I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I can forgive a lot of writing problems if I’m having fun. Déjà-vu? Yes, I’m afraid so. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure if Vorpal Blade is a better or worse book than Into the Looking Glass, but it’s perhaps more fun. It’s also riddled with just as many problems as the first.
Into the Looking Glass was the start to what will become a series of space voyages. The first book ended in the creation of the Vorpal Blade, humanity’s first spaceship. The goal: explore the universe for life, technology, and the Dreen.
This is the barebones plot of the entire novel, making the book itself more a series of novellas instead of one cohesive product. Our characters visit a planet, interact a bit, and leave to find the next one. Some sections involve problems with the ship itself, but once those are overcome, onwards the crew go.
On the whole, that works fairly well. When you have an entire universe to work with, you’ve only the limits of your imagination to combat. Some sections, however, aren’t as interesting or as good as others. The first planet the crew visits, for example, is pretty barren, yet the Vorpal Blade spends a good fifty pages on what becomes Dean’s World. There’s just not enough payoff to the arc.
There is this ongoing theme of terraforrming throughout the novel, but it sees no resolution. This, if memory serves, continues on throughout the next two novels, though it feels too in the background when it really shouldn’t. Super advanced aliens that have terraformed planets millions of years before humans were even around deserves to be at the forefront, not the connective tissue of what really amounts to a set of Star Trek-styled plots.
Bill Weaver returns as one of our main characters, and he remains an author-standin. Vorpal Blade seems to add engineering and programming to his list of growing qualities alongside making him a military officer. But like in the previous novel, I can’t quite hate Bill. He’s charming, and tonally, his attitude towards everything fits in with the universe John Ringo and Travis S. Taylor have begun to construct.
The new character is Eric “Two Gun” Berg, a last-minute addition to the Space Marine Corps. If Bill is an author-standin based on his intellect, Berg is an author-standin based on his fighting prowess…and his intellect. He’s the only marine to successfully dual wield pistols, and he’s also the only space marine to truly understand all of the particle physics going on around him. He gets a perfect score on his pretests and, as far as my understanding goes, is the only one to do that.
Thankfully, our two perfect characters are offset by many imperfect ones, and though Bill and Berg aren’t ever in any danger, John Ringo isn’t afraid to kill his side characters. That’s always well and fun, and it adds some real tension to the battles going on, but the side characters are rarely developed enough to care for. They become names and a random fact. That’s it.
Tonally too, when marines and scientists die, no one feels upset. Vorpal Blade is too keen on having fun, and being sad isn’t fun. It’s unrealistic though, and I was upset to see jokes right after certain characters died. Even the few segments of reflection in the novel don’t feel right; before doom and gloom can set in, machismo and OORAH SPACE MARINES! rears its ugly head. Everyone goes back to being normal.
But fun and science are what Vorpal Blade wants to achieve, and I think it achieves both quite well. There’s a lot of really good science fiction here, and many of it uses actual science as its foundation. Normally when I think of space ships, I just leave it there and take said ships for granted. This book doesn’t do that, and it wants the reader to know how everything works and why.
Space travel then, is a lot more difficult than I thought.
The problem with all of this information is it isn’t always delivered well. I like the science found in this and the previous book, quite a bit in fact, but sometimes it feels like too much. It also sometimes feels misplaced or just boring. There were some moments where characters were shouting, “What do we do?” and Bill had to tell everyone what was specifically happening instead of, “Just do this, I’ll explain later!” It felt unrealistic and lopsided.
The planet that winds up being Vorpal Blade’s climax is a standout affair, and honestly, the entire novel could have been constructed around the place. John Ringo, amusingly, seems to enjoy his anthropomorphized creatures. Into the Looking Glass saw cat aliens and The Vorpal Blade gives us hamster aliens. I don’t mind the aesthetic, though it feels too coincidental for my tastes. When you have nothing but your imagination to work with, I find it strange that the first thing you latch onto is talking hamster people.
But the Cheerik homeworld is really quite cool, and the twist at the end is surprising and, like I said, worthy of its own novel. Here is a world set in near the Stone Age, yet the hamsters have hoverboards. They don’t know where they came from, but they have them. It’s cool and mysterious, but we never see any real resolution to said mystery.
Instead of going on about a bunch of little nitpicky problem/praises, I think I’m just going to format the rest of this review into a list so it doesn’t hit four pages. Here we go:
- A few characters from the first book force their way onto the Vorpal Blade because Tuffy (a godlike alien (don’t ask)) told them they would be crucial in saving the voyage from something. They don’t do much of anything but tag along.
- I feel like John Ringo panders to his audience a bit. He namedrops video games like Halo 3 and World of Warcraft, the latter being daft since no one could connect to the internet to play it while on a ship a few starsystems away. He also brings up the band Dragonforce a lot, and it was around this time that the band hit it big thanks to Guitar Hero 3.
- This book, like the first, is filled with grammatical errors and some very sloppy passages. It’s still unforgivable. One day I’ll read a well-edited Baen book.
- I feel like some of the most interesting characters are the ones with the least amount of screentime, and that feels like a wasted opportunity. Lurch and Tchar deserve more spotlight.
- I love how, early on in the book, the relationship between Adar and humans is shown. What happens when Earth finds a planet that’s a solid hundred years ahead of us in technology? Apparently, and unsurprisingly, a giant mess. It’s amusing and clever though, and in a way, I wanted to see more of it.
- Marines in fiction aren’t known for using pretty words, and in an effort to cut down on profanity, Ringo has his characters swear in the Adar language. “Maulk” and “Grapp” are the two that are used the most, and I suppose as fake words, they suffice. “Maulk” at least sounds somewhat real. However, I’d have preferred some more old-fashioned cursing as it seems more realistic, at least to my ears. “Grapp” is not a satisfying replacement for “fuck.”
The Vorpal Blade isn’t a piece of high art by any means, but I had a blast with it. There might be more problems than working parts here, but I was able to shrug most of them off with an eye roll and the want to see what happened next. It’s really, really hard to recommend a book like this, but I’m starting the third one tomorrow with a moderate level of eagerness.
Buy at your own risk; this is a book you’ll either like or absolutely loathe. I got lucky.