The Undefeated by Una McCormack

Publisher - Tor

Price - £2.33 Kindle eBook

Published – Out Now

She was a warrior of words. As a journalist she exposed corruption across the Interstellar Commonwealth, shifting public opinion and destroying careers in the process. Long-since retired, she travels back to the planet of her childhood, partly through a sense of nostalgia, partly to avoid running from humanity’s newest = and self-created – enemy, the jenjer. Because the enemy is coming, and nothing can stand in its way.

Home as they say is where you can never go back again. We all have grown up and seen a lot more so going back you can never return to that moment of innocence you can look at what was once familiar and glorious and instead see it as flawed; even our understanding of our own childhood will shift in time as we begin understand that adults often have hidden motivations explaining their decisions. Una McCormack gives us an excellent bittersweet novella where the main character just as the galaxy is about to shatter into war returns finally home to make some sense of a key stage in her development.

The lead character is Monica Greatorex. In her heyday one of the most renown and powerful war reporters in the Commonwealth. Known for a sense of adventure, risk and justice added with e notoriety of coming from an elite family and never playing by society’s rules. But now since her fifties her career has quietened (she suspects many think she’s dead).  For the last three years since staying on Earth to nurse her dying mother she has decided to return to Sienna her childhood home. She and her jenjer (engineered) companion Gale are travelling against the tide as most people who can afford it are fleeing the edges of a war front with an enemy who are known to be ruthless. She finds her hometown practically deserted and ruined but while there many memories a key event in her life as a child appear, and she finally makes sense of them. In doing so she may finally make sense of the later conflict.

Monica was a key factor in my love of this story. She is an unusual main lead. She is a much older protagonist than we see in many books and is a seasoned veteran. She understands the world and takes it in its stride. She is not sympathetic as she doesn’t need sympathy – she’s done a lot in her life already, skilled with words, been involved in stopping wars and that’s balanced with a reputation as a younger woman for scandal. Despite that social justice she admits she is happy to own a jenjer companion because she likes beautiful things. She is a trained observer as a journalist and it’s that story that quickly invests you into how she became this person.

If the first element of the story is an experienced journalist returning to a war zone, then the second element that really works are the childhood scenes in Sienna. There is a clearly a filmic western influence. Monica’s father is a powerful figure in running this outpost, but a gang of mercenaries has started a protection racket. Into this walks a woman with no name…who everyone is shocked to see is a jenjer without an owner, but her reflexes and skills makes her a dangerous opponent, so they hire her to save the town. A story of revenge and betrayal that the younger Monica was just an innocent bystander to not fully understanding why all these threads hung together. Now with her life experiences she finally understands the larger context of that local battle. An event that also shaped her future career and was part of a wider story about the jenjer’s beginnings.

McCormack brings a very interesting style where Monica as a child is wilful, keen to explore places she shouldn’t and is fighting not to be the young lady her father and mother would like. Monica as an adult is more reserved, evaluating each scene she sees and, in her head, writing the stories of those she meets. That poses the question of what shaped her. The childhood in Sienna is both much more energetic and violent with its mysterious jenjer standing out to Monica. The jenjer herself is a woman very competent and confident in her own skin happily styanding uo the male leaders of the town to make her own deals. Clearly making a huge impact on Monica but ultimately not always a positive one. Very quickly we move from character scenes to sudden violence, but it never feels an unexpected shift.

A very impressive character focused piece of science fiction that mixes action and story telling into something that we don’t get very often where an older skilled lead takes centre stage and I think brings an unusual dimension of regret, nostalgia and guilt. Very much for the reader to consider who is undefeated. I will definitely be looking out for more from McCormack in the future.