Saunders goes back to military fiction here, and I didn’t find any part of it particularly compelling, apart from the sneaky worldbuilding updates. The characters had enough personal stories, but didn’t interest me, the overarching plot was slow, and the time jumping (there are five parts to the book, all start at the same time and move forward) didn’t really work for me and was annoying to keep track of.
I expected to be annoyed by the military organization and engineering stuff, but I actually was okay with that, and found parts of it compelling. Particularly starting up a new group and getting from nothing to social cohesion and competence at the same time was a good setting with a satisfying resolution.
But as with the previous two books, the worldbuilding that does get filled in is excellent and makes me very happy. From exploring the ethics of requiring people to behave in a way that can’t be meaningfully expressed in their language, to the functioning of an army in a society that functions non-violently and with a strong desire to not rule anybody (and with an army always being a net loss to the normal operating society!), we get more looks at Saunders’ brain and it’s so good. Could have done without the weird graul mating ritual, but at least it’s weird in a thoroughly neutral sci-fi way.
Notably, this is the FIRST time that the sizes of files, platoons, companies and battalions are explained, ever, in the history of this series. Having an understanding of those earlier might have been nice. Also, shout-outs to the single word of Ancient Greek that Saunders just drops in his text – what was that, why was that, I wish I didn’t enjoy it. Generally, this book was surprisingly quotable, which none of the others were.