Recent Reading: The Black Tide Rising series by John Ringo

So, this quadrilogy was an unexpected pleasure – unexpected because I only picked up the first book as part of the Military SF bundle and I’ve already looked at and deleted about half of the books in that bundle. But I enjoyed Ringo’s book quite a bit and, as you see, went on with the series promptly.

The books are:

Under a Graveyard Sky
To Sail a Darkling Sea
Islands of Rage and Hope
Strands of Sorrow

And the series is complete with those four books.

I started the first one when we lost power during a recent thunderstorm – your phone produces its own light, see, so you can easily read on it when the lights are out. It started just a tinch slowly, but picked up fast. It’s a zombie apocalypse novel, as you may know. Here’s how it starts:

“Alas Babylon Q4E3,” the text read.

“Bloody hell.” And it really hadn’t started out as a bad day. Weather was crappy, but at least it was Friday.

Steven John “Professor” Smith was six foot one, with sandy blond hair and a thin, wiry frame. Most people who hadn’t seen him in combat, and very few living had, considered him almost intensely laid back. Which in general was the case. It came with the background. Once you’d been dropped in the dunny, few things not of equal difficulty were worth getting upset about. Until, possibly, now.

Now, this is not too promising imo. I am not just wild about this kind of direct physical description of the protagonist. I just tend to prefer a closer third person pov rather than this kind of omniscient narrator third person type of pov. That’s probably just me. I would also say that several of the sentences here are clunky and awkward, and I don’t think that’s just me. This sentence:

Most people who hadn’t seen him in combat, and very few living had, considered him almost intensely laid back.

is so awkward it’s actually hard to understand if you read it fast.

There are other instances of clunky writing all through this series, as you’d probably expect based on this beginning. The story has several other problems. Like, long expository passages, sometimes very textbooky, that are inserted basically as voiceovers from the narrator. That didn’t bother me, but when instead inserted into dialogue, these passages don’t necessarily fit the voice of the character who is supposedly speaking or thinking. In one spot in the last book of the series, the author completely breaks the fourth wall, which is especially jarring since that’s the only place it happens. Plus the author’s political views become a little bit over-preachy every now and then, especially toward the end.

Also, what is it with some male authors who seem to really get into writing super-duper ultimate kickass teenage girl characters? I’m thinking of Joss Whedon here, but at least there’s a supernatural explanation for Buffy. Summer is less believable to me, but there you have futuristic SF science. Ringo doesn’t have anything but the whim to create a thirteen-year-old female super-soldier and drop her into a zombie apocalypse, where she smashes her way through all the zombies in the entire world. A girl who is Thirteen! Years! Old! He does mention briefly that Faith has muscle density “almost like a male.” Suuuure she does. Faith is just not a believable character. At all. I will add that a couple of the male characters – well, one – was almost as unbelievable as Faith, so there’s that.

And yet . . . and yet . . . this series was so much fun! I whipped through it super-fast and enjoyed almost every moment. In fact, I totally experienced a book hangover after finishing it, and found myself so unable to read anything else that I gave up on anything new and went back and re-read LMB’s Sharing Knife series instead.

What this series has going for it:

1. Faith isn’t great with words, which makes her more sympathetic than total perfection would allow. Also, her character development is actually pretty good over the course of the series. “Trixie” is a nice touch – both incarnations – but Faith really does have more depth than is apparent at first. Also, it *is* fun watching her smash her way through all the zombies in the entire world, even though it takes a dedicated suspension of disbelief to accept this plot element.

Also, thankfully, Faith is not involved in any romantic subplot. Whew.

There is practically no romance anywhere in this series, incidentally, and not a whoooole lot of character development in general. Even Faith’s sister Sophia is not as well developed or interesting as Faith herself, imo. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that character was probably not Ringo’s first priority when writing this story.

2. The clunkiness of the writing almost completely disappears in the forward sweep of the story. For me. YMMV, but the fast pace and ratcheting tension and all those good things made these books just about unputdownable. So, yeah, this is definitely a plot-driven story, and a really fun read on that basis.

3. The worldbuilding and technological details are just great. Ringo obviously put a lot of thought into his zombie apocalypse and its aftermath. I loved it! I didn’t really believe in the complete downfall of civilization and the survival of only about 1% of normal people, but given that scenario, Ringo did a fantastic job working it all out and bringing civilization back from the brink.

If you liked . . .

I’m going to say that readers who really got into Kristoff and Kaufman’s Illuminae / Gemina / Obsidio series might very well enjoy Ringo’s zombie apocalypse. In a lot of ways I’d say the reading experience is similar. The Illuminae series is particularly noteworthy for its crazy-creative use of fonts and text effects, but considered as a story, it is also fast-paced and plot driven, with unbelievably competent teenage protagonists and minimal character development. The writing in the Illuminae series is probably better although it’s hard to compare directly because the structure is unique. There is definitely a lot less exposition in the Illuminae series, but I strongly suspect that readers who enjoyed the fast-paced story will also get into Ringo’s Dark Tide series. Obviously Ringo’s books are not YA, but that distinction doesn’t impress me much since when I was a teen there was no such thing as a YA section in most libraries and bookstores. There’s lots of blood and gore in Dark Tide, but I’ve never noticed younger readers shying away from blood and gore. Besides, there’s far less deliberate torture and so on than you get in The Hunger Games and spinoffs.

For a more impatient reader, I will say, if you try Graveyard Sky, be sure and get past the initial build and wait for the lights go out in New York. That’s the point at which the story really takes off.

I think my dad would really enjoy this series too, so I guess my next step is to pick up paper copies for him.

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7 thoughts on “Recent Reading: The Black Tide Rising series by John Ringo”

  1. Hmm. I got tired of Ringo a good while back, so I never tried this one . The faults you point out are more the fault of the Publisher (or editor to be precise.) Baen has a significant weakness when it comes to making significant editorial changes. It leads to all the problems you mentioned being worse than they need to be.
    That said, do give Seanan McGuire’s Newsflesh series a try if you’re in the mood for zombies. It’s quite fun.

  2. I realized my previous comment was incomplete: way back when, Ringo wrote a series about alien crocodiles descending on earth, and eating most of the population, while breeding more aliens. The aliens weren’t very smart, by and large, and showed both terrible tactics and strategy. Humans were able to beat them through a combination of grit, competence porn, and good Conservative living. A superhumanly competent teenage girl played a significant role, as did SFnal power armor that made individuals as powerful as a battleship.

    Fast forward a decade, and the world is threatened by a zombie horde who is eating most of humanity while generating more zombies. Humans were able to beat them through a combination of grit, competence porn, and good Conservative living. A superhumanly competent teenage girl played a significant role, as did possession of an actual battleship.

  3. Pedant’s footnote on Firefly: River was the name of the character; Summer was the name of the actress. (I admit there’s nothing to choose between them as regards plausibility of names.)

    As for the series, nothing to say, really: I’ve accepted the fact that even good zombie stories are going to leave me cold. I hope Dad likes it, though.

  4. Oh, right, Summer Glau, I knew that. Yep, using real words for both the real name and the character’s name may mean I conflate ’em. Oops.

  5. Thanks, Pete! Now I know exactly which series to go to if I want a total clone of the Dark Tide Rising series. The thing I would hate about the alien reptiles, though, is I HATE humans-beat-up-aliens-because-aliens-are-so-incompetent types of plots. I would rather have the aliens be competent and still lose because some of the humans are total geniuses. I guess that would be harder to plot, though.

    I guess if that basic sells and Ringo enjoys writing reprises of it, more power to him.

  6. Stephen Schley

    I did not notice the klunkyness but then it was audio since I’m too centrally blind to read a book any more & a good audio book reader can make up for some of the sins of the printed version

  7. I think that’s quite impressive for an audio reader, as the audio format is often slow enough to make any flaws unmissable. But I can imagine how a reader could use emphasis and intonation to pull attention away from awkward phrasing. Also, in Ringo’s case, the story is compelling and keeps the reader’s attention moving forward, so that probably helps.

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