Fantastic. This book just catapulted to the top of my recommend-to-others list.
The two non-human races in this book–one alien, the other created by humans to fight the aliens–are perfectly drawn, with clear racial traits and yet with strengths and flaws as individuals. They aren’t heroes or villains, just people, driven by fear or love or ambition to fight against those who threaten them.
My personal favorites were the Luyten, a race of starfish-shaped creatures the size of elephants. McIntosh does telepathic aliens like nobody’s ever done them before. They use their telepathy in war to tremendous effect: perfect communication that can’t be intercepted, and perfect knowledge of their enemy’s movements. They’re smart and frightening, and yet sympathetic, too, backed into a corner where they must fight or die. The conversations between Luyten and humans were some of the best parts of the books.
The defenders are less sympathetic, their actions motivated by ambition and hatred more than self-preservation, but they still inspire some degree of pity, since they were, after all, made to be the way they are. As with the Luyten, the individual characters are where the sympathy comes from, when you see how childlike and insecure they are, despite their power and violence.
In fact, the difference between the individual and the group is almost a theme of the book. As a group, any of the three races (humans included) can be threatening, unknowable, evil. As individuals, however, each is understandable and sympathetic, acting only to protect what they love.
You can tell McIntosh is a master storyteller, and it’s no wonder he won the Hugo Award. The plot is never predictable, but each event seems inevitable, perfectly caused by what came before. Each character’s actions is consistent with their personality and their situation, each conflict required by who they are and what they need.
I can’t imagine the movie being as good, but I hope Warner Brothers goes ahead and makes it (they’ve already optioned it for film), if only because it will encourage more people to read this marvelous book.