A Hymn Before Battle by John Ringo
Hardcover (October 3, 2000)
Baen Books; ISBN: 0671319418 (order from Amazon)
Review by Ernest Lilley

"(it's got ) bad guys from the wrong side of Hell, 'good guys' you wouldn't buy a used car from, heroism, cowardice, military stupidity and genius, millennia-old plots, Leopard tank versus plasma cannon, and a kick-butt suit of powered armor. The Galactic Neighborhood will never be the same once the monkey boys get done with it."- David Weber 

David Weber has a point. Kick-butt is very definitely the phrase for John Ringo's first outing as an SF author. Short of fighting an interplanetary war in a powered combat suit designed by humans but powered by Galactic technology, the author has done most everything he's writing about (see our interview with John Ringo) and now for relaxation he's turned to writing the kind of books that got him into so much trouble when he read them. 

In A Hymn Before Battle, mankind 2001 receives some good news and some bad news. On the one hand, we've been contacted by a "friendly" alien intelligence (they phoned the White House from orbit) but on the other hand we're in the middle of a shootin' war and Earth is about the next planet to get run over by the God-King-Warriors of the Posleen. Of course the Posleen might have a harder time overrunning the galaxy if it all the killer species hadn't killed themselves off before getting into space, leaving nothing but a bunch of cooperative pacifists running the place.

The Galactics had been debating whether or not to ask mankind to the war, and since we're next on the list and things are going badly, they're ready to break down and let us play...but they're afraid the cure may be worse than the disease.

Everyone able to hold a gun is called back to service, and with the promise of rejuve treatments that means everyone. It's a good trick to get several generations of soldiers together so the author can compare and contrast them, as the armed forces have gone through some interesting times over the last half century.

A Hymn before battle follows three main story lines as Ringo fleshes out the characters for the ensuing books. First there's Lt. Mike O'Neil, kicked upstairs from his life as a retired NCO to become...of all things...an officer. Mike would rather stay a civilian and write javascript, but the country, well more like the galaxy, needs him as part of the design effort to integrate gal-tech into military hardware. Obviously he's read too much Heinlein, because the first thing he set's out to make is powered armor that would turn Johhny Rico (scary similarity between the lead character in Starship Troopers and the author...but I'm sure it's not lost on the latter) green with envy. Mike's only regret is that they won't let him power the things with anti-matter. Some of the best scenes in the book are from his role as a "technical advisor" to the first unit to try the suits in combat.

Then there's a human deep recon team dropped on a jungle world and sent to get all the Intel on the alien invaders we can. Our galactic friends don't seem to have much of a knack for this either, and we're determined to bring back a live enemy to take apart. Cost is no object for this operation, but the coin is always soldiers lives. At least the author makes sure they don't go for small change.

Finally what would war be without boot camp? So we've got one, and an unforgettable Drill Sergeant Ernie Pappas. Long and comfortably retired and living in LA, he suddenly finds himself growing into the young marine he was 40 years earlier, but with all the savvy he's accumulated in the meantime. He's a recruits worst nightmare, made worse by rejuvination.

Each piece of the story takes the fight to enemy in their own way, and the writing makes it a real page turner if you like this sort of thing. 

The military is shown having its classic reaction to new technology, with the most senior officers trying to use it in time honored fashion, unable to adapt to the new tactics it enables. To make matters worse, there are elements among our new galactic friends that clearly don't want us to do all that well. Well, combat is a great environment for Darwinian selection. When the going gets tough, the really stupid people get killed. Ringo spends the book, and a lot of soldiers, paring down his cast to a handful of seasoned veteran survivors from each of the three story lines and then puts them together to form the basis for the next book as a company.

Fortunately the next book should be well along by now and Ringo has the story arc already worked out, because I'd hate to have to wait a long time to see what happens next.

This is some serious old time Military Science Fiction, written by a guy who quoted Heinlein to his recruiting officer when he joined up and insisted on infantry. Ringo knew he'd shop the book to Jim Baen, and it's obvious that he was right.