A Hymn Before Battle
Riverdale: Baen, 2000. ISBN: 0-671318411. Pp. 480
Review © 2006 Branislav L. SlantchevThis is the first in the Posleen War series, and has always apparently been intended as such, seeing how the book ends in the middle of nowhere with several story threads dangling like punched out piñatas. Ringo came highly recommended: the usual, "if you liked Heinlein's Starship Troopers, then you would love this one!" Well, I beg to differ. Unless you think that Heinlein's novel is so good because of the (quite minimal actually) descriptions of mayhem, in which case... well, let's just say that it ain't it. A better comparison would be to Steakley's Armor, and not just because of the long loving descriptions of the battle suits. As the other famous novel, this one is all about the gritty world of real battle. None of that romantic crap that... oh wait, at this point I cannot recall a single fictional novel of the post-Vietnam era that romanticizes war in any way whatsoever. In other words, this is one of these "war is hell" thingies, spiced up with some "almost all commissioned officers are either cowards, stupid, or both" and "thank god for the rough NCOs" nonsense. If Ringo is right, one wonders how the US Army can find its way out of an open field with a map.
One can, and probably should, skip the first 200 pages or so. It's a very tedious and quite unimaginative introduction to the world in which the rest of the series will be developing. Essentially, the year is 2001 and humanity has just been contacted by some advanced aliens who are begging for help. Why? Because we're aggressive carnivores and they are peaceful merchants who cannot stomach violence. Unfortunately, their worlds are being invaded by a species, the Posleen, who can stomach violence, literally. Leaving side the severely underimagined reaction that we would have upon finding out we're not alone (it's all "business as usual but with fancier hardware"), there are some rather unintentionally comical aspects to the story. Like the military turning to military sci-fi authors for ideas, for example. Why? Because, we are helpfully being told, these guys have spent their lives imagining warfare with aliens. Hmmm... in made-up worlds, with made-up weapons that probably have as much to do with the real thing as a Greek trireme with a nuclear submarine. And, check this out, we manage to construct these kick-ass suits in like under a year: from the drawing board to production. Wow! But let's grant Ringo some poetic license: after all, this is not as much sci-fi as it is a bloody war narrative.
The Posleen are (gulp) centaur-like creatures who don't seem bright but who have decidedly unlikable tendencies, e.g., eating their opponents, younglings, and what-not. They are horribly aggressive, and what they lack in strategy and tactics, they make up with sheer numbers. Like Napoleon. Humanity bargains with the peacenik aliens for help and to pay for all the new toys that would be needed in five-years' time when the Posleen get around to invading Earth, we have to send our military creme de la creme to slug it out on some distant planets. We're all, like, the French Legion or something. It is on two of these planets that most of the action takes place.
The fight sequences are pretty damn good, no doubt about it. In fact, once we swallow the implausible first reaction to the aliens, the rest of the book flows quite smoothly. By page 300, I was pretty much hooked. Ringo has a thing or two to learn from Heinlein in terms of story-telling, but other than that, his narrative skills are spot-on. He even drops the rather disconcerting tendency to jump around and tell several different stories that never actually come together in favor of more sustained episodes from a single line. (There's also some confusing temporal mixing of the stories that's just plain annoying.) We have a larger-than-life (but stocky and short) main character in Mike, who will become the hero of this book but other than that people come and go without much consequence. This may reflect the reality of war where so many die so quickly, but as a story it sucks because the reader has basically no one to root for except perhaps for humanity in some general way. That's too abstract, all those references to the Germans and the French notwithstanding.
While Mike and the main human forces battle it out on one planet, a group of highly trained special ops soldiers do some recon and kidnapping on another planet. It's all sort of pointless when you think about it. Yes, they do capture a live Posleen (needed for some bio/chem experiments back on Earth) and they do provide us with the first glimpses of the revolting nature of alien conquest. But it's still peripheral: it's hard to believe that the thousands of troops on the other planet would fail to capture a single grown Posleen.
The much more intriguing angle of the aliens not being as benevolent as they appear is left as a vague menace, which I am sure will reveal itself in the sequels, so I will not dwell on that.
Not a bad first effort, A Hymn Before Battle should have stayed away from the cliches of military writing (e.g., the supremely competent sergeant who is rough but who can inspire his charges to great feats, the careerist officer who bungles everything he touches, the incompetent bureaucracy, etc.). Instead, Ringo should have concentrated on a couple of main characters that we can follow around. Choosing low-level people would have also enabled him to stay away from high politics, which would have been only for the better given his rather tepid understanding of that area. In short, David Weber this is not. Despite occasional infodumping (and the somewhat strained page-long descriptions of an explosion), the story has enough potential to get me to read the sequels. Which is what I will now be doing.
July 5, 2006