Review: Lieutenant, by Phil Geusz

This is the third book in the David Birkenhead series. I reviewed the first two books already. It’s the story of the apparently epic career of… well, a rabbit in the royal space navy. More specifically, he’s a genetically engineered rabbit-human crossbreed, raised as a part of a slave race but elevated to the status of a free person in reward for an act of bravery.

Lieutenant picks up David’s story as he gets his first assignment following his graduation from the naval academy. Just as plenty of people tried to push him down in the academy, the defenders of the status quo intend to tuck him out of the way, never to be seen again. So, instead of the ship engineering position he desperately wanted, he is posted to graves registration, seeing to the collection and proper burial of the humans who have fallen in service to the king.

Disappointed, he does what he can to perform at his best, but he is starting to accept that he will never escape this dead-end job and will simply have to serve out the remainder of his term before trying to find his way in the civilian world. But then, as plot contrivances would have it, he finds himself out on assignment collecting bodies from an old battle that sparks back to life. Left in command by acts of foolishness and desertion by his superior officers, he has to face impossible odds, resigning himself to die in a hopeless cause.

To some extent, this is young Birkenhead facing the Kobayashi Maru challenge from Star Trek, deciding how to face death and lead his fellow officers and rabbits willingly to it, but much like James T. Kirk, he does not believe in the no-win scenario, and woe be to the enemy who expects him to lay down and die peacefully.

So, in that respect, it’s a great bit of space opera worthy of any of the better known authors and universes. But I still have to admit, it’s this rabbit thing that makes it both really weird and strangely compelling.

In many ways, Birkenhead’s status as a free rabbit acts as a placeholder for any groundbreaking career officer, perhaps the first black officer or the first female officer here in the U.S. He faces many of the same challenges that they would, from the prejudices of his fellow officers to the outright hatred of those who must defend the status quo against the inevitable pressures of the future. On top of that, he is dealing with both the admiration of his fellow rabbits as well as their own preconceptions of subservience and inadequacy.

And yet he is also dealing with many problems that are unique to being a rabbit instead of a pure human. He eats different food, so he’s not necessarily welcome in the officer’s wardroom. He’s covered in fur, and that makes a difference in some of the special engineering suits they require. And for that matter, his feet are enormous by human standards, so his dress uniform is decidedly lacking in the polished boots department. So, all of that keeps this from being a simple proxy for the standard “first minority officer” story, and that combination, as I said, keeps it both weird and compelling.

The title of the next book hints at his continued rise through the ranks, and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’d rip right through the whole series, but I’m trying to pace myself.