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Hell's Faire by John Ringo

Cover art by David Mattingly

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

According to his own writings on the matter, when John Ringo set forth to write the Posleen War trilogy, he wanted to create a scientifically and militarily plausible story of an alien invasion of Earth that humanity would be just barely able to beat back, with some limited and unreliable help from alien allies who were pacifistic but not nice guys. That plan worked pretty well for the first two volumes, A Hymn Before Battle and Gust Front, and their success put him on the map as one of Baen's top military sf writers. And then something happened and everything changed.

That something was the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the day everything changed. Ringo was closing in on the final chapters of the third and final volume, When the Devil Dances, and all indications had been good that he would finish on schedule. But in the aftermath of that day, he found it impossible to write fiction.

Quite honestly, I have to sympathize with that feeling. I remember my own feelings in those chaotic days that writing about imagined conflicts was somehow disrespectful to the real death and suffering going on at a time, a feeling that I had experienced even more strongly a decade earlier with the beginning of Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Jim Baen was also sympathetic, and extended the deadline in hopes that Ringo's muse would recover from the shock and horror of the attacks. But it wouldn't in spite of every effort, and finally Baen had no choice but to publish When the Devil Dances with its cliffhanger ending, and Ringo did a series of non-fiction pieces on politics and military topics, many of which are now reprinted on his website.

Fortunately Ringo's muse did finally recover, and this book is the result. Because it was originally intended to be the last several chapters of the previous volume, he had to work hard to expand it into a stand-alone novel, and it still has an awkwardly slender, lightweight feel to it.

Each of the novels of the trilogy turned tetralogy has begun with a brief scene of a senior character well behind the lines who has information to which the principal protagonists are not privy, and this one is no exception. However, this time that character is a human, the Jesuit Father Nathan O'Reilly, who to all appearances would seem to be an ordinary Irish-American padre, not that different from hundreds and thousands of others who once served the Catholic Church and their communities all across America, before the Posleen turned that great nation into a slaughterhouse.

But Father O'Reilly is more than he appears, as we can soon pick up from his conversation with Left, one of the major leaders of the hacker organization known as the Cyberpunks. Not just the way he can look beyond the immediate threat of the Posleen invasion to understand the real risk of winning the war only to lose the peace to the Darhel, who are already working to subvert America's democratic institutions to serve their purposes. There's also hints that he's privy to secrets far more ancient and perilous, secrets that would completely upend our understanding of human history and origins.

Then it's back to the actual war. The abrupt and unintended ending of When the Devil Dances left American forces in a truly bad way, facing overwhelming numbers of Posleen swarming through key gaps in the line that has kept them out of the Heartland, away from America's principal agricultural regions and the last bastions of its industrial might. An entire Sub Urb, an underground city filled with refugees from the overrun East Coast, was invaded by the Posleen and almost certainly devoured before its nuclear power plant could be rigged to self-destruct and take the yellow-scaled pseudo-centaurs with it. And worse, the front has been shifting so rapidly that Mike O'Neal, the principal protagonist of the series, has been forced to call artillery fire down on his own positions -- including areas very close to his family farm, where his father and younger daughter have been living for the past several years.

But before we can move forward, we have to regather all the threads that were dropped when events of the Primary World intruded and reassemble them. An author cannot simply assume that the reader has remained familiar with the characters and their predicaments in the months since reading the last volume -- or even that they have read it at all. So the first chapters must be given to re-introducing us to the characters -- Mike O'Neal and his family, Tommy Sunday and his girlfriend Wendy, the crew of the gigantic mobile artillery piece BunBun (named for the psychopathic rabbit in the webcomic Sluggy Freelance, which Ringo became acquainted with while writing the third novel). And of course the villains, the reptillian Posleen whose life cycles are so obviously aimed toward locustlike swarming expansion that they can hardly be the product of natural evolution, and the sinister backstabbing Darhel who pretend to be our friends even as they stab us in the back, and who bear their own evidence of genetic tampering.

And then the final desperate fight begins in earnest. Humanity's back is well and truly against the wall, and it looks like even last-minute technological innovations like the antimatter bomb invented by a University of Tennessee physicist, who incidentally uses it to paint the hills of northern Georgia with the school colors of its most hated football rival.

But even this and other bits of humor can't cover the clear evidence that humanity is being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. It doesn't matter how much better our weapons systems and tactics are if our enemy can replace its numbers exponentially faster than we can, due to a far faster reproductive cycle and a monecous reproductive biology, which means that any given Posleen can breed with any other Posleen, and in a pinch they can self-fertilize.

And then rescue comes from an unexpected quarter. This ending is problematic, since although it is foreshadowed, it wasn't really a central part of the storyline -- unlike for instance Delenn bringing Minbari aid to the beleaguered Babylon 5 station in the climax of the Hugo-winning episode "Severed Dreams," which works because her struggle to make it possible was a storyline co-equal with her beloved Sheridan's struggle to defend the station. In fact, the fan response to the ending of Hell's Faire on Baen's Bar was so heated that John Ringo simply declared the question closed. And that ukase had the unfortunate consequence of only strengthening the impression that the ending did indeed constitute a deus ex machina and the author didn't want to have to admit that fact.

Speaking of fans, because John Ringo had become such a fan of the Webcomic Sluggy Freelance, the author of the latter has provided several comics from the series, including ones specifically written and drawn for the Posleen universe.

The first printing of the hardcover edition of this novel also includes a CD-ROM chock-full of goodies. Along with a large number of Baen novels in several open formats, there is a role-playing game, an audio book, and guest appearances by several writers who have been invited to write short stories set in the Posleen universe. However, if yours is missing or you got a later edition, you can get an ISO disc image at The Fifth Imperium.

Review posted July 24, 2012

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