A few days ago I finally go around to reading Brad Torgersen’s first book, The Chaplain’s War, published by Baen Books. I had a lot of expectations going into this one because it was recommended on a lot of the blogs I follow and besides being a military SciFi it promised to address religion in an interesting way. Overall I found the book a pleasant read, with a very interesting premise, but fundamentally flawed in it’s overall execution.
The Chaplain’s War starts with our main character Harrison Barlow, a Chaplain’s Assistant(a MOS in the Army, the equal of Navy’s RP) imprisoned in an alien POW camp, along with many other humans, located on a barren alien planet called Purgatory. Barlow and the rest of the humans are the last survivors of a Earth military counterattack on the Mantes, a violent alien species bent on exterminating human life. Accepting his fate he devotes his time to maintaining a non denominational chapel open to all who wish to use it for prayer or self reflection. His chapel attracts the attention of a Mante overseer, a Professor, who wishes to study the concept of faith and religion, ideas alien to the Mantes. Barlow and the Professor become friends, and their relationship eventually spurs on a temporary truce between the two species. Unfortunately both sides have militant sides that sabotage the peace potentially leading to the extermination of Humankind and it’s up to Barlow to fix the situation and restore peace.
The book bounces between the present where Barlow is interacting with the Mantes and both sides are on the brink of total war and the past, where you get a detailed history of Barlow joining the Fleet, going through bootcamp, training, becoming a Chaplain’s Assistant, and ending up a prisoner on Purgatory. The first major flaw of the novel lie in these flashback chapters. They are detailed boring cliché bootcamp chapters. We get the typical join the military against his parents wishes, the scary bootcamp drill sergeants, the rivalry with the street smart kid, showing leadership and emotional potential. The military fiction equivalent of the farmboy in his village. The main problem is not the narrative but the fact that it drags on for several repetitive chapters, as an active duty service member I found real bootcamp dull so I don’t need to read five chapters of standing in formation. Sadly these useless chapters take you away from the interesting happenings on Purgatory and make the whole novel choppy and uneven.
Putting the bootcamp adventures aside, the real failure of the novel lies in its main topic, religion. The Chaplain’s War takes place 190 years in the future yet Barlow’s version of Christianity remains identical to early 21st century moderate conservatism. Not only is the portrayal of Christianity uninspired but Mormonism, Islam, and the other religions mentioned are static and unchanged from what they are in our present world. SciFi is all about speculation yet Barlow’s future culture and religion is identical to ours. A lot changes in 190 years. 190 years ago the United States was a new country, Mormonism was first created, and slavery was going strong. Religions drastically change throughout the centuries. A modern day Christian used to prayer groups and acoustic guitar camps would not understand or even comprehend the religious fervor of the Reformation or the world of the Medieval Christian. To portray religion unchanging in a future where Earth has FTL capabilities and has made contact with alien life is just absurd and the greatest disappointment in this book. I came in expecting a fascinating look at religion and faith in a SciFi setting, instead I got chapters of boring bootcamp imitating Starship Troopers.