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Vorpal Blade by John Ringo and Travis S. Taylor

Published by Baen Books

Cover art by Kurt Miller

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When John Ringo completed his Posleen War trilogy with the unplanned fourth book Hell's Faire, he began a new series set in a far future in which super-advanced technology had recreated the creatures of fantasy and fairy tale, along the lines of Sir Arthur C. Clarke's maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology will look like magic to the uninitiated. However, although it was one about which he clearly cared a great deal, There Will Be Dragons and its sequels didn't do as well in the market as the Posleen War series or its sequels that he was writing with Julie Cochrane.

As a result, Jim Baen asked him to write a new military science fiction series that would be focused upon high-tech combat the way the Posleen War series had been. Which meant of course that Ringo needed to come up with a premise for a new novel. During this time he'd been spending a lot of time with the multi-talented Travis S. Taylor a physicist with an interest in advanced spacecraft propulsion systems of the sort generally associated with science fiction, not to mention some of the more esoteric aspects of high-energy particle physics.

Thus was born Through the Looking Glass, the story of a physics experiment gone horribly wrong, opening a gate into another world, through which emerges insectoid monsters known as the Titchers or Dreen. Humanity seems to be horribly outclassed by these creatures, and a cute, cuddly species of cat people who seem to be potential allies prove in fact to be slaves of these monsters, forced to lure humanity into trusting them and then betraying us to their masters. Only because protagonist Bill Weaver (a character largely based upon Doc Taylor) notices that elements of their material culture don't mesh with the story they've told him is he able to prevent disaster.

As a result, he's wary when he makes contact with yet another species, the ducklike Adar. However, this philosophical and technologically advanced species proves to be humanity's best allies in what until that point had seemed to be little more than a holding action, and quite possibly a hopeless war of attrition. The Adar have some artifacts of a mysterious Elder Race of even more technologically advanced aliens, and one of those objects is a power source that can be used to force a gate to close, permanently. However, it was clear that the victory at the end of Through the Looking Glass was but a temporary respite, something that would buy humanity time to learn enough from the Adar that they could face the Dreen on closer to equal terms.

When Vorpal Blade begins, years have passed since that laboratory accident and the original Dreen assault. Humanity and the Adar have been enjoying the fruits of peace in the form of friendly commercial cultural interchange, although at times it seems that the Adar have been getting the short end of the stick as the result of their cultural lack of resistance to sales and marketing. However, both sides are aware that the peace is a fragile one, and the prosperity they're enjoying could be very easily disrupted if they permit themselves to become complacent and believe they've won the war, rather than just the first of many battles.

Although the line of Looking Glasses that opened onto Dreen worlds have been sealed off, the possibility of a new line of attack is always hanging over humanity's collective head. Thus the United States and humanity's allies, the Adar, have decided to search for possible allies in a new way. Instead of trying to open new lines of these gates, which could easily open onto worlds owned by the Dreen or some other, even worse enemy, and leave humanity open to a fresh attack, they've decided to build a starship and travel through space in search of potential allies

It's a makeshift starship, cobbled together from a US Navy ballistic missile submarine and a mysterious stardrive the Adar found on a ruined world, but it's the best hope both species have of finding a way to attack the Dreen from their weak side. So off the Vorpal Blade goes with its complement of sailors and Marines, ready to Go Where No One Has Gone Before. Using a Navy submarine even manages to explain why the new space service would use Navy ranks and terminology when NASA has always used forms derived from Air Force usages (the Space Shuttle orbiters were controlled not from a bridge like a Navy ship, but from a flight deck like a bomber).

However, the military isn't their entire crew. They also have several scientists, all with the appropriate security clearances. And they have two other, very special, individuals aboard. Remember Mimi Jones, the little girl who walked out of the total destruction zone of the original Chen Event with a spiderlike creature sitting on her shoulder? She's been very busy in the past several years, absorbing knowledge with the help of her friend Tuffy, who may be some kind of angel or even an avatar of the godhead. Tuffy has said it is important she be aboard the Allied Space Ship Vorpal Blade, so here she is.

Of course the first thing they have to do is leave Earth without being observed by other terrestrial nations who aren't entirely friendly. Here's where being built on a submarine chassis comes in handy -- they just submerge and cruise to a part of the Atlantic where they won't be observed. Or at least won't be observed by more than a few pesky Russian submarines, which results in a bit of John Ringo's edgy dark humor dealing with a certain song that was the theme song for a Cold War movie about time travel. To say more would be to spoil a truly wonderful scene that deserves to be experienced first hand by reading rather than through a poor summary.

Our heroes have hardly gotten off Earth before the surprises start. The first one comes as they're leaving the solar system and hit a nasty gravitational standing wave on the boundary between the solar wind and the interstellar medium. Their spaceship holds out where one built on a more fragile aircraft body might not have, but they still have some pretty serious damage to contend with. And just to complicate things further, they may have hit a dimensional gate in the process of getting over that gravitational wave, which means that getting back home may have become a whole order of magnitude harder than they'd anticipated.

Meanwhile, the Marines need to keep up their training, which means an introduction for us the readers to their powered armor, the Wyvern. It's similar in design to the armored suits in the Posleen Wars series, but built with human technology somewhat enhanced by Adar technology rather than the mysterious GalTech which often read more like magic. Of course powered suits trace their literary antecedents back at least to Robert A. Heinlei's Starship Troopers, not to mention having roots in the Giant Robot anime and manga tradition of Gundam Wing, Tranzor Z and the like.

The first few worlds our protagonists visit are disappointing -- an ice-coated moon of a gas giant, another gas giant where they mine desperately needed consumables from the atmosphere and in the process get enough helium into their atmosphere to be talking in very high pitched voices, a nasty world with giant crab-octopus monsters, where they take their first casualties. And then they arrive in the 61 Cygni system and find a gas giant with a habitable moon.

Make that an inhabited moon, as they discover as soon as they land. The locals resemble giant chinchillas with hands, and their matriarchal culture is superficially late Medieval, but with weird bits of far more advanced technology. They're familiar with basic sanitation and the germ theory of disease. The scouts who meet them are riding devices like the flying skateboards in Back to the Future II, which seem to just appear from time to time as people need them. The first contact seems to be going well enough, but there's these disturbing legends in their folklore about how visitors come with flying ships and then Demons return to attack them.

And then all hell breaks loose as the locals' city comes under attack from monsters that initially resemble the various Dreen biological mechanisms. But it soon becomes clear that these are different, the product of a different biology, and presumably a different guiding intelligence that engineered them. And thus begins a desperate battle to survive, even as they have to sort out just what the Demons are and how they can be stopped long-term.

And yes, it does end with a surprisingly positive ending, if bittersweet as a result of the sheer number of losses our protagonists have taken. They have not only completed their mission, gaining humanity a new ally in the fight against the Dreen, but they've added significantly to their tech base.

The Cheerick are another example of John Ringo's fondness for alien sophonts with unusual reproductive system. In the Posleen Wars universe, the Indowy have a male/female/transfer-neuter system that seems to be loosely based upon the reproductive system of the Oankali in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis or Lilith's Brood trilogy. In the Prince Roger series, which he coauthored with David Weber, the Mardukans are like seahorses, with the biological males brooding the young and filling the social roles usually associated with women. Even in this fictional universe, he'd already established that the Adar had a transfer-neuter gender as well as the usual male and female, although unlike with the Indowy, their transfer-neuters tend to be smaller and less intelligent, doing repetitive work that is generally associated with menial labor. The Cheerick are not only matriarchal, but the females come to their full intelligence only after their equivalent of menopause -- all the Mothers and Queens are in fact crones, past their active reproductive years.

The authors conclude this volume with two brief essays on the writing of the book. John Ringo concentrates on how he went about creating his fictional world, while Doc Taylor discusses the real quantum physics that underlies the extrapolations.

Review posed January 1, 2013.

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