Cally's War by John Ringo and Julie Cochrane
Cover art by Clyde Caldwell
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
John Ringo originally planned the Posleen War novels as a trilogy. As he explained in the Afterword to When the Devil Dances, which was supposed to have completed the story of humanity's war with the Posleen, he was just setting up the climactic battle when the events of September 11, 2001 intervened. For the next several months he was simply unable to write fiction. Even a generous extension of the original deadline for the novel could not get him back to writing fiction (as opposed to opinion pieces and other non-fiction work related to the War on Terrorism, which he wrote in great quantity during that period), so Baen finally had to publish the third volume with a cliffhanger ending and give him more time to write the real ending as a fourth volume.
By the time Ringo finished that volume, entitled Hell's Faire, he was by his own admission pretty much written out on the Posleen War universe. He wanted to move on to his far-future techno-fantasy, There Will Be Dragions, which became the first volume of his Council Wars series. However, fans really wanted more stories about the universe that had originally gotten them started with John Ringo's work. Not just the promised anthology of companion stories telling of how other parts of the world fared in the Posleen War (two of which were of sufficient quality that they would subsequently be expanded into novels in their own right, The Watch on the Rhine and Yellow Eyes, and would help launch Tom Kratman as a major author of military science fiction after the fumble of his deeply flawed freshman novel, A State of Disobedience).
No, the fans wanted stories of what happened after the dramatic destruction of the Posleen forces on Earth by the triumphant return of Fleet Strike in the nick of time. Some of them were simply frustrated by what felt too much like a deus ex machina ending in the fortuitous timing of Fleet Strike's return, but for many it was a combination of recognizing just how many threads were left dangling by the ending and the simply fact that they found the universe fascinating and wanted to visit it again.
And truth be told, there were a lot of threads left dangling at the end of Hell's Faire. Most obviously there was the rescue of Tulo'stenaloor, perhaps the most brilliant Posleen God-King ever hatched, and his select company of lieutenants, from certain destruction, courtesy of the Indowy clan chief Aelool. Given how terribly the Indowy had suffered as a result of the Posleen invasion of their sweatshop worlds, why would one of their clan chiefs want to preserve a saving remnant of a species they'd have every reason to view as Complete Monsters? (The answer to that question would wait until the publication of The Tuloriad, another collaboration with Tom Kratman).
But even more pressingly, what happened on Earth once the Posleen siege was lifted? Now that humanity's long isolation was over, there was no way of ever going back to the comfortable ignorance in which we'd once lived. No, now we had to live in the context of the Galactic Federation -- and there was more than ample evidence that was not a comfortable society for anyone but the Darhel, going all the way back to the discussions in A Hymn Before Battle about the economic system which kept the Indowy in perpetual debt servitude. Not to mention the continual sinister meddling with the war effort which strongly suggested the Darhel were hoping to let humanity and the Posleen destroy each other in just the right proportions that there would be nothing left of humanity but a few broken remnants that could be reshaped into tractable "soldier ants" to fight where the Darhel could not -- and the hints of secret organizations who were sworn to block such a move and preserve at least a portion of humanity's freedom.
Since Ringo was pretty much tired of writing about the Posleen Wars, a discussion with publisher Jim Baen led to a decision to bring in a collaborator to help write the stories of what happened after the defeat of the Posleen and the freeing of Earth. Mike O'Neal was too much Ringo's own character for him to let anyone else write (people who know John Ringo will notice the autobiographical elements in the character which show up in A Hymn Before Battle), and in any case, it was established at the end of Hell's Faire that Mike was leaving Earth to battle infestations of Posleen all along the ruined part of the galaxy they had blighted with their invasions. That left Mike's father and daughters. Michelle had been sent away to an Indowy planet as part of an insurance policy for humanity, to make sure that even if Earth were destroyed and its entire population devoured, a saving remnant would survive elsewhere, so she was pretty much out of the picture.
However, at the end of Hell's Faire Mike Sr. and Cally had been saved from what appeared to be certain death and whisked away by one of those secret groups who fought in the shadows against the efforts of the Darhel to subjugate human society. So John Ringo handed his new collaborator, Julie Cochrane, an outline telling of the "lost" O'Neals and their battle in the shadows for the future not just of humanity's physical existence, but of humanity's soul.
This novel begins, as several of the wartime ones did, with a cynical exchange between two senior Darhel executives, the Ghin and the Tir. This time they are discussing their various efforts to keep humanity weak and divided, and how difficult it is that humanity came through the Posleen War stronger than planned, and not desperate enough to be overflowing with gratitude toward their betters. So we know that things are not going well for humanity, and could get very much worse if the Darhel have their way.
Which sets up quite well for the first chapter, in which we get to meet a human traitor and watch his downfall, courtesy of Cally O'Neal, her grandfather, and Tommy Sunday, all of whom are working under cover for the Bane Sidhe, one of the most ancient and important organizations by which the Darhel are opposed. It's not just a human organization -- there are also branches among the Indowy and the Tchthp, the crablike philosopher race who do most of the Galactic Federation's invention and innovation, such as is permitted to exist in what until the attack of the Posleen had been a very stable society in which looking a generation ahead was considered short-range planning.
Cally's been fighting this secret war for the last three decades, and it's telling on her. When the need arises, she kills without hesitation or any evidence of remorse, which is great when she's dealing with the equally remorseless goons who've sold out to the aliens who would be our masters -- but it also means that an essential part of her humanity is rapidly fading into oblivion. A part that's fighting to survive, in the form of nightmares that arise now and then, memories of past assassinations, of the people she's killed for getting themselves involved in the wrong side of the Darhel shadow war. Some of them were deliberate traitors, but more than a few thought they were actually doing good, or just asked too many awkward questions about the official answers that didn't quite add up.
So Cally goes on vacation, but it's a weird one in which she shifts chameleon-like from one false identity to another, to the point there's a sense that the real Cally is fragmenting into a collection of masks, none of which are really her self. And even that respite can't last, for she is then called back on duty to take on a new assignment, infiltrating Titan Base to stop a Darhel operation intended to compromise Fleet and Fleet Strike. It will be perhaps one of the most dangerous missions she's ever undertaken, for the simple reason that if something were to go wrong and she's captured, it'll be virtually impossible to extract her. Considering how close she came to getting killed in the first chapter, we the readers know that she's going to be going into real danger.
The first step in the process is to have a complete body makeover, courtesy of a GalTech device known as the slab, to transform her into the likeness of the woman she'll be replacing, Sinda Makepeace. Then she gets a very brief visit with family on their secret island before it's off to Saturn space to face off the enemies of humanity.
Meanwhile, the Darhel are acquiring their own assassin in the form of John Earl Bill Stuart, Johnny to his friends. He despises the Darhel and enjoys needling them by talking blatantly about violence and killing in their presence, when they're careful to use euphemisms not merely to avoid legal consequences (as a Mafia don might do when setting up a contract killing), but in fact to protect themselves against the mysterious biological "failsafe" the ancient and mysterious Aldenata installed in them. Although he's pretty clearly a bad guy, it's interesting to note his observation on the character of the Darhel -- particularly their fondness for taking the best and finest of everything, not because they want it, but so that somebody else can't have it (the mentality of "I cannot win unless I see others lose"). And in this scene we have a sense of a certain hierarchy of villains, with Johnny being a bad guy, but still a human bad guy, and the Darhel as alien intruders upon Terran soil an even worse kind of villain than a human who's sold his soul to them.
Cally's trip across America to catch her flight to Titan is a fascinating montage of what has become of the country in the aftermath of the Posleen War, with the familiar juxtapositioned with the alien. No matter how much technology may change, no matter how much society has been disrupted by the enormous losses taken from the Posleen attacks and the mass relocations of the survivors to the underground habitats known as SubUrbs, certain fundamentals of human nature have remained the same, whether it be corruption or family ties.
And ties of blood and revenge. When Cally finds a man who once betrayed her family, she decides to take him out. On her own authority, without consulting her superiors. Which means that she's just put the human Bane Sidhe in a very awkward position with their Indowy allies, just as she's going to need every possible ally she can find in her trip to Titan.
However, another of her father's men is also heading to Titan. Remember Johnny Stuart, the leader of the Hispanic gang that Gunny Pappas was able to ferret out and turn, way back in A Hymn Before Battle? Right now he's thinking that his time with Mike O'Neal Jr. is part of his past, and he's been making one moral compromise after another, going along to get along in a society increasingly being manipulated by the Darhel to serve their interests at the expense of humanity's. But as his path crosses Cally's, he's pressed toward a decision point, in which he has to face just what the Darhel are behind the beautiful mask of culture and sophistication they seek to present.
In fact, this novel marks a quantum leap in the amount of information we get about the inner workings of Darhel society, as well as some bits and pieces about their biology. Yes, we've had hints from the very beginning that the Darhel are sinister, manipulative creeps, and even their observed diet is at clear variance of what's indicated by their teeth and other aspects of their physiology. But now we get to see some of just what it means.
At the same time, the discussion of Darhel subversion of the US government seems weirdly prescient of the current mounting evidence right here in the Primary World that the global megacorporations have subverted our government, to the point that all the candidates are bought and paid for, that voting is really just a sham and both parties are nothing but corporate shills. Particularly given John Ringo's public presentation as a staunch conservative who condemns the Democrats as the pawns of a nasty transnational-progressivist agenda, one can only wonder if his subconscious might have been picking up on things his conscious mind could not deal with, and his creativity shunted it onto alien nasties so that he didn't have to take a hard look at what the Republican Party was becoming.
But trying to psychoanalyze a writer on the basis of his fiction is always a risky proposition. The character is not the author, and sometimes authors put things into a story because it works for that story, not because they personally believe any particular thing and are using the elements of the story to represent things in the observed world.
Review posted December 10, 2011.
Buy Cally's War (Posleen War Series #5) from Amazon.com