Friday, September 19, 2014

Gust Front

"Gust Front" by John Ringo reviewed by Military Science Fiction World

The second novel in the Posleen War Series, “Gust Front”, was a tad bit of a disappointment for me, which is surprising. Those who know me might think I would have loved this second installment for reasons I will discuss later on.

So to start out, I was looking forward to this second installment in the series because I imagined it would be a bit quicker to the action. As I mentioned in my review of the first book of the series, “A Hymn Before Battle”, the action was a bit long in coming. This was because there was significant backstory and build up necessary, and being the first book in the series I accepted that. Especially because when the action did come, it was totally worth the wait. So since the stage has been set already, I was looking forward to a bit of a faster start to the action in Gust Front, and unfortunately was disappointed. There was a great deal of buildup, and some lengthy scenes that were a bit pointless to me. I understand the need for non-action character development, a vacation so to speak. But the level of detail and length of the scenes in question made them drag on for me. As usual, I don't want to give away any specifics but when you read the fish cleaning scene, hopefully you'll understand what I mean.

Now it is clearly shown in the dedication, author's note, and just about the entire book, that this latest installment is a huge ode to engineers, specifically the Army Corps of Engineers that the author's father was a part of. Being an engineer myself, and once aspiring to be a combat engineer for the army, you would think I would have loved that aspect of the story. However, I found many of the most engineerish scenes to drag on. There really isn't anything that interesting about reading long descriptions of dirt being pushed into a big pile for a fortification.

Another aspect I did not particularly care for was how some of the new characters were introduced. There were a bunch of familiar characters from the previous book which was great. No real introduction needed for them as many authors will assume you've read the first book, and that is fine. However there were many new characters, some playing a relatively small role, others a larger one. What bothered me about the new characters was that we were just dumped into their lives with no preamble or backstory whatsoever. I know this may seem contradictory, where on one hand I'm whining about taking too long to get to the action, and now I'm complaining about lack of a proper introduction for new characters. However there is a nice gray area which is the perfect amount of introduction before action sequences begin. This gray area resides between the two extremes of no introduction and too much introduction. No part of this book falls in that nice gray area, it is either one extreme or the other. Characters we know already have long drawn out sequences that were actually quite boring to me. Characters we didn't know have about 30 seconds of introduction where we are thrown into their world before the sky starts falling and everyone is running around like crazy. I actually found myself flipping backwards in the book to see if I had missed when this new character was introduced. I even went as far as to review the characters from the first novel to see if I missed them there. Neither was the case, and we were just flung in without even a description of the new character, and expected to learn as we went.

The final aspect I was disappointed in was the ending. I mentioned it in my review of the first installment of the series, but it bears mentioning again. A very common theme in recent military science fiction I’ve read, especially in those stories that are part of a series, is a rushed ending. Most of the time I feel the reason it is rushed is to sell the next book. Gust Front did better than most, it really didn't leave us completely hanging so you can't wait for the next book, it adequately finished thoughts and combat scenes without a major cliffhanger. There of course is a third book in the series, and the larger background plot will make many want to read the next book, but you can also comfortable stop reading and not feel like you've been left hanging. However, the reason I was disappointed with the ending was because I felt there was a lot of buildup to the big climactic event, and then suddenly it was over. The buildup greatly exceeded the climactic battle in length, and the climax wasn't even all that good. In my opinion, it was pretty dull compared to the ending of the first book. Then after the climax, the book jumps around a bit, tying up loose ends with a variety of characters and then, bam, done. Personally, I wouldn't mind a bit more time with the endings. Lately with most of the military science fiction I have read, I feel like the author can't wait to start his new project, and just rushes through the ending of the current project to get it done. It is pretty sloppy in my opinion, but that is par for the course these days.

So all in all, despite my negative thoughts here, I did enjoy Gust Front. I can appreciate the tribute to engineers, even if I didn't completely enjoy it. There was a lot of action, even if it did take longer than I'd hoped to start, and for the most part that action was well written and entertaining. There are several military science fiction books I have enjoyed so much that I've read them (or the whole series in one case) 4 or 5 times. Gust Front will not be joining those ranks however, reading it once was enough for me. I did enjoy it, but not enough to read it twice. I do however plan to read the third book, so stay tuned for a review here. Here's hoping that the third book is better than the second and will be just as good a read as the first one.

Until next time, I’d love to get some comments and hear what others think about the novels I am reviewing. Or you can just tell me to stop complaining about how long it takes to get to the action, move on already, and do something meaningful for the world. I’d accept that too ;)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Hymn Before Battle

“A Hymn Before Battle” by John Ringo. Reviewed by Military Science Fiction World

So for my next review I figured I would delve into a series I started not too long ago. The series is The Legacy of the Aldenata, perhaps better known as The Posleen War series. The very first book in the series is “A Hymn Before Battle,” and actually was Mr. Ringo’s debut novel.

I discovered the Posleen War by stumbling onto one of the last in the series, “The Hero.” When I purchased the book, I didn’t know it was part of a series, and I guess it really isn’t in the purest sense. The events of “The Hero” take place long after the events of the first few novels, and Posleen are only mentioned in passing. There is a new enemy, and there isn’t even a single Posleen to be found. But I enjoyed the book enough that a couple years later, when looking for good science fiction to read, I remembered about it being part of a series and sought out the first installments.

So anyway, I guess I should move onto the actual subject of this review (I’m sure “The Hero” will get its’ own review here at some point). Let me preface this by saying “A Hymn Before Battle” is a very good read. So good in fact I actually am coming up a bit short on things to say about it. I don’t know about you, but I always find it easy to tear into a novel I don’t like. When I actually like something, I find describing what I liked and, more importantly, why I like it much harder. So I guess I could throw the couple of negatives I noticed out there, and see what develops as I free write away:

First off, I will definitely say that it took a very long time to get to the action. If you can’t tell by the first two reviews, I am a bit of an action junkie. Many times I will judge a book based on how fast it gets to the exciting scenes of combat, and if it takes a while, then it loses a few points in my book. This novel, being the first in a series, had a lot of background to lay down before it could jump into things, which is understandable. Because of that fact, I cut Mr. Ringo some slack on how long he took for an actual bullet to be fired in a combat situation. Plus, also a point in favor of the novel is that when the action did come, it was well worth the wait. Still, Mr. Ringo could have given us a taste of something exciting the way that Heninlin does (as I’ve already described in my first review), or Robert Buettner, another author whose work I likely will review in the future. But I guess every author has his or her own style, and Mr. Ringo decided to lay extensive ground work before treating us to some serious combat.

The other negative, which is another trend you’ll see me point out in future reviews, is the ending. I’ve seen it so many times in the novels I’ve been reading recently, and it is one of my pet peeves. The issue is a rushed ending. I find it kind of annoying when a novel goes right from the big climactic moment to the ending in a matter of a few pages. This book did better than many, it at least tied up all the loose ends of the current storyline. However, as is common in books of a series, I felt like the ending was all about building up and selling the next book. I suppose it is good marketing on the part of the author, I mean we all have to look out for our future. But still, I found myself wishing for a little more closure before the end. Perhaps it is because I enjoyed the story so much that I really didn’t want it to end. If that is the case then maybe there is no length after the climax before the story ends that I would be happy with.

So, after those few negative items, onto the positive: I’ll start with the characters. In general, I found the main characters to be believable and likable, especially the protagonist Michael O’Neal. Mr. Ringo paints a very nice picture of your average ex-military family man who gets a life changing dilemma dropped on his head very early on. The whole way that the character is written, how he changes and develops along the course of the story was very realistic to me. I found that despite the science fiction out of this world aspect, the characters are still human, and that human side was portrayed very accurately.

Next, I of course have to comment on the powered armor. Ever since reading “Starship Troopers” I have been searching for a book to fill the “powered armor void” left by the lack of extensive combat scenes in “Starship Troopers.” It wasn’t until I read Mr. Ringo’s debut novel that I came pretty darn close to filling that void. The powered armor in “A Hymn Before Battle” is in a word, awesome. It is exactly what you would expect the soldiers of the future to be fighting in. Strong, fast, self-sustaining, and damn near unstoppable. At least on a 1 to 1 basis, which of course you’ll quickly learn the Posleen are certainly not. It was definitely the type of armored combat that I was looking for, and though it took a long time to arrive, was well worth the wait.

And finally, I think I’ve mentioned it enough so I won’t belabor the point much more, but I at least have to formally acknowledge the action sequences. The climactic battle of this novel was incredible, absolutely riveting to read. The one shame about it, is that it was relatively short. There were a few other intense scenes earlier on to slake the reader’s lust for action, however they were nothing compared to the climax of the novel. And compared with the amount of time spent setting the stage, the exciting parts were such a small percentage of the novel, that it was a tad bit disappointing.

So there you have it; a review of John Ringo’s debut novel, “A Hymn Before Battle.” All in all, it was an enjoyable read, and I liked it enough to want to read the second installment, “Gust Front,” which will be the topic of my next review.

Until then, feel free to leave any thoughts in the comments. I’m always open to feedback, and welcome suggestions for works you’d like to see reviewed here.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Death's Head

Death's Head by David Gunn reviewed by Military Science Fiction World

So for my second review, I figured I would pick a book that I had a contrasting experience to Heinlein's Starship Troopers with.

So before I begin let me reiterate the statement I made in my introduction/bio: everything written here represents my opinion about a particular work of fiction. Everyone's tastes are different, so just because I did not enjoy a book does not mean you won't either. I am merely giving my honest evaluation of a novel, the decision to read or not read rests solely with you.

So after a preface like that, I bet you can imagine the flavor of the forthcoming review: I hated it.

On the cover, Kirkus Reviews (whoever they are) calls it: "Enthralling: the finest military-science fiction debut in years." So that statement, plus the tagline from the back cover: "Sven is 98.2 percent human and 1.8 percent… something else" were what drew me in. I remember I purchased several books at the same time and picked Death's Head as the first one to read, having great expectations for it.

So why didn't I like it? Oh let me count the ways:

1) The perspective is first person which can be a challenge to write, I know. How much do you stick with what is currently going on, and how much do you backtrack to set the stage of the story? Gunn apparently chose to keep things more in the moment, which in one sense makes it more realistic. I mean how often in real life do we think back and describe our appearance or think about why we joined the military? But on the other hand what we get is thrown into the middle of a man's mind with hardly any backstory. We are in the middle of some unknown desert, fighting an unknown enemy for unknown reasons. And as the story progresses it doesn't get better. There is no background given about the conflict. Who are the Uplifted, and why is our main character fighting them? What is a three braid, seven braid? WTF is a batwing and other than small and fast, what does it look like? None of this is explained. We are just thrown into the mind of the narrator, who naturally knows all of this. And fitting with the staying in the moment style the author has chosen, our wonderful narrator doesn't explain any backstory. For me I found this endlessly frustrating, and it really ruined the whole book for me.

2) No doubt the author was going for a complete badass in his main character and narrator. To me I found Sven's arrogance annoying and off-putting.

3) I am a very detail oriented person, and as such when small but important details are wrong it can ruin a whole book. A pivotal moment for me came with one simple line. During a hot combat drop, fighting all around, the author writes this: "Remembering his training he snaps me a salute." Anyone see a problem with that line? Saluting in a combat zone!? I mean anyone who has seen Saving Private Ryan or Forrest Gump knows saluting in a combat zone is a no no. Reading that line made me lose what little remaining respect I had for the author as a military writer.

4) A big ongoing theme in the book is the relationship between officers and NCOs, particularly sergeants. The narrator makes it abundantly clear that he hates sergeants. The constant barrage of digs at sergeants and NCOs in general got tiresome for me. Every time one would come up I found myself thinking, "We get it already, new material please.

5) I find that when reading the works of an author who has military service, some bit of their own experience seems to bleed into their writing. I do have to preface this by saying that the following is pure speculation on my part. I don’t know any of this for sure, and am just putting on paper my impressions from what I read. In addition to the above comments about the digs at NCOs, there was another event that I felt some of the author’s own personality might have bled through. That was when Sven thrust his weapon into one of his subordinate’s arms and says: “Clean it, check the power and fill any clips that need filling, but remember who owns it. Understand?” Now personally, I can’t have respect for someone, even an officer, who doesn’t take care of their own weapon. And I can’t help but wonder if our good friend Mr. Gunn was the type of officer who would abuse his power and have subordinates do things for him that he should take care of himself. As I said, this is pure speculation, but with this latest development and the above mentioned saluting comment, I have absolutely no respect for Mr. Gunn as a military writer.

6) So my last point is about the talking gun. I’m not giving away any storyline stuff because the talking gun made an appearance on the back cover description and one of the reviewers before the story began commented that it was one of the things that hooked him on the story. Perhaps it was this build up that ruined it, because the gun wasn’t really a huge part of the story. I expected this awesomely witty, intelligent gun that was pivotal to the whole story. The “illegal symbiont” mentioned right next to the intelligent gun on the back cover plays a much larger role. I suppose it isn’t entirely fair to blame the author for the buildup, and ensuing letdown that the intelligent gun was. I guess in my opinion, if you are going to use something that has been featured in many other works, you need to do something that really stands out and differentiates your work from the rest of the herd.

So there you have it. Six reasons why I disliked Death’s Head. I always like to give the benefit of the doubt, and always try and finish a novel, even one I dislike. So I did make it all the way through the story, but I certainly won’t be reading it again, nor will I continue on in the series.

If being thrust into the mind of an arrogant, cocky, jerk who hates sergeants while he runs around in a war that you have no background on, sounds good, then this is your book. If it doesn’t, then stay away from this one.

Until next time, keep the comments and suggestions coming.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein – Reviewed by Military Science Fiction World

I thought I might begin my science fiction reviewing career with Starship Troopers. Aptly described as "the controversial classic of military adventure," and boy what a place to start. It is a story that was very ahead of its' time, and arguably the best military science fiction novel ever written.

The opening chapter is the most well written, action packed, realistic (for science fiction), and entertaining scene I have ever read. The chapter opens with just enough detailed backstory that you know what is going on, but not too much that you get bored waiting for the action to start. The first person narration of the main character is different than many other SF novels, but to me makes the story that much more real. And action, did I mention the action? In all my science fiction reading, I have not found a combat sequence to top this one. The detailed descriptions give a clear picture of the surroundings and actions of the characters, just enough that you can follow everything without being tedious. At times Heinlein gives a blow by blow account of things, offering lots of detail about just a few seconds of the engagement. Other times things are more general and several minutes’ worth of the fighting is summed up in a line or two. All in all, let me reiterate; of every single military science fiction novel I have read, the opening battle of Starship Troopers is my all-time favorite and I have yet to find another to match it.

Unfortunately, for anyone looking for that kind of action throughout the rest of the book, you will be disappointed. While there is more combat, nothing comes close to the level of detail and action of the first chapter. But don't feel that makes the book boring, by no means is that the case. We are then immersed in the mind and experiences of the narrator as he begins the transformation from a boy into a solider. I don't want to spoil anything by giving any kind of plot summary, so I'll merely comment on my overall experience reading the book.

What made it entertaining for me was the, for lack of a better word, realness of the characters. The narrator’s descriptions of the events draw you into his world. He clearly and in great detail describes his experiences so you almost feel as if you are there. Like the combat scenes, the descriptions are detailed enough that you know exactly what is going on down to the narrators thoughts, but not too detailed that they become tedious. Also like the combat sequences, Heinlein switches back and forth in the complexity of his scenes. He can spend an entire chapter going word for word through a discussion held in a classroom, or he can sum up several months in a few sentences.

All in all, the best way I can describe the book is to say that it is the most accurate and entertaining story of a boy being transformed into a soldier. Just the way the picture is painted shows that Heinlein has been there, he has had similar experiences. Things that someone who wasn’t ever a soldier couldn’t come up with on their own. The best example I can give is one of the lines from the book. The narrator explains that technically you can get a pass to leave his training camp, but there isn’t anything within walking distance other than open sky and endless prairie. But, he explains, don’t underestimate the value of being able to walk out so far where there isn’t any one giving orders, no officers to make sure you salute as they go by, etc. The book is strewn with these types of lines that to me, show just how realistic the writing is.

Before I sign off I do have to admit that I had seen the movie before reading the book (though they were many years apart). As I enjoyed the movie, that factored into my decision to purchase the book and caused me to go in expecting something a little different. I'm pretty sure anyone who read the book first and then saw the movie would hate it because, like just about every movie version, they pretty much discarded the book and went their own way.

So anyway, hopefully I didn’t lose too much credit in the science fiction world by admitting I like the movie version of Starship Troopers. Can I save a little bit of face by saying I think the book is way better? No? Everyone says that? Well then I guess I’ll just have to rely on my reviewing prowess. I hope you have enjoyed this review, and if you haven’t already, I really recommend you read Starship Troopers. Every science fiction library should include this classic.

Until next time, please comment and give suggestions for works you’d like to see reviewed.

Welcome and Introduction

Hello and welcome to Military Science Fiction World. My name is Lance, and before I launch into things I want to say a little bit about me, and what this blog is all about.

So let’s start with me: I grew up in small town USA, just about as boring as you can get. A few years ago, the Boston Globe ran an article saying that, statistically speaking, my good old hometown is the most average town in the state. Check out the link to the article below:

I now reside in southern Maine and work as an engineer, but like many small town kids before me have claimed, I did lots of reading in my spare time growing up. While I have dabbled in many genres over the years, I was mostly a science fiction and fantasy buff. In more recent years I have been primarily a military science fiction fan, and that is what this is all about.

So what is this blog, what am I trying to do here? I have spent a long time looking for the perfect military science fiction novel. And while I have read many amazing stories over the years, there is usually something that isn’t quite right. Part of that is because I am very detail orientated (some would say picky), and many times I let small things bother me.

Then I had the thought that I probably wouldn’t be able to find the perfect military science fiction novel unless I wrote it myself. I had been dabbling in writing since my freshman year of high school, so why not get serious about it. Unfortunately while I have lots of ideas in my head, getting them down on paper in a manor appropriate for a novel is a talent I lack. I found I was pretty good at writing detailed action sequences, but the storyline, characterization, plot, etc. was lacking.

So what is the next step down from writing your own novels? Why critiquing other people’s work of course. I then had the idea to write down some of my thoughts on various novels, and figured the best way to get them out there would be to start a blog, so here it is.

Now a few words about the nature of my reviews. One of my pet peeves is I don’t like to watch TV shows out of order, and I can’t stand it when someone ruins something for me. With that in mind, I decided to stick to what I thought about a book, and not include any details about the storyline or plot or anything. Basically, I want to give you my impressions on a book so you can have a little more ammo to decide if you would like to read it, all without giving away anything of the storyline. If I do reveal something, it likely is included in the description on the back cover, is revealed right in the beginning of the book, or is inconsequential to the plot.

Anyway, before I launch into my first review, let me just say that; I’m always open to feedback so feel free to comment on anything you read. Bear in mind that everything I write is my own opinion. Everyone is different, and personal preferences vary, so just because I don’t like a novel doesn’t mean you won’t either. Also, if there are any military science fiction novels you would like to see feel free to let me know in the comments. I can’t guarantee I will review it, and I can’t commit to any kind of regular updating schedule, but I will do my best. Though lately with work, my reading time is limited to about half an hour a night before bed. I wish it were otherwise, but such is life. I guess with that I’ll turn things over to my first review, I hope you enjoy!