Jan 23 2012 11:00am

Unity Against The Storm: A Hymn Before Battle by John Ringo

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.

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Mike G.
2. Mike G.
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?)
It's worth noting that O'Neal's daughter has a MUCH more prominent role in later books. But I don't recall whether it's devoid of the problems you found with Ellsworthy's character.
Kelly Lysaught
3. kcl3935
Just as a side-note, this book is legally available for download in the Baen Free Library here:
Irene Gallo
4. Irene
Jimnutt and Kcl: Sorry about the late posting. Our spam filter oftens picks on comments that end in a link.
Sky Thibedeau
5. SkylarkThibedeau
He lost me with the AI Spacecraft carrier 'Daisy Mae' that was shaped like a nude woman and had cannons and launch and retrieval bays in Strategic Places.
Mike G.
6. SeanR
You know what, I should ask -- would you prefer that all the women were sexless drones? I'm sure Ringo could have done that. I mean, heck, most of the Ellsworthy's comrades in that subplot were manly male drones, maybe you would have prepered her to have been a pure function, with no sexuality at all.

Not to mention that your analysis of Ellsworthy stuck me as insane. I found her quirky, not autistic, or damaged. Heck, I thought she had more personality THAN Mike O'Neal. But he's a guy, he can afford to be a pure function?

This tells me more about the blogger's damage than it tells me about the book -- and all of the information conveyed here, I can get off the back of the novel. Make mine Baen.
Mike G.
7. Ki

Yes, actually, if most male characters are sexless drones who matter only by competently fulfilling a function, I for one would prefer that any token female characters also competently fulfill a function without reference to their sexuality. As a woman, I'm excited when I run across women in literature solidly doing their jobs without reference to their sex organs or what they do with them. After all, that's how I try to do my job.

(In view of the mentioned gender issues in the book, it's interesting that a woman gets pride of place on the front cover without having equal representation in the book itself. Based on the cover, this is a book I might have picked up. Based on the review, I probably won't.)
Evan Langlinais
8. Skwid
Wow, the brief synopsis reminds me of nothing so much as ADF's "The Damned" trilogy, which I loved. I basically only know who Ringo is because of the "Oh John Ringo No" meme, but I may check this book out.
Alain Fournier
9. afournier
I started reading this one a while back but did not make it too far into it for some of the reasons outlined in the review. Always thought the premise was interesting but the characters initially left me indifferent. I also was annoyed that the sole response to a planetary threat seemed to be American. I wasn’t aware that this was the first of a series when I first picked it up so maybe the rest of the world gets in on the action latter in the series.
john mullen
10. johntheirishmongol
This is very much a MilSf book, and it is probably the weakest that Ringo has written. The war scenes are great, and I don't really think there is that much wrong with making it a guys book, with few women. Let's face it, if you did a demographic on the readers of MilSF books, its primarily men who buy it and read it. The series gets much more complex later.
Michael M Jones
11. MichaelMJones
@2: As I briefly noted, women do take on a larger role in later books, especially once Ringo collaborates with Julie Cochrane to write the books featuring O'Neal's daughters, such as Cally's War. The reason I didn't take those into consideration is because A) I was looking only at how A Hymn Before Battle works as a book and under certain criterea, and B) those books are written with a co-author. I haven't read them in quite a few years, so I didn't want to talk about something I wasn't entirely familiar with.

@6: I'm not sure where the venom in your reply comes from, but I assure you, I haven't mentioned anything that's not actually on the page. Ellsworthy's mannerisms are pretty distinct and off-kilter, and she's a strange, strange character. I would have loved to have learned more about her, but it just wasn't to be. Sadly, as perhaps the only female to get any real screen time, I had to hold her portrayal to a higher standard than I would any of the much more plentiful male soldiers. Your input is appreciated, but do try to keep it polite. "Blogger's damage," really?

@9: Later books do address how the rest of the world handles the Posleen invasion. One book, Watch on the Rhine, written with Tom Kratman, actually focuses on Germany's response, which is to rejuvenate many of the surviving SS soldiers. Another, also written with Kratman, focuses on Central America. But yes, it's a pretty Ameri-centric series in general.

@10: True, some of my favorite bits in the seres come in later books, including the alien's reaction to reaching a certain military installation here on Earth. Never has the Army Corp of Engineers been so loved. But again, the purpose of this was to address the first book in the series.
Jack Flynn
12. JackofMidworld
The timing for this post is perfect; I just finished reading A Hymn Before Battle a week and a half ago and have about 40 pages left in Gust Front (stayed home from work yesterday with a flu bug and realized I was feeling better when I looked at the clock and saw that it was midnight and I was still reading). I read a couple of books in the "Black Company" series and a friend gave me Hymn to read, telling me it was pretty much a SciFi version of the same idea.

With or without the blatant sexuality in her intro, Ellsworthy definitely had the potential to be a very good character to follow, and I was saddened at how things turned out.

I drove a Bradley M2A2 Infantry Fighting Vehicle in the mid-90s and can say that, yes, the military descriptions of vehicles and the soldiers' reactions are pretty much spot-on. Being ex-infantry, I always gave a silent fist bump whenever Ringo mentioned the infantry blue but the reaction of the posleen to the castle-insignia for the engineers was just awesome.

Not so much of an issue with Hymnt, but the one thing that took me a little while to adjust to was all of the characters in Gust Front. Ringo does a great job of covering many different points of view within the story but, to do so, he has to introduce a lot of characters to cover each POV. Yes, it's better than having a Captain Kirk/Mary Sue type character who does every-bloody-thing on the planet but, after a while, I ended up just breezing past a lot of the names and just couning on recognizing them later if I had to.

Considering that they're at war, "later" isn't guaranteed, anyway!
Robert H. Bedford
13. RobB
Nice, even-haned review Michael. I've had this on the stack for a couple of years (and recently added to the electronic stack as well after reading March Upcountry).

It may have just leapt a few notches closer to the top, meaning I may actually get to it this year.
Bernardo de los Reyes
14. aginorgotd
I have read this novel and one underlying message I took that I don't read in reviews is this: The modern American military is totally unprepared to fight an alien enemy. Its doctrine and training is for use against other human enemies. The only other book that I can think of that uses the modern American military is David Weber's Fifth Imperium series. It sort of struck me as the various militaries assembled in Fifth Imperium series could take their training and apply it to aliens.

@9 As another person said the series does deal with other non-American military responses: the Panamanian and the German response, but realistically, what other country has near or comparable complex weapons systems development than America? I had once read that the most complex weapons system today is the aircraft carrier. While writing this I quickly Googled other countries' carriers and the most aircraft a non-American carrier can carry I can find is 12. American supercarriers carry 60+. And America has 11 such supercarriers and can maintain them on a more or less constant basis. The UK comes next at 3 light carriers. I don't find it a surprise that in any military SF novel that the overwhelming military response would be an American one. Americans have demonstrated unmatched weapons systems development, deployment, and maintenance. If in the future there are large space based carriers, battleships, or anything remotely complex, I would be more suprised if they weren't American.

As for the part in the review about lack of female characters in the book; there's a lot more infantry combat in these books than, in say, David Weber's Honor Harrington novels. Unless the author can do away with the physical limitations of the human female (lack of upper body strength) via something like powered armor, women cannot be deployed as effectively as men in a novel and be done to me the reader believably. Body armor, water, ammunition, rifle, sidearm, improved first aid kit...the list goes on and on. But I'll stop here. It looks like the women in mil SF thread was ended for a reason.
Hannon Rivel
15. hrivel
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.
This is true. I did find him a bit strange; sometimes he seemed like a Myers-Briggs ENTJ, other times an INFJ.
jeff hendrix
16. templarsteel
both side stories yellowe eyes and Watch on the Rhine deal with the political postions of both Germany and Pananama.Within Yellow Eyes the effort of the soilders in pananama is curtailed by corruption of the Presindent and many of the genreals by way of dealing with fall of their country to get off planet,the German government made deals to stop the devlopment of many weapons that would've helped the SS.

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