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Claws that Catch by John Ringo and Travis S. Taylor

Cover art by Kurt Miller

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Claws that Catch is the fourth in the series begun with Into the Looking Glass, and in many ways it seems the weakest to date. I have discussed my reservations about the portrayal of gender issues elsewhere, and feel no need to reiterate them here. However, i do note that even after the Vorpal Blade finally gets off Earth, the storyline continues to be frustratingly slow, with several interim visits to various locations where the characters continue to talk, talk, talk about various issues.

In fact, by the time we finally got something new and interesting, I was about ready to give up on the story. When I recall the slam-bam action beginning of the original volume, in which the very first paragraph introduces the explosion that created the gate-generating Higgs Boson, there's simply no comparison. It's almost as though the authors are simply assuming that of course we will plow through all this front matter in order to get to the real story.

Worse, the ending left me ambivalent as to whether it really works or it is in fact a deus ex machina ending. I think the authors are trying for the effect that worked so well in the Hugo-winning Babylon 5 episode "Severed Dreams," in which the heroes spend most of the ep fighting a desperate battle against Earthgov forces, only to win by the narrowest margin -- and then to have more Earthgov forces appear. Just to make it seem more hopeless, more ships start transferring in -- and then we realize that they are in fact Minbari White Stars. When Delenn makes her famous "be somewhere else" speech and the Earthgov forces flee, we all feel the sense of relief at a physical level.

However, the ending of "Severed Dreams" works because Delenn's struggle to bring that aid to the station is the other major thread of the episode, developing in tandem with Sheridan's desperate battle against Earthgov. We are as much on the edge of our seats about whether Delenn will be able to shift the Gray Council as whether Sheridan's forces will be able to defeat the Earthgov ships. When it all comes together, it forms a double triumph.

By contrast, the converting of the Thermopylae for Alliance use and the process of getting it to the battle in time really isn't a major thread in Claws that Catch. A few hints are tossed off here and there, but it's not really stuff that keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering if they're going to make it. And in fact, if that storyline had been given at least as much space as the exploration of the Tum-Tum Tree, it would have made for a much more full-bodied work, because quite honestly, this particular novel felt rather slender.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that bringing this problem to the attention of the authors will be of any effect. When disappointed fans questioned whether the ending of Hell's Faire had crossed the line to deus ex machina, Ringo banished the entire subject from his conference at Baen's Bar by the simple expedient of declaring the discussion closed.

This is not to say that Claws that Catch was without its good points. It is neat seeing the Alliance develop into a full partnership, with all four species working together rather than the humans being the principal fighters and everyone else being effectively client races. Although Ringo and Taylor may slip in the occasional Star Trek reference, they do not subscribe to the underlying theory of the Prime Directive, that contact with a more advanced culture will destroy more primitive cultures and that they must therefore be protected from such contact. Far from it, they have explicitly stated that while a culture may have some initial adverse affects from first contact, generally within a generation or two people adapt and actually come out better off, even if it means shedding some aspects of their culture that no longer work in the new environment.

And there are more fascinating artifacts of an ancient culture whose technology was so sophisticated that even our best technologies seem primitive in its face. Humans may be able to use it in a sort of monkey-see, monkey-do fashion, but trying to understand the theoretical underpinnings of their operation tends to inspire awe instead.

Review posted January 15, 2009

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