As I get older and perhaps wiser, I’m beginning to fear that I’m also getting more cynical. To be sure, I’ve always been a cynic—that comes with the trade—but of late, I’ve found it harder to enjoy novels on the pure basis of “FUN!”
Or to put it a different way: When I first read through Ringo/Taylor’s Into the Looking Glass series back in 2011, Claws that Catch was my favorite of all of them. It’s now my least favorite of the four, and I plan on avoiding Baen as a publisher of books now. Their quality standards are subpar.
That’s a hellova change to go through, and I’m now more worried about what this says about me than my actual opinions on a mediocre-at-best science fiction novel. But since it’s easier to critique a book than be introspective, I guess it’s time we dive into it.
Claws that Catch holds every problem of the previous three books and, like Manxome Foe, adds more. We still have sloppy editing throughout, characters that are too good at everything, no character progression, poor pacing, and side plots that go nowhere. Added to the mix are a heaping pile of clichés, sections that are plain boring, and just sheer stupidity. The pacing is also somehow worse here than in the previous novel, which is kind of amazing when I think about it.
Claws that Catch opens up with a 118-page first chapter that’s excruciating to get through. The first chunk of it is Berg’s wedding with Brooke, and I get the feeling their marriage won’t last. That’s what happens when you marry someone after knowing them for maybe a month and some change though.
Brooke herself is actually a disgusting character. She’s put her existence in the, “Please my husband and do whatever he says” hat and is perfectly willing to be nothing more than a pretty housewife. Her aspirations are, “Make my husband happy.” She only exists to worry and take up space in the first chapter. Like in Manxome Foe, Berg doesn’t think about her one bit once the Vorpal Blade leaves Earth.
So perhaps half of the very-long first chapter is devoted to a minor plotpoint that does absolutely nothing for the entire novel. The second half of that very-long chapter is devoted to backstory and some minor shifts within the Vorpal Blade crew. It’s almost interesting at points—such as when top-secret information becomes public information, turning the Vorpal Blade crew into impromptu celebrities—but it’s all dragged out and overdone.
Once everyone is on board the ship, things look like they’ll pick up as the crew heads out to investigate a technological anomaly. But like in Manxome Foe, this anomaly is far away, and Ringo thinks it prudent for us to spend almost the entire novel absorbed in mundane ship maintenance and petty squabbling.
There’s a new captain, and boy he sure doesn’t think women belong on space ships! Uh oh, what will Miriam Moon do now?
“But Sir, Ms. Moon helped design and build this ship. She’s the only one who understands the alien technology in it!”
“Nope. She’s a woman and won’t have access to anything beyond what she’s been hired to do. And you better not ask her for help when things break, even though we don’t know how to fix anything because we’re stupid and in a stupid book.”
Meanwhile, Bill returns as XO (second in command, basically) to the ship and has to learn how to be an officer again. This time he has more authority and paperwork to do. His big deal is trying to figure out why the ship’s new cook is terrible at his job.
Berg has also been promoted and has to learn how to be an officer himself. He can’t go out front and kill all the aliens anymore, oh no. Now he has to command others to do it. That’ll be hard since he’s just so gung ho and awesome at killing aliens!
It takes 200 painful pages for the Vorpal Blade to land on the technological anomaly, nicknamed The Tum Tum Tree.
Once the ship lands on the Tum Tum Tree, Claws that Catch picks up considerably and turns into a fairly fun story. Ringo’s ancient aliens are awesome, and I love the mystery behind everything they’ve left behind. In this case, the Tum Tum Tree becomes a pretty cool device once its purpose is unlocked, and while I hate how it’s used at the end, I do love what it is.
The problem with the Tum Tum Tree, however, is that it’s the “jumping the shark” moment in this series of books. It’s an awesome piece of machinery, but it’s also kind of stupid, and most of the plot points between pages 300 and 400 are also kind of stupid. Thankfully, it’s around page 400 that the Dreen show up and we’re left to end on a pretty spectacular space battle.
For example, when the Vorpal Blade enters the Tum Tum Tree, the unreality node that powers the engines goes crazy and turns everyone into anime characters. The whole sequence is played off for laughs and attempts at being genre savvy, but it’s also stupid as hell and does nothing more than serve as a poor joke.
It also feels like pandering to a specific kind of nerdy audience. “Well, if they like these space battles, they probably like anime. Might as well give them that too.”
But that could just be me being cynical.
Or perhaps my standards have simply grown and matured. I hear that happens as you get older, and I certainly have been aging since 2011, what with time being linear and all. But I’m disappointed regardless. I really, really did like this book and those before it when I first read them. Now I just want to get rid of them. They’re taking up too much room on my bookshelf, room that could be spent on better books…or toys.