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Manxome Foe by John Ringo and Travis S. Taylor

Cover art by Kurt Miller

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Looking Glass series was born from the commercial disappointment of the Council Wars series. After John Ringo's success with his Posleen Wars series, which was amplified by his collaborating with David Weber on the Prince Roger series, it looked like his plans for a techno-fantasy series would be a guaranteed moneymaker. However, it turned out that people weren't really all that interested in reading about a world where super-advanced technology created the various creatures of myth and folklore. Very likely the technological underpinnings turned off the fantasy readers, and the fantastical elements turned off the fan base he'd established with his previous two series.

So publisher Jim Baen asked him to start a new military science fiction series that would be combat oriented, more like the original Posleen Wars trilogy (rather than the trilogy dealing with the Bane Sidhe's covert war against the Darhel, which John had been writing with co-author Julie Cochrane). John had been hanging out with Travis S. Taylor, a physicist, and from their conversations came some cool ideas that grew into Into the Looking Glass. To acknowledge his friend's contribution to the book, Ringo loosely based the protagonist, Bill Weaver, on Doc Taylor.

The book sold well enough that Baen wanted a sequel, and this time Doc Taylor came on board as a credited collaborator. Vorpal Blade told the story of humanity's first starship, a converted ballistic missile submarine that used an ancient alien artifact as a stardrive. Things get interesting fast when your chief engineer is a member of the first friendly alien species you met, the technologically advanced aliens who found the device you're using as a stardrive on a dead world of a dying solar system, and even he doesn't fully understand how it works. Try the wrong thing, and you might just end up killing everybody and wrecking the mission. But fail to try the right thing, and you could end up with an even worse disaster -- especially when you're dealing with hostile life forms, as they discovered on Cherrick, the habitable moon of a gas giant planet several times the size of Jupiter.

After its nearly fatal mission to the world of the Cherrick, the Vorpal Blade had returned to Earth for what was supposed to be an extensive rest and refitting period. But as Clausewitz said, the first casualty of battle is always the plan, as we discover in the opening chapters of this new novel.

And the battle against the Dreen has only been dormant, like a cancer in remission. That suddenly changes when the human exploratory team on a distant world is suddenly attacked by the Dreen. Because the Gate through which they traveled is now suspect even after it destabilizes after getting hit with a nuclear weapon, the crew and Marines of the Vorpal Blade must go there the long way. Which means that their leave is suddenly cut short, much to the surprise of several members who were just getting reacquainted with their families. And because they took so many casualties on their last mission, they now have a large complement of replacements who have to be integrated into the unit, never an easy task in the best of times. But how do you do it when your veterans have come face to face with the ineffable and survived, and the new guys, even the ones who think they're hardened veterans of the War on Terror or the original Dreen War, really have no idea of how weird stuff can get out there?

When the Vorpal Blade first heads out, it looks like they're just dealing with the usual problems at the beginning of a cruise -- technical glitches in the equipment, interpersonal friction between personalities not accustomed to working in close quarters. But then the evidence begins to come together that something truly uncanny has gotten itself aboard the starship, Miriam Moon, the linguist, is having some strange intrusive thoughts and memories, but she decides not to notify the ship's surgeon because she doesn't trust him not to make her a project, and quite possibly open her skull using the limited equipment in sickbay.

At first her attempts to shut it out seem to be working -- until it alerts her to a dangerous space-time anomaly, and she reports it using technical terminology she couldn't possibly know. She saves the day, Now it's only a matter of time before somebody starts wondering how and why the linguist suddenly became an expert on obscure aspects of physics on the same level as Bill Weaver. Of course, as long as everybody's busy with one after another mini-crisis on top of the everyday operating activities of running a starship that used to be a nuclear submarine, there aren't time for those questions, which can be another sort of problem.

And then they arrive at the planet where their team was attacked. The effects of the nuke on the dying planet's surface are clear to see, but there's some hope the survivors of the team might have escaped into some nearby tunnels that are part of a complex of alien ruins. That hope lasts until they get into the secondary base and finds it in ruins, and within it a record of the team's last days. There's something oddly reminiscent of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness in the use of a diary to present to the reader a situation of steadily escalating horror which ended in doom for characters we neither see nor meet.

And then they find a survivor, hidden deep within the maze of tunnels under the planetary surface. But given that the Dreen are known to use biological technology, they dare not be overly enthusiastic in welcoming her. Even if she weren't in bad shape from the measures she took to survive as long as she did on minimal food, water and oxygen, she has to be kept in strict biological isolation until they can make sure the Dreen haven't slipped some nasty surprise into her, turning her into a human trojan horse.

Meanwhile, they're wondering why the Dreen left so suddenly, without finishing the destruction they began. Dreen are ruthless, relentless in the pursuit of an enemy -- but what if they were in fact pursuing some other enemy that had a higher priority, and the Terran mission on the ancient planet was just a target of opportunity, to be neutralized quickly to make sure it doesn't turn into a bigger problem? As a result, they start asking the questions that enable them to detect evidence of a recent space battle not too far away.

A search of the debris field reveals a lifepod containing three aliens, presumably survivors of a battle with one or more Dreen warships. Our protagonists are just beginning to get a handle on the idea that, unlike the Adar and the Cherrick, these aliens have a sensorium very unlike humans, depending on sonar rather than light for their equivalent of vision, which has strange effects on their language. Just being able to talk to each other is going to require computers.

And then they encounter more of these entities, a whole starship full -- but their starship is badly damaged and in need of repair, and so short on supplies that they can't repatriate their conspecifics, who'll have to stay aboard the Vorpal Blade for the meantime. But they also have better computers, and soon they're able to establish proper communications, with astonishingly colloquial English that reflects their species' lack of much in the way of heirarchality. Sometimes it can be downright funny to read the dialog of these Hexosehr, as the humans name them (their own name for themselves being translatable mostly as "us"), since they sound more like surfer dudes than aliens.

But the Dreen fleet is fast approaching, and they aim to kill. And thus begins the epic space battle at the climax of this novel, a battle in which we learn even more about the Dreen and their technology, not to mention a very nasty "ticking clock" situation for humanity.

Ringo and Taylor provide yet another satisfying helping of realistically portrayed combat and futuristic technology, flavored with a dash of often ironic humor. A few touches are a little questionable, especially a character who is directly lifted from the series Ringo his been writing with David Weber, but on the whole it works. In fact, the only element I really found jarring was the revelation that the Dreen ships have a piloting system startlingly reminiscent of the Shadow ships in Babylon 5 (most of the other media references and in-jokes seem to come entirely from the Star Trek franchise).

Review posed January 1, 2013.

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