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Claws That Catch (Review of Advance Reader Copy)

by John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor.

Published by Baen Books.

Print edition available November 2008.

Reviewed by Dale Arnold
Review posted 6/15/08

The first thing to note about this book is that it is the fourth in a series. The first book, "Into the Looking Glass" was originally intended as a stand alone novel written by John Ringo. The story revolved around a human experiment gone wrong that created the Chen Anomaly which started uncontrollably pumping out Stargate like portals. The portals scattered around the globe to find resting spots and proceeding to connect Earth to other worlds containing both friendly and very unfriendly alien intelligences among their number. Conflict and cooperation was offered from these new civilizations resulting in a space opera combat/SF plot. Basically one of the new life forms named the Dreen turned out to be your plot advancing very unfriendly villain, if by unfriendly you mean they considered every other life form to be lunch at best.

Into the Looking Glass created such an interesting universe that a sequel was inevitable. At the end of Looking-Glass an artifact originally located by a friendly species, the Adar, during an archeological dig was given to humans as part of a joint research effort. The humans discovered that the device might be a functional star drive among other things and decided to build a starship around it.

In the second book, Vorpal Blade, using Adar and human technology a starship was built from the frame of a submarine, the former USS Nebraska, and the Adar were given naming rights as a diplomatic courtesy. The ship was launched on a joint human/adar mission to learn how close in real space the unfriendly alien civilizations on the other side of some portals might be to avoid invasions using ships instead of the portals.

The Adar named the new ship the Vorpal Blade to honor the humans because the Adar liked the poem Jabberwocky and thought it represented the best qualities of their new human friends. The US Navy was not quite as happy with the name as the Adar, but eventually adapted. The remaining novels are the continuing story of the Vorpal Blade and its refurbished/rebuilt successors as they explore the local interstellar neighborhood using a star drive that is poorly understand and barely controlled.

I suggest the reader buy all three earlier books in the series before reading Claws That Catch because they are all fine reads. Claws That Catch will stand alone as an independent novel, but the other books add depth and are just plain fun. Now specifically about Claws That Catch...

This story focuses the protagonist Eric "two guns" Bergstresser as he finishes OCS and returns to his berth on the Blade as a lieutenant. He knows he must leave his new bride Brooke on Earth and has not been able to share many of his past mission details with her creating conflict. She knows the casualty numbers of past missions and is justifiably concerned about future missions. The other primary character of the story is Captain William Weaver a scientist recently moved from science advisor track to bridge officer career track and trying to handle XO duties for the first time. The characters are believable and enjoy sufficient depth to move the narrative along. Situations are logical and given Ringo's past military experience, fit into continuing military tradition in both the positive and negative aspects of such ongoing tradition.

The author's voice is pleasant and uncomplicated allowing transparent storytelling. There is sufficient comedy relief to amuse, but not to derail the story into farce. The first part of the novel contains political thriller elements while the later part of the novel has a space adventure and associated combat action combining elements of a Flix of the Commonwealth adventure by Alan Dean Foster with early E.E. Doc Smith elements.

The only downside of the plot is the final battle will have a bit of a deus ex machine aspect for anyone who has not read the third book in the series "Manxome Foe" because they would not know the origin of the Starship Thermopylae and might find its appearance at the critical moment a rabbit out of the hat effect. However, it makes reasonable sense given the communications links provided by the portals combined with the earlier developments in the series. Besides, having the cavalry come over the hill in the nick of time is a traditional popular plot element. In addition when fighting an overwhelming opponent the mythical synergy of naming one of your few ships Thermopylae has a right ring that helps to focus a theme of unrepressed spirit into the novel.

All in all this book and series is a fun read worthy of the purchase price. Claws that Catch is available now in electronic form from Baen's Websubscription service or print in November.

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