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.

Review: Ship’s Boy, by Phil Geusz

This was an odd little space opera about an anthropomorphized rabbit named David Birkenhead. That’s right, he’s a rabbit walking around in clothes an interacting with humans. (If any of you remember the comic strip Hepcats from the 80’s, it’s a bit like that.) Now, it’s not as odd as that makes it sound. He’s a member of a genetically engineered slave race, designed to be dumb, compliant labor for the ruling humans.

And he gets dragged onto a nobleman’s starship as it is fleeing an invasion, and along the way he manages to prove himself capable, and as the crisis escalates further, he even gets to step up to the plate and be a hero.

I suppose my only complaint was that it was a little short…

… so I went ahead and grabbed the next one in the series.

Review: Midshipman, by Phil Geusz

In this book, David Birkenhead is still technically a rabbit, but he’s now a free rabbit, no longer considered a slave by law. But as he recovers from his injuries and considers his future, it’s clear that most people still consider him to be a slave in all but paper.

As much as the anthropomorphized animal aspects might be weird — my wife, for example, was a little squicked by it — it actually served as an interesting proxy for our own history of racial slavery in the U.S. In many cases I could see people treating the rabbits in much the way old slaveholders of the U.S. south would have treated them, and I also see what that slavery has done to the rabbits psyche, in terms of their expectations, their choices, and their self-image. More than any furry aspect, it was this comfortable view of slavery that got under my skin more than anything else.

So, this book takes David from his injuries through to his official decoration for his heroic actions in the first book, and then onto the navy’s officer academy with the Kings full blessing. Of course, not everyone wants to see David succeed as the first free rabbit to enter the academy, and there’s quite a bit of good struggle over that. Along the way, he befriends a few other students in the academy, and for the climax, they go to an interstellar wargames competition between two opposing academies. He acquits himself fairly well in a move that would have made even Ender Wiggin proud.

So, I’m pretty jazzed about it, even with the bunny ears and slavery, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.