The Iron Children by Rebecca Fraimow is a stand-alone science fantasy novella.
Having tolerated Cesteli independence for decades, the Levastani empire is determined to reabsorb their break-away province. Cesteli is sparsely populated and their resistance seems doomed to failure. But … Cesteli has a supply of godstone. Godstone makes command plates possible; command plates allow a commander of a squad of metal-skinned cyborg soldiers — Dedicates — to act as one. Dedicates deal handily with opposition. Cesteli may be able to win this war.
There are vulnerable meat bodies under Dedicate exoskeletons. Their commanders, Sor-commanders, are entirely mechanical; they have imbued their souls in a metal body. They can telepathically communicate with the Dedicates. If necessary, they can take over the Dedicates.
The squads may also contain as yet unmodified humans, Asher, the novel’s protagonist, is one such. She’s hoping to become a Soc-commander. For now, she serves as a Sor-commander’s assistant.
The squad is ambushed by the Levastanis. The unit survives, but the Sor-commander is badly damaged. After the Sor-commander is taken away for repairs. Asher is given the command plate. She’s the new leader. Forward!
Further setbacks ensue. Earthquake and avalanche scatter the soldiers. Asher faces challenges for which she was not yet trained. It’s a good thing that she has Sergeant Barghest at hand to tactfully steer her in the right direction.
Matters are much worse than Asher knows. One of her Dedicates is a ringer, a Levastani imposter taking the place of a murdered Dedicate. The goal? To take control of the command plate and abscond with an entire unit of Dedicates. Asher’s inexperience provides the imposter with opportunity.
This is not, as readers may have assumed on seeing the word “novella,” published by tor dot com. As it happens, while tor dot com publishes many fine novellas, they are not the only novella publishers out there. In this case, the work is part of publisher Rebellion’s Satellites series.
It’s not clear how to tag this novella. On the one hand, the handwaving re godstone and the comparatively primitive weapons that the soldiers are using suggests that this is fantasy. On the other hand, there are cyborgs, which suggests SF. On the additional appendage, there is the whole business of imbuing souls in mechanical bodies. Extremely high-end Babbage engines simulating copies of human minds? Perhaps the best descriptor is “science fantasy.”
Is it right to turn humans into Dedicates? The Levastani and their pawns are convinced that turning people into cyborgs is utterly immoral. But they would, wouldn’t they? (since the Dedicates are so damnably effective). We are also told that the Casteli are doing this as a last-ditch effort to save themselves. There do not seem to have been Dedicate army units before the war.
I found it odd that someone as unsure of themself as Asher (whose orders tend to end with a question mark) would be allowed anywhere near command. But perhaps the Cesteli don’t have a choice. Much of the effective command role falls on Asher’s senior non-com, Sergeant Barghest. Pity the army without effective sergeants.
As this is a novella, the plot cannot be too complicated. (Nor were many possible questions re the worldbuilding answered.) Such plot as there is moves along at a nice clip, driven on one hand by natural calamity and on the other by the game of cat and mouse between the soldiers and the enemy hiding within their ranks. The work is certainly entertaining enough that I will be keeping an eye out for more Fraimow works.
Chapters-Indigo’s site is still broken so who knows if they have it or not?