The good news: Mankind has finally made contact with an alien race.
The bad news: The aliens who’ve approached us are engaged in a losing war against a much more aggressive, nigh-unstoppable race known as the Posleen. The worse news: Our planet is right in the path of the Posleen onslaught.
The “it gets better” news: The galactic community is willing to share their knowledge, technology, and tactical support. To a degree. And it’ll cost us heavily.
The “we’re screwed” news: Our supposed allies are virtually incapable of fighting or aggression, and the real reason they want us is because we’re a violent bunch of barely-evolved monkeys with itchy trigger fingers. Moreover, they’re hoping to exploit us in much more subtle ways. They want us to do the dirty work. Good thing we’re up to the challenge.
Thus begins the Posleen War series, which marked the start of John Ringo’s prolific and popular career, and thoroughly established him as a military science fiction writer worth watching. While the series has spawned a good twelve books in as many years, many written with various co-authors, I’m just going to take a look at how it all began.
A Hymn Before Battle starts off at a fairly slow burn, as Ringo sets things into motion and introduces the first batch of major players. First, you have Michael O’Neal, a web consultant and SF author who’s one of the very first to be recalled to active duty when the true scope of the threat facing us becomes evident. Strong, intelligent, forceful, experienced, adaptable and packing a dominant personality, he’s pretty much the epitome of the perfect Ringo hero, able to kick all sorts of ass and look good doing it. Next, you have Gunnery Sergeant Ernie Pappas, an aging soldier brought out of retirement and rejuvenated to the prime of his life, to help train the new influx of recruits. Then there’s Sergeant Major Jacob Mosovich, a black ops specialist assigned to take a recon team to an alien planet in search of information. While the cast is sprawling, these three men get the most attention, as their respective plots unfold.
On Earth, we watch as humanity prepares for the imminent invasion, scheduled to hit a mere five years away. From mobilizing troops to fortifying cities and creating fortified shelters, from developing new technology to dealing with their new allies, they prepare for an assault that will undoubtedly be a bloodbath and a disaster. On the swampy world of Barwhon V, Mosovich’s team works to gain vital intelligence regarding the Posleen. On the beleaguered planet of Diess IV, human forces stand against the Posleen onslaught, testing out their brand-new Armored Combat Suits in a do-or-die trial by fire. While the war has just begun, it’s these opening moments which will define the course of things to come.
Ringo has some real strengths, which stand out even here in his debut. He’s a whiz at describing military action in convincing and captivating ways, putting the reader right into the heart of the battle. His real life experiences as a member of the U.S. Army lend themselves well towards this sort of thing, as he’s able to get into the military mindset. We get to see things from a variety of angles, through a host of characters, from privates to generals (but mostly focusing on those somewhere in the middle, as seen by the characters discussed above). There’s that level of authenticity that really sells the story.
He’s also great at creating characters, fleshing them out, giving them appropriately useful quirks, delving into their informative back story, and making them memorable. While his cast is fairly large, with a lot of people (and a few aliens) getting at least a little screen time, there’s no denying that the major characters do stand out and demand attention.
The setup for the book, and the series as a whole, is really quite engaging. Sure, “humans vs. aliens” is an old and beloved theme, but there’s got to be a reason behind that, right? Inherently, we all want to think that when those dirty, stinking, cannibalistic centaur-monsters from outer space come to ravage our planet, steal our riches, and eat our women, we’re going to fight back and kick butt, right? When it comes to our fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar, there’s only so many different reactions we can have, and “shooting things” is a classic. Ringo sets us up for an old-fashioned war against the undeniable bad guys—and then subverts the paradigm in increasingly interesting ways. No, don’t get me wrong, the Posleen are everything they’re made out to be, but several scenes from their viewpoint actually do paint them in a semi-sympathetic light. However, the gradual realization that our supposed allies are out to screw us? That we’re just being used for our violent tendencies and never-say-die attitude? That they’ll keep us in our place through misinformation, a chokehold on supplies, and other factors? Now things are a bit more nuanced and complex.
It still boils down to humanity being able to beat anything and everything because yes, we’re just that good. This is a theme of Ringo’s that we’ll see pop up a lot in his works, in various ways. It really kicks into high gear in future books of this series, when the Posleen hit Earth, and learn to regret it.
Despite all of these strengths, there’s one major flaw (feature? Strength? Trait?) in this book. It’s a Man’s World, full of Very Manly Men. Virtually all of the pivotal or memorable characters in A Hymn Before Battle are male. Women are mostly relegated to the sidelines, such as Mike O’Neal’s wife and daughters, a reporter who gets blown up, and Mike’s AI assistant (does that even count?) The one female character who has any significant screen time is Sergeant Ellsworthy, a sniper who serves on Mosovich’s recon team. Her portrayal is kind of problematic: she shows up to a briefing in a uniform that’s cut to accentuate her body, with a too-short skirt, and non-regulation heels. While she’s presented as damaged goods—her mannerisms and attitude suggesting she’s been traumatized or is perhaps autistic—and incredibly good at her job as a sniper, we’re still made aware of her sexuality. When she does speak, it’s with “a little girl’s voice.” The overall result is to give us a female character that stands out more for her looks and her weirdness than her competence. Perhaps if there were more women to compare her to, it wouldn’t be so odd. I know future books alleviate this somewhat, especially the storylines and sequels that focus on O’Neal’s family, especially his daughters. Of course, certain other Ringo series take things in an entirely different direction, as witnessed by a certain “Oh John Ringo No” reaction some people have had, but that’s for another time.
Flaws aside, this is a pretty good book. Solid characterization, plenty of action, and an entertaining premise. As the start of a series and a career, it’s quite promising. If you read just one John Ringo book, this one will deliver the full-on experience. Of course, he’s since proven a certain level of versatility, as I’ll examine soon enough.
(In the interests of historical accuracy, I’d like to note that I originally reviewed this book many years ago, for Absolute Magnitude. However, I refused to reread that review before writing this, even as I read the book with a whole new perspective. Feel free to compare old me vs new me if you like, I don’t mind.)
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.