John Ringo is an interesting writer, and it’s not hard to see why he is controversial. I first read his sci-fi alien invasion trilogy Troy Rising (Live Free or Die, Citadel, and The Hot Gate.) They were a ton of fun with lots and lots military sci-fi action as well as some legitimate big ideas that I hadn’t seen before executed very convincingly. So far, so good.
But then there were the politics, oh boy, the politics. Not since Robert Heinlein have I read an author so gratuitously insert their political views into the mouths of protagonists. On the bright side, now I have another go-to example that my opposition to preachy politics in books is non-partisan. Mr. Ringo’s politics are almost certainly not identical to mine, but his libertarian leanings put him somewhere in my neighborhood and that doesn’t make them any more palatable. It’s not that I dislike politics in books. I just dislike being preached at.
That series is far from his most controversial, however. That honor would probably have to go to Ghost.1 The first half of the novel is about how a special operations veteran with very dark rape fantasies has a habit of stalking young, female students at the college he attends. Instead of raping one of them, however, he is around to see her get kidnapped. He kills several of the kidnappers 2 and then stows away to find their secret base. There, he frees the naked, kidnapped college girls (those that have not been tortured to death before he arrived), lectures them on right-wing politics, extorts promises of sexual favors,3 and then helps them hold off repeated assaults until the US military shows up to rescue everyone. Also, he kills Assad. And he beheads bin Laden. Why not?
Then the second half is a long apologia of bondage sex as the protagonist—flush with the $25,000,000 bounty from beheading bin Laden—entices a pair of young college girls4 onto his boat and then tutors them in the ways of domination/submission sex. I am not sure where he was going with this plot line. Maybe there are pirates or sharks or something? I quit reading the book without finishing and ran away like the nopetopus.
But I’m getting ahead of myself! Ghost was the last book of his that I read. Last as in “most recent” but also possibly as in “after which there will be no more.” It’s hard to say because when he’s not lecturing you on libertarianism (or libertinism) Ringo can write a great action story. And the Black Tide Rising series—of which Strands of Sorrow is the concluding fourth novel—falls into that category.
I went through all four of these novels (Under a Graveyard Sky, To Sail a Darkling Sea, Islands of Rage and Hope, and finally the ostensible subject of this review: Strands of Sorrow) in just a few days. Graveyard Sky introduces us to our zombie apocalypse5 and the main character and his family. They are the hipsters of preppers. They were preppers before it was cool, they know that all the other preppers are wannabe late-comers who are doing it wrong. The most unique aspect of Ringo’s setup is the innovation of taking things to the sea: the only place to be safe while the zombie apocalypse washes over the mainland.
The subsequent three books all tell the story of our plucky protagonists first surviving and then slowly beginning to rally fellow survivors in a long plan to take back the planet from the black tide. The books are at their strongest with Ringo’s commitment to thinking through his scenarios carefully. Have you ever considered what it would be like to try and clear zombie-infested cruise-liner to rescue the few survivors? Ringo has, and he’s done it from tactical, logistical, and psychological perspectives. The results are equally chilling and engrossing. And, honestly, some of the politicking is actually pretty great, too. A lot of the plot of the fourth novel revolves around an attempt to rescue Vice President Sarah Palin to prevent the hippie-liberal Secretary of Education from maintaining control of what is left of the armed forces of the United States (mostly the nuclear sub fleet.) Sarah Palin isn’t named, of course, but an attractive, female, gun-toting vice president is not exactly subtle. For me, it was outrageous enough to be enjoyably absurd.
The books are their weakest when the star—a 13-year old girl who loves to shoot zombies with an automatic shotgun—is so annoying that you wish that the zombies would kill her. Her pink M1-Abrams is kind of funny for a minute, but ends up getting way too much page-time. (That’s just one example.) Then there’s the frequent and extensive quotation of death metal song lyrics. Getting a track-by-track playlist of the music that the zombie killers listen to as they go into battle is apparently a key plot point.6
If you’re looking for an empty but exciting thrill ride, then I definitely recommend the Black Tide Rising series. Honestly, however, you don’t need my recommendation one way or the other. Just look at the covers. In this case, they will tell you exactly what you’re going to get: guns, girls, and explosions. However, even just within the context of the series, Strands of Sorrow is the weakest book. By that point, the main thrust of the plot—get to the ocean, rally survivors, create a zombie-fighting fleet—has basically been played out. The story is starting to groan under the weight of too many moving pieces without any specific, central goal. It’s the last book in the series, but it’s not really a conclusion because the story doesn’t really have an ending, the main characters have just been taken about a far as they can be taken (maybe a little farther, actually) and so we stop without really ending anything.
So, I wouldn’t consider the book Hugo worthy at all, but I have to admit that I am fascinated enough by the forthcoming short-story anthology that I might have to check it out. I mean, Black Tide Rising (the anthology, not the series) features John Scalzi writing alongside Sarah Hoyt and Michael Z. Williamson. If you know anything at all about the politics of sci fi authors, you know this alone is as weird as it get.