“Ragnarok” by Patrick A. Vanner — Decent but needs some work

Captain Alexandra “Alex” McLaughlin is not a woman to be underestimated. Under her petite exterior is a spine of solid steel and a disposition to laugh in the face of death…

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

  1. #1 by Frederick E. Hughes on June 23, 2011 - 9:20 pm

    Having spent 24 years in the Army and retiring as a Master S “ergeant, I reconized that Mr Vanner had spent some time in the military. His book had a feel in it that grabbed me and required my attention. I saw all the characters in the book in my career at different time and at different ranks. I eagerly await the next installments and will read the book again prior to reading the next installment. as for the method it was published, I could care less about, although this is the first “trade paperback” I have ever bought. It will go into my library along side Heinlein, McCaffery, Ringo, Linskold, Dale Brown and numerous others. As I say after I have read the latest book of many other great writers, “Dang, Now I have to wait a year for the next book.” Mr Vanner now has a place on my “Watch for List.”

    • #2 by warpcordova on June 24, 2011 - 12:02 am

      As a Navy vet, I understood Vanner’s characters as well. However, the appeal of command relationships, when they’re that close in synergy, confuses non-military people and it loses the reader. AS I said before, Vanner’s got potential, but this book felt rushed to production.

  2. #3 by John Thorp on December 20, 2011 - 2:27 pm


    I became very angry after the first half dozen pages. A dream? Really? The best part of the book was that fragment at the very beginning. Why start the book with a dream, then go on to recreate the scenario of that event, that produces the duplicate run for survival, which is the next quarter of the book? Why not just go to the beginning and relate how the result came about? The ‘dream’ could stay, but don’t make it a dream. As a reader I want to know how the desperate run for freedom comes about. I don’t need a ‘new’ scenario posed that does the exact same thing. More planning before his next effort, please!

    My next gripe is the characterizations. They are cliche, generic, and no better than surfaces, For example, we are told Alex is all bent out of shape with grief and in the next paragraph she’s sharing a joke with her companion and enjoying the moment. The woman is supposed to be riding an emotional rollercoaster but mostly she is joking around. We never really get a feeling for her as a grieving captain. There is a lot of this sort of surface emotion, mostly aimed toward informing the reader of how amused the characters are during their activities. They are always smiling, even laughing at the grimmest and most inappropriate of times and Vanner takes great pains to inform the reader this is so. As an extreme example, Admiral Rachere, whose grief for a dead son is understandable, is grinning like a hyena while engaged in his revenge. Really? Is this guy so transparent that he wears his emotions on his sleeve and his brains in his ass? Anyone who has hated so long and so hard would have a better grip on his emotions and a better plan for a revenge. Certainly he would take the time to think things out a little first. And, yes, I realize this is not amusement he’s showing, but it’s not very believable either.

    Lazy Technique and Shock Technique. Alex’s reaction to attempt to ‘kill’ Rachere, even given all the stress she is under, just doesn’t ring true. I may hate my supervisor, I might be goaded out of all patience and endurance, but I am not going to launch myself on the guy with the intent to kill him before a room full of witnesses and people I’m responsible for, then admit to it afterward before still more witnesses. The excuse of stress and extreme circumstances doesn’t apply either. Alex is an experienced, battle hardened captain and one must assume she is conditioned to a high degree for right and wrong–don’t forget she is a former Loki pilot! She ain’t gonna do it. She hasn’t the emotional control of a 13 year old. There are real repercussions to such actions and admissions, and I’m not talking psych evals! And does anyone else think that Rachere’s actions come right out of left fleld? Where’s the build up? Oh, let’s give Alex something else to worry about; let’s introduce someone who hates her guts right before he attacks her. Good writers prepare the reader, Vanner doesn’t. The home fleet in one formation, advantages, disadvantages, okay, get that. Couple paragraphs for setup–ONLY! Boom, home fleet destroyed in next paragraph. Again, I find this hard to accept or believe. The kind of insider information required–exact coordinates of the fleet and one must presume of every ship in the fleet–would be just a little hard first to get, then to transmit, don’t you think? The bottom line is, and D. Weber is great at this sort of thing, you have to set the scene for disaster, investing the time and effort to let things play out to the full. Vanner doesn’t do this. He is much more invested in lame, pointless conversations between characters that repeat all the old cliches. He is lazy and doesn’t think things through and doesn’t allow the reader think things through either.

    As a first effort this book should not have been published. It had promise, a decent premise, and a knowledgeable author, but it has no heart, no depth and no real merit. As entertainment it is but a shade to Weber’s Harrington and Ringo’s Posleen series. We are all waiting for the next great space opera series and this ain’t it.


  3. #4 by Lyle Keeran on November 20, 2012 - 3:51 pm

    I am a great fan of the different science fiction writers like David Weber and now Patrick A. Vanner. Their stories are all very fun to read, but one that thing keeps me a little irritated is in the stories people are always walking through hatches in bulkheads. Well, I spent ten years in the U.S. Navy and one of the very first things taught to me in bootcamp low thoes many, many years, is that HATCHES go through DECKS, DOORS go through BULKHEADS. Has that all changed in the 40+ years I have been out?

  4. #5 by Ivan Ivanovich Streltsov on March 12, 2015 - 12:45 am

    My question is quite simple really. Will there be a second and third book? It’s been five years.

    • #6 by warpcordova on March 12, 2015 - 6:46 am

      I honestly have no idea. I know John Ringo stuck Vanner in his writing closet a few years back when Patrick was stateside, but I’m not certain when/if he’s turned the sequel in yet.

Leave a Reply to Frederick E. Hughes Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: