. Harrison’s experiences and insights were nothing new, and this part of the book felt very derivative of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. Of course, with an insectile race and a Queen Mother, it was hard not to think of Card’s ENDER series. Harrison makes an enemy in basic training, but it isn’t for any reason that evolves in the story; it seems like he has to make an enemy so that when he meets that guy again in the future, there will be conflict and perhaps growth.
This time could have been put to better use delivering world-building about the mantes. As it stands they function in the story as a metaphor rather than a different species. They are a good metaphor, with the idea of their profound technological dependency (the mantes ride around on floating hover-rings) having somehow deadened the spiritual impulse, but they aren’t convincing as non-human beings. We know little of their political structure or their own belief system; they are ruthless conquerors who have no problem killing off entire races, but we never know why. On the planet, as Harrison and the Professor talk, it started to feel like the Professor was a human being wearing an “alien” hat, and later in the book I felt the same way about the Queen Mother.
Little things that are dropped into the story undermine the mantes. For instance, humans might call these beings mantises, because they resemble the predatory insect. The mantes, though, are a conqueror race who consider everyone else inferior. Clearly they don’t call themselves “mantes” and it’s doubtful they would allow an inferior species to give them a name. In a mildly humorous section, The Scholar explains that the Queen Mother chooses male mates for certain characteristics. The Scholar has been pretty lucky with the ladies, we discover, but he hasn’t yet been chosen by the Queen Mother, because the queens “choose warriors, not scholars.” It’s a cute moment, evoking two nerdy fratboys killing a six-pack and sighing, “Girls, man…” but it’s not logical. The scholar faction was powerful enough to broker a cease-fire; the mantes value intelligence as highly as warrior prowess, and since they all ride around in little hover-carriages, plainly physical athleticism is not a value of theirs. Clearly, scholars would have been among the first on the Queen Mother’s dance card. Going for a joke instead of taking an opportunity to share views of an alien culture is a choice, certainly, but it’s one that disappointed me, especially since Harrison’s relationship with the mantes is a big part of this story.
While Torgersen never explained the mantes or addressed the issue of Harrison’s faith to my satisfaction, The Chaplain’s War has plenty of action, and lots of interesting ideas. His writing gives clear descriptions of the mantis hover-rings and how those beings interact with their technology; the ships are good, and the shooting sequences are suspenseful. There is a beautiful moment in the book that involves the Queen Mother and the edge of a cliff. While the issue of spiritual faith is never adequately resolved, it creates a first-rate conversation starter. I think military SF fans in particular will enjoy this.