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East of the Sun, West of the Moon by John Ringo

Cover art by Kurt Miller

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Earth had been a paradise of ease and plenty, until the ruling Council of Keyholders had a falling-out over whether humanity was falling into navel-gazing and doomed to extinction. In the resulting civil war power for ordinary purposes was cut off and the vast majority of humanity was suddenly thrown on its own resources to scratch out a living in a world that had largely been returned to primordial wilderness.

It has been a slow and painful struggle to rebuild a civilization of free people in the North American continent, and much of that has been the work of Hertzer Herrick and his fellow Blood Lords, the elite cadre of leaders of the military forces of the new Norau. It's a ramshackle government, a mixture of feudal titles brought in by the re-enactors who provided essential skills in those desperate early months and bureaucratic administration that seems taken straight out of the middle of the twentieth century. But it's holding together well enough that there's hope that it can hold out against the sinister forces of New Destiny, which has grown steadily darker since the idealistic Paul Bowman has been replaced by purely sadistic types who seem to like nothing better than to use their power to pervert and torment.

However, a factor is entering play that has the potential to completely destabilize the situation in favor of one or the other faction. This is the fuel ship which comes to Earth every five years bearing helium-3 from Neptune to fuel the fusion reactors that power all the technological resources the Keyholders are using to fight their terrible civil war. If either side can seize it, they will have enough power to crush the other side.

Thus both sides are mounting desperate missions to capture that spaceship, and their plans are complicated by the necessity to work with crushingly primitive equipment as a result of the energy protocols which leach off the energy of any kind of explosives and turn it over to the Net. Their only real hope is to capture the shuttles that are used to deliver fuel from the ship and use them as transportation up to the ship. (Interestingly enough, when John Ringo was originally planning this novel and talking about it on Baen's Bar, he was planning to have it deal with seizing a beanstalk, a surface-to-orbit megastructure, but was subsequently convinced to switch to shuttles).

The actual mission to capture the ship is very interesting, but it doesn't actually start until two thirds of the way into the novel. That's right, folks, the entire first two thirds of this novel (other than the prolog, which is a few pages long and deals with a battle largely extraneous to the main thrust of the novel) is entirely devoted to "housekeeping," to the various political maneuverings and training sessions that build up toward the actual fight. This is a very frustrating situation, because quite honestly, John Ringo is best when he is writing straight-up action. His combat scenes are riveting, but unfortunately it seems that he has become increasingly obsessed with making sure that we gain a full and complete understanding of all the work that goes into supporting those military operations, such that we must slog through pages upon pages of characters going through training exercises and paperwork-pushing, to the point that it becomes boring for readers who do not care about such things. I am sure there are people who find the preparations fascinating, but for me it starts to read like "I've done my homework, and I'm going to make sure you know it by showing all my work and forcing you to slog through it." Or worse, "I've suffered for my art, and now you're going to get to suffer too."

The sad thing is that John Ringo can write great novels that drop you straight into slam-bam military action. Go back and read the beginning of Into the Looking Glass if you want to see one of his best examples of dropping the reader straight into the action and not letting up. I hope that he hasn't gotten lax about his writing now that he's become one of Baen's leading authors, because it is really taking away from what is one of his greatest strengths as a writer.

And this goes double because the final chapter of this novel pretty well sets up the scenario for a sequel. I would really like to see it move to actual action within the first fifty pages at an absolute maximum, rather than bogging us down in political maneuvering and training exercises while we wonder when we are actually going to get to the stuff we paid money for.

Review posted April 15 2009

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