Thursday, February 09, 2023

Schroeder, Archer 887 (2022)

Anna Schroeder, Archer 887 (Archer book #1). Self-published, 2022. Pp. 308. ISBN 979-8-9862308-0-1. $15.00 pb/$8.99 e.

Reviewed by M.L. Clark

Military sci-fi comes in many moral flavours. Anna Schroeder’s Archer 887 is a highly conservative variant, as illustrated in its treatment of empire, military service, aliens as enemies, righteous torture, gender relations, and the core romance. Action forward, it’s written at an engaging pace with realistic battle sequences, and has a good sense of dialogue, so for folks looking for a more traditional SF read, this series opener promises a coherent and compelling adventure.

For everyone else, it’s an interesting illustration of certain givens in the subgenre. There’s no real reason, for instance, that a far-flung future empire, even one driven by a hard-nosed military and overseeing an array of colonies in space, would need to replicate the rigid gender and marital practices that one might find in sea-faring historical romances, or military fantasy in the school of David Eddings. Nevertheless, Schroeder’s female lead, Evi, is both a surface-tough accidental ruler, and a mature-for-her-age-but-also-bratty child of 14 when first married off for political reasons to a man who could be her grandfather—and whom she comes to explicitly consider a father-figure, while also aching for their relationship with him to include more intimate elements.

It would be deeply misguided to presume that only male authors would write such a female character: surface-tough, but also crying into her pillow and holding back shudders and tears in the middle of official duties—at least, when she’s not sneaking around to commit war crimes on captured enemies in part because the loss of children to alien attack has made her acutely aware of the children she wants to have herself one day.

Similarly, the male lead, this book’s titular Archer 887—who for most of this book goes by Arsaces or Admiral Wood—is technically much younger than the man to whom Evi is first married, but he’s depicted with enough war-weariness and post-combat reconstruction to make him gruffly old at heart. Arsaces moves through the usual huffy anger at this upstart girl-woman’s stubbornness and resistance to his commands, into an inevitable love and protective adoration for her. This is all predictable coding for a traditional male-female relationship in many an SFF adventure—and it’s by no means outside the purview of a female author to write such stereotypical givens.

Also unquestioned is the righteousness of empire itself in this tale. Even though Evi’s kin lie mostly at the periphery of this story—dead, and before that a miserable and brutal excuse of a ruling family—none of the characters significantly doubt whether their military-enforced colonial enterprise is itself still a worthy one. Similarly, when it comes to the interrogation of enemy combatants, lip service at best is paid to the idea that these alien-coded invaders are anything more than monstrous threats.

This approach to alien others also has a long lineage in military sci-fi—right back to classic “bug wars” between humans and hideous opponents… but on this accord, Schroeder’s series opener does also dangle the possibility of growth out of this simplistic construct, through one character who carries a secret identity that might blur the lines between notions of friend and foe.

Archer 887 also offers a very deft approach to male companionship, through the protective link that Arsaces has with a sentient ship named Westerland, and also through the paternal care provided by Evi’s first husband, Carl, who tended to the wounded Archer 887 after being impressed by his curiously brave actions in the field of combat. Archer’s choice to reduce casualties on the brink of war shapes his initial character and offers a moral core that this story’s events significantly threaten, thanks in part to what’s been done to his body during recovery.

In other words, although this is a very conservative book—possibly too much so for quite a few readers of SFF—it’s not lacking in skill, and has potential for growth out of binary world views as its alien intrigue intensifies. It also offers a well-wrought attention to the value of male (or at least male-coded) friendships and respectful camaraderie in service. As a first novel, Archer 887 reveals a writer with technical control over her narrative, and—for the right audience—provides an engaging introduction in a series that may yet develop more nuance along the way.

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