Okay, if you read the first few lines of the blurb on the back of the book, you would believe that the main character, Alex, is one of those types of women who are “dudes with boobs”. This works with some semblance of success in Patrick Vanner’s first book, Ragnarok (Baen Books, 2010), though it leads you to believe that the character is not an emotional being. I’ve read the book twice now and each time I was left with a nagging feeling that it is missing something very, very vital. So, in order to help with this review, I’ve broken down Ragnarok into sections. This is more for my benefit than anything, and maybe it will help me figure out just what went wrong.
Action: This book has it, and has it aplenty. Vanner has an uncanny sense of timing during his action and battle scenes, which flow with such a grace and ease that it makes the pages fly. His pacing is wonderful and I really can feel the tension on the pages as his characters are fighting to survive. No, this book isn’t lacking action one bit. In fact, I feel there could have been more action, given Vanner’s natural talent at depicting the chaos of a battlefield in a crisp, clear picture. It’s hard to do, and Vanner does it better than anyone. And that’s saying something, given who else is on my reading list. I really did want more action, because it hid some of the flaws throughout the rest of the book.
Characterization: Hit and miss, but to be fair, this is the author’s first book. While some characters I actually felt some sympathy and attachment to, the primary characters were somewhat lacking. When Alex (main character) and Greg Higgins (secondary main, and Alex’s Executive Officer) speak, it’s almost like they’re two parts of one character. While this is vital in military circles (indeed, if the XO is not on the same page as the CO in the real world, Bad Things Happen), it tends to blend the characters together and you don’t get the sense of originality between them. The aliens had some semblance of individuality, but given that this is a bad thing in their society, it’s sort of confusing. Another issue I have is the civilians… if you aren’t a military person in the book, you are an arrogant bitch who complains while Marines are dying to protect you. This irked me a little, since I know quite a few civilians who aren’t like this. It also made me scratch my head and wonder just how far humanity has fallen if, in the middle of a war of survival, civilians are still complaining about the military. Surely if you were on the brink of genocide, you’d be less than complacent about your hallway being covered in the blood of a Marine who just died protecting you?
Plot: Sort of a miss here. On one hand, Vanner does a tremendous job just showing how dire of straights humanity is in during its fight for survival. On the other, it leaves many, many questions and dangly bits all over the place. For example, why did the person who betrayed Earth and humanity do it? There’s really no point to the betrayal except to set up an awesome battle scene in the book (which, as mentioned earlier, completely rocked), and as a reader I was left with the sense that the villain is just doing it for fun. Now, it is briefly mentioned what the traitor has planned but again, why? Also, just what is the story about? A fight for survival, you’d answer. But what else? There’s a feeling in the beginning of the book about how Alex is struggling to overcome her past demons and ghosts, but only briefly mentioned a few times throughout. I never got the feeling that she was truly grieving for the loss of her men, unlike, say, an Honor Harrington novel. In those novels, I always felt like Harrington was deeply affected by the loss of men. However, Vanner does a much better job making the technology simple to understand, unlike other SF novelists.
Story: Incomplete, and I say this with a caveat. The story does not end conclusively, one way or the other. I felt that there was more to it, something other than a cliffhanger ending. I was waiting to see the traitor get caught, or the aliens to sue for peace, or something that would dictate this isn’t the first half of a long novel. Unfortunately, this isn’t Vanner’s fault so much as the editor’s. Someone dropped the ball by cutting so much of the novel apart or, if that isn’t the case, then letting it go without anything conclusive at the ending. If this were a solo novel, I would be furious and throwing this book out to the range for target practice. However, I’m almost certain that this is the first book of a series and that Baen really needs to option the rest, mainly so that we can see just how it ends.
Baen Books also really shafted Vanner with the book’s formatting (Trade Paperback, $14.00 retail price) as well, going to median route between paperback and hardcover. If it had been a $7.99 paperback or a $25.00 hardcover, the book would be easy to recommend whether to buy or not. As is, everything about this book is halved. I put this on the publisher though and not the author.
So the final decision is split. On one hand, I really want to see how the book (and series) ends, mainly because so much energy was spent on getting to know the characters as I read it. On the other, unless you’re military, prior, or really like a good military science fiction story, I don’t think you would find the book entertaining. I did to an extent, but as I mentioned earlier, there’s just something missing from what could have been an amazing book. Too bad, because I have high hopes for this author.
-Reviewed by Jason