Lifting weights makes you scowl
Before you walk in the halls of my dungeon any further, a warning. There are creatures that abound, lurking, practically invisible, at every turn. Many of them are just going about their day to day routines, on the hunt for sustenance and perhaps a little sport. Many of them are ugly, and grotesque, and would turn your hair gray or make it fall out if your hair is already gray.
However, none of them, not a single one of them, would I describe in the way that, John Ringo, does the alien race of the Posleen in his bloody awful book A Hymn Before Battle. Instead of using vague and menacing descriptions like I did above, he just calls them “centaur-looking”. Mmmhmmm, Yep. Initially that is how these creatures are described. It does not improve a lot from there.
This book is supposed to be a hard military science fiction epic. Ringo, nailed the very first word. It’s hard. Hard to read. Also it is far too long. This is just the first in a trilogy and I am not recommending to anyone ever that you read the first so I am going to assume the second and third are not any more worth it.
I’ll try to summarize this the best I can but honestly this book goes all over the place and is seriously confusing at times. The basic premise here is that earth has made contact with a federation of alien species. This federation needs help from humans because one type of alien from one planet or system or whatever is decimating the population of the rest of these aliens. The federation aliens are more or less pacifists so they decide to go to the warlike species of humans to, you know, kill stuff. Humans have a vested interest in doing so because in five years or so, the murdery aliens will be at earth and that ain’t gonna be good.
As far as a plot that doesn’t seem so bad to me and given a more talented author (paging Orson Scott Card for this one) might turn out to be good. While Ender’s Game took a decent idea and made it brilliant through memorable characters, a menacing threat and one major stunner of a surprise, A Hymn Before Battle decides to completely ignore that playbook. Instead we get heavy military jargon, a confusing set of timelines, characters that are nearly impossible to remember or keep straight and some of the oddest descriptions of aliens I have ever read.
The weird descriptions of aliens come later in the book but we get going early with an odd description of a human. One of the main characters, Mike O’Neal, is described this way, “his face fixed in a perpetual frown from weight lifting”. Weight lifting? Weight lifting gives you a frown??? Okay, Mikey, buddy, you are either lifting weights incorrectly or you are trying to make your jowls stronger by lifting with them.
A little more about Mike our weight lifting, scowling hero. He is the most fleshed out character in the whole book and that’s not saying much. We do get a little bit of background on him before the big reveal of aliens happens. He works in a tech office and seems to write military science fiction on the side, because, obviously this guy is a stand in for Ringo’s ego. He does feel a bit overlooked at the start of the book and laments not being a company commander because he wishes he could do something, “…important, useful, I don’t know, something more than building a really boss web page for the country’s fourth largest bank!” This ignores the fact that boss web pages for the country’s fourth largest bank totally rule. Non-boss web pages for the country’s third largest bank totally suck, so at least he isn’t doing that.
Other descriptions of humans get pretty clunky in this book too. Here’s a small sampling of the description of an officer. “Erect of carriage, his Battle Dress Uniform fit as if, contrary to regulation it was tailored. With closely cropped silver hair and glacial blue eyes he appeared to be exactly what he was: an iron-clad modern scion of the Prussian warrior class.” Say what now? I mean I get what the description is going for but did I start reading War and Peace or Gone With the Wind and not realize it? Clearly this guy doesn’t spend his time on building boss (or non-boss) websites.
The President in this book is basically a cookie cutter version of the one from Independence Day but he does say one line that stood out to me as super ridiculous, “We’ll fight in our boxer shorts before we’ll fight as slaves”. Are those really the only two options? Or maybe the President just really likes walking around in his boxers.
These weird descriptions continue, only more so once we are introduced to the enemy aliens, the Posleen. This is how they are initially described, “In general they are four legged sort of centaur-looking omnivores that lay eggs.” Not sure what they are in specific but I am going to assume, single legged sort of unicorn-looking carnivores that drink milk. The only real further description we get is when a video is shown of an attack made by these aliens. “Moments later leprous yellow-scaled legs with eaglelike talons entered the view.” Yeah, lots of centaurs with those… Later they are describe this way, “The aliens were Arabian-horse-sized centauroids. Long arms ending in four-digit talons, three “fingers” and a broad, clawed thumb, protruded from a complex double shoulder. The legs, ending in elongated talons, were longer than a horse’s, and sprung on a reverse double knee that seemed arachnid… Their long necks were topped with a blunt crocodillian snout. ” Thanks, Ringo, that clears it up in my mind a ton. It’s basically a menagerie of weird animals on a horse I guess? Maybe I’ll make a boss web page about it.
Now, the Posleen, obviously are not the only alien race in this book. There are more friendly aliens and here’s a little description of one of them. “The Indowy, those greenish dwarf-looking bipeds”. So we’ve got centaur-looking and dwarf-looking. Was this supposed to be a fantasy novel?
And if you are thinking that hey these centaur-looking menagerie creatures sound kind of cool and that could work, you haven’t had to slog through the few parts told from the aliens’ perspective. I’ll just leave you with one quote to demonstrate how bad this is. “Tele’sten, take your oolt to the lefto to support Alllllnt’s and prepare to recieve his oolt’os.” I think that quote pretty much explains itself don’t you? Seriously, if you are going to write about aliens, please don’t just mash a keyboard to come up with names. It never works.
Alright, I lied to you. I have to give you a second quote here, one that shows the dialogue more capable of readability but amps up the cartoonish aspect of these creatures to eleven. “And the structure of my enemies shall burn beneath my claws. I shall reap the blood and sear the bone. They will burn until the burning sends word to the demons of the sky that none shall oppose the A’al Po’oslena’ar!” I don’t know about you but I imagine this alien wringing his talons and cackling like Dr. Evil after that.
There’s also pretty poorly defined and often times nearly magical technology that the human soldiers get to use in their fight against the bad aliens. Seems no one in any military thought maybe inspection and adjustment of this stuff was a good idea. In one part a character named Sergeant Duncan is testing out this device that is more or less Jarvis from Iron Man and he literally cuts his roommate’s legs off with it. After this idiot does that, he tells his roommate “Forget it. They can regrow them now.” As if that wasn’t callous enough, Duncan then mopes about because he gets in trouble for it. Dude, you cut a person’s legs off, feel a little freaking remorse. Despite all that, this dude gets to keep right on soldiering.
Now, don’t ask me how these aliens knew how to make tech that would work for humans or why it sometimes is awesome and sometimes is pointless. But if this book teaches us anything, it’s that military officers are all idiots and no one would want to actually try and use this equipment prior to battle. It’s completely ridiculous. The enlisted guys basically have to fight with the upper brass just to train in these military suits that clearly are new to everyone. And the one guy who can use them (and did not cut anyone’s legs off with it) is shut down at every turn when he tries to show others how to. I mean, I know the military can be full of people that might make bad decisions and certainly mistakes are made but show me a military person who gets a new weapon and DOESN’T want to freaking test it??
Also, while the humans are flying to these planets they are on a spaceship that is totally unsuited to human size. Except for boss web page makin’ Mike’s room. So another officer asks him about it. This officer is specifically described as being about Mike’s size. Mike says he is able to have everything the right size because is about the size of the aliens so they listen to him. Then the officer says they don’t listen to his requests. Well then it isn’t the size thing is it Mike???
Then, even after a battle has begun where the soldiers pretty much get ripped apart, the officer who was against testing this stuff doesn’t want to take a call from scowling, weight lifting, Mike because he doesn’t want to hear, “I told you so.” The battle is still going on and this guy is too dumb to listen to the guy he realizes he should have listened to in the first place? That’s beyond stupid or incompetent.
The military jargon in this book is dense. There’s more TLA’s than you would find in a seven volume series of text books telling you how to design boss websites. And even when the acronyms don’t get in the way, what’s going on is about as clear as mud. Here’s a little sample, “Our mission is as follows: Task Force 2nd 3-2-5 Infantry has been tasked with defense of the III Corp flank in the area of the Deushi megalopolis where it is contiguous with the Nomzedi massif. The S-2 will brief on the threat situation.” Got it. I think that maybe there are some people defending some stuff in a place?
As an added bonus there is rampant sexism in this book. Women are close to non-existent. There are two women that actually get a description of any kind beyond what they are wearing and only one that does anything of action in the story. One is Mike, the scowling weight lifter’s wife. The other is a deadly assassin sniper named Ellsworthy. But here’s what the author wants you to know most about both of these women. They have perfect breasts. Ellsworthy has seriously cringe-y lines too. She’s out in space about to fight these murderous aliens and her comment is,”Damn, I wish there was a nail shop on this ball.” And that’s one of the least cringe-y things she says. Personally, I think the author needs to stop looking at boss web sites and maybe interact with an actual woman once in a while.
The end of the book gets a little better with a sort of epic battle going on. But this battle goes on for more than ten chapters so it’s a bit long winded. There’s also a side plot story about another group of soldiers that go to Indiana and have to clean up a riot at the army base. I imagine this will have something to do with the future books but I really could not care less about it. If you have to subject yourself to some really bad military science fiction I recommend just watching Starship Troopers instead of subjecting yourself to Ringo’s Posleen garbage.
In fact, this whole series is something I really couldn’t care less about. What I care about is making boss web pages for the country’s fourth largest bank! That’s what I am going to do until next time when I find out if in my dungeon I can get some Fatal Justice.