To say that John Ringo's There Will Be Dragons is "Heinlein-esque" is kind of like saying that Pickwick Papers has flavors of Dickens. The strong, military bent with the theme of just conflict echos back to Starship Troopers while Freehold is echoed in the moderns having to return to the past.
Ringo has a voice of his own that shines through, however. His prose is a little more conversational. His dialogue a little more natural, even though it sometimes makes the characters a little less serious than they should be. There is more warmth in Ringo than there is Heinlein, but warmth and military sf can clash. It is refreshing, but breaks up a few comfort zones.
The story of the novel deals with two thousand years in the future. Humankind has become the product of a world-wide computer system and rampant genetic mutation. Humans take on the shape of fantasy creatures, mold their body into impractical but luxurious forms, and have babies in a less than natural way. Nannites cleans everything. Life is easy, disease free, and full of parties and delight. The human race is suffering from the lack of conflict, though. It has become soft, with no plans and no real sense of self. The population is dropping. A fight breaks out by a council running the affairs of humans as to whether humans should be forced to work so they will know struggle and will come to grips with who they are, or whether they will continue to delight in bohemia. This fight escalades into an all out war, of sorts, whose chief outcome is the power grid running the earth is sapped of just about all available energy.
With this, before a full fifth of the book is done, we enter the second stage of the novel. A life based on countless luxurious and endless freedom of suffering is cast down into the muddy banks of pre-power living. Sort of. Some power remains, and it still gets things done. But, the party is now come to an end. From this point, the story is about rebuilding society and preparing for the sure-to-come bandit raids and ground battles of the war.
The lynchpin of the novel, the fulcrum about which it is all based, is that a section of the society was dedicated to Ren Faire activities. This section, a portion of which is led by Edward Talbot, is essential in the rebuilding. They know primitive food prep. They know roughing it. They have studied hand to hand combat. They know farming techniques. Minstrels. Brewers. Primitive medicine.
And I think this is the first point where the novel will make or break itself to the reader. Personally knowing some serious reenactors and Ren Faire folk, I was comfortable with the premise, however sketchy, that RF people could rebuild a replica of medieval society. These people study the old school techniques with a passion just about unbridled by most other hobbyists. But the degree of militarism showed by such reenactors, who in the real world work with padded sticks and pvc armor, seems a little convenient deus ex machina. Ringo had a premise in mind, a fun one with promise, and did not want to work out a long protracted build up to make that work.
Considering the alternative was dedicating this first novel entirely to "Members of SCA relearn firebuilding techniques", this is a DEM that I can accept.
Another shortcut of sorts is to establish Paul Bowman, the prime leader of the "make humans work" crowd as a insta-fascist. Not only does he quote the Nazi's admonition to the Jews -- "Work will set you free." -- but he references Stalin's Five Year Plans. Seeing as both of these are somewhat innocuous in and of themselves, at least as phrases, it is something of a cheat to use them as proof of him being evil and wrong. Again, though, some things have to be sped up.
By the time the novel gets into its third stage, the central character has somewhat changed. While the early novel focuses on Talbot, his ex-wife Denah Ghorbani, and their daughter Rachel; the middle bit through the end belongs definitely to Herzer Herrick. Rebuilt from a crippling genetic disorder right before the Fall, Herzer is the novel's main emotional backbone. The newly formed man was raised in a life that made him desire survival, but stripped away a sense of his own worth. He is caught up in an emotional disaster at one point, right after the Fall, and this helps to propel him to try and become the best soldier possible.
This stage is full of training and rebuilding scenes, with most of them concluding that Herzer is one hell of a guy. And he is, don't get me wrong. Almost instantly likable. His struggles keep you going through to the end.
The primary failing of the novel is that it deals with warfare almost exclusively from the training stand point. You have many chapters dedicated to long marches and to group organization and to punishments. But then, finally, you get to the final battles and a lot of the action feels truncated and convenient. The climatic fight is worth reading, and excitingly appeals to the inner fighter inside of every geek, but the chapters before it feel almost like a let down. Oh, and there is a chapter involving an evil bunny. I know what evil bunny that is supposed to be. I accept this is a world of unicorns and genetic elves, but sigh...
Still, about 39 good chapters out of 42 ain't bad.
If there is a second point that will break or make the novel to the reader, it is Ringo's politics shining through. There is a concept of Just War hashed out a couple of times, fights about the relative value of democracy, the old Heinlein counter to "war solves nothing", what seems to be a fairly straightforward pro-life stance at one point, and so forth. Keep in mind, the sort of story told requires the mental and political stance that the character exude, and Ringo gives the argument a strong passion, but if you are the sort that hates to think of any war as just, this is not the novel for you. I found the principles to be sound overall, whether or not I agreed with them specifically, and enjoyed their place in the story. [As a side note, there is the seemingly ubiquitous conservative male writer love for young, natural redheads in this novel. They show up a few times.]
The final verdict is this is a good novel that sets up a series well. Would have been better had the training to fighting ratio been tweaked, but more battles are likely to come up in the sequels and so I will not complain too much. If you can deal with the strong militarism, just or otherwise, and with the premise of genetic fantasy creatures and Ren Faire folk, then you will probably enjoy the novel, too. If either puts you off, then you probably want to stay clear. The book is full of them.
Another thing in the book's favor is that it is now (as of March 21, 2008) downloadable for free from Baen's Free Library. As are the sequels. And it is available as a free audio book, if you can find a copy. One of which is currently hosted at The Fifth Imperium.
Written by W Doug Bolden
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