Three Unbroken by Chris Roberson
(Note: This review originally appeared in Ray Gun Revival 54.)
Three Unbroken by Chris Roberson
On the red planet, Fire Star, the Middle Kingdom has engaged in a long and cruel war with the Mexic Dominion. For twelve years the battles have raged, both on the surface and in the heavens around, but at last the forces of Imperial China are able to engage in a major offensive. This offensive will involve all branches of the Imperial military: the Armies of the Green Standard, infantry; four corps of the elite Bannermen forces; and the Interplanetary Fleet Air Corps.
Three Unbroken tells the story of this offensive push through the eyes of three individuals, each a member of one of the military branches. Niohuru Tie is a member of the Manchu elite who joined the Bannermen because he was tired of the spoiled apathy of his youthful friends and is ashamed that his relatives are more concerned about bureaucratic titles than truly serving the Empire. Arati Amonkar joined the Air Corps to escape from the strictures of her Hindu culture so that she could fly. And Micha Carter, from Duncan, Tejas, sees joining the army as a way to escape his past.
Readers of other stories set in Chris Roberson’s “Celestial Empire” will also enjoy Three Unbroken. The events in the novel take place roughly simultaneously with those in The Dragon’s Nine Sons. One finds again Roberson’s likable characters and his energetic, page-turning style. Knowledge of the rest of the sequence of stories enhances one’s pleasure in reading Three Unbroken, but is by no means necessary. Three Unbroken would serve as a fine introduction to Roberson’s series.
There are many ways in which I like Three Unbroken even more than The Dragon’s Nine Sons. One of the criticisms I had of the earlier work was that Roberson could have done so much more in the telling of the story by drawing from the vast wealth of Chinese literature. Three Unbroken moves in that direction. Each of the novel’s sixty-four chapters is paired with a chapter of the I Ching (complete with hexagram). The coupling of the epigrammatic I Ching chapters with the events of the story works in a subtle way, but I, at least, felt it added flavor to the story. It is similar to reading Japanese haibun or the interaction between verse and prose in certain Chinese novels. (The large number of shortish chapters also increased the readability of the book.)
I like the three main characters of the novel quite a lot, even more than the two principals of The Dragon’s Nine Sons. Their personal motivations for military service are convincing, and it is enjoyable seeing the three act with courage and honor in often difficult situations. Two of the storylines intersect in interesting ways, though I do wonder if the novel as a whole could have been even stronger if all three storylines had connected. There is plenty of room to follow the subsequent careers of any of the three characters, should Roberson feel so inclined.
One criticism that carries over from my reading of The Dragon’s Nine Sons is the depiction of the Mexica. Yes, these are very bad men. But they are men. One of the most fascinating subjects an author can explore is why men do bad things. I wish that there was more depth to the Mexica. But the enemy in Three Unbroken is more alien than any bug-eyed monster. I by no means insist on a postmodern antihero in every story. But frankly, any story that paints the villain so black scares me a little. (Though, as with my review of The Dragon’s Nine Sons, this criticism borders on reviewing the book I wish the author had written instead of reviewing the work he actually wrote.)
I like the mass market paperback format for both The Dragon’s Nine Sons and Three Unbroken, and I applaud Solaris for publishing the novels. Indeed, I hope Roberson may find a publisher like Solaris to print future Celestial Empire stories in a similarly format. However, I found the number of typos in this printing of Three Unbroken distracting at points. The substitution of “far” where “Fire” is meant (p. 308) I found especially painful. Hopefully these issues will be addressed in a future printing.
But these criticisms are relatively minor. Three Unbroken is rollicking good fun in the best tradition of military SF. I enjoy each installment of Roberson’s sequence more. I will definitely be looking for the next installment.
(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)