Choosers of the Slain
by John Ringo
Cover Artist: Kurt Miller
Review by Ernest Lilley
Baen Mass Market ISBN/ITEM#: 9781416573845
Date: 30 October 2007 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In this third book about Mike Harmon, now going by the name "Jenkins" ex-retired-Seal and now soldier of fortune, he's settled down on the edge of Russia and acquired himself a band of farmer serfs that appear to be descended from a group of Viking warriors that wandered too far from home. Now he's training them to be a fighting force, to stabilize his little bit of the world, and along the way has also acquired a harem (slightly used) to keep his mind off work. It's a rough life, and he's clearly the only person who can do it, but old enemies keep popping up and making things rougher for every one. The current adventure takes him back to DC and deeper into the corrupt world of international sex slavery as he responds to a plea for help from the highest levels of American politics. Though this series deals with a lot of moral ambiguity, especially regarding sex and violence, nobody can say Ringo quails from dealing with it head on, and getting his characters to examine their values openly. As a result, it's and exciting techno-thriller you won't want to leave around where YA readers might pick it up. Much as they might like to.
Mike Hamron, aka "Ghost", aka Mike "Jenkins" started out two books ago as a retired Navy Seal who found himself in the middle of a terrorist plot that centered around kidnapping coeds for graphic torture videos. At the conclusion of the first book we found him holed up in a bunker full of said coeds, who might have been naked except for the automatic weapons that he'd managed to acquire for them. This adventure earned him a new name and identity (Jenkins) the enmity of Jhadists everywhere, and something of a blank check with certain intel ops folks in the US. Tiring of a life of leisure, he didn't kick too hard when the opportunity to do a little "wet work" for them came up. I have to say I missed the second book, because certain elements in the first put me off, but it turns out that he bought a nice place in Georgia, took up gentleman farming, and settled down. Of course, we're talking about formerly Soviet Georgia, becoming the defacto warlord for a tribe of mountain warriors that only needed some modern weapons and training to remember that they were the direct descendants of Vikings, and the acquisition of a harem. That sort of settling down.
Now he's picked up a new name, "Kildar", which probably translates into king, or duke or something, and the tribe of "Kelgar" have turned out to be apt students of the art of war and a right formidable force, as the Chechnyans have discovered to their dismay, and the Russian's pleasure. He'd be pretty happy to stay in the hills and train his farmer-soldiers, build a brewery for the local beer, and keep his harem happy. Not that he set out to actually acquire a harem, but it turned out to be the only solution to a knotty problem...and he doesn't hate it. But all that gets interrupted when a powerful US Senator comes to him in need of help. The daughter of a major contributor has been abducted in Eastern Europe by international sex slavers and the Senator wants her found. He's not even asking for Mike to rescue her, just find out where she is. How hard could that be?
I don't know if there was an easier way to do it, but Mike's method involves taking a caravan of heavily armed militia, complete with retired US special forces advisers and a collection of the best looking gals the Viking descended tribe has to offer across Eastern Europe under the guise of providers for the sex slave trade. Unfortunately, his modus operandi for getting answers tends to leave a string of missing persons and blown up buildings behind him, so subtle just isn't one of the names he's likely to pick up. Except, of course when he slips into his solo "Ghost" role as an expert at covert recon. Then he's all about subtle.
They follow the trail through increasingly well fortified clubs and brothels while the funny smell about the whole mission gets stronger and stronger as well. Mike is certain from the start that the Senator is using him for purposes he's not going to like, and has his own people digging around to find out what they might be...and how high in the US Government the consequences will go. The answers, an not just in the US Government, are bad enough to make the heads of pretty much every global power blanch and wish this whole thing would quietly go away. Well, perhaps quietly is too much to ask of Mike and his "Mountain Tigers".
The central character is a sadist with a heart of gold, which combination you make find as confusing as he does. Mike openly admits he likes sadistic sex but he's got strong bonds of friendship all around him and and an extremely moral nature that he relies on to keep him in check. Much as Heinlein used his novels to talk about citizenship, Ringo uses these to talk about the darker sides of sex. Though he's taken care to place his story in parts of the world where we can easily believe that the rule of law is weak and people succumb to their baser instincts, I'm sure he could have found settings closer to home if he'd cared to. The saving grace for this is that our world-view really is shaped by cultural blinders and that these characters are able to step outside that narrow field of view illuminates global conditions that actually, really, positively exist.
That's the good news and bad news when it come to John Ringo's "Ghost" series. Ringo remains one of the most exciting military adventure writers to come onto the scene in years, and both his action sequences and his band of brothers character sketches are first rate. The bad news is that he's given free reign to sex and violence, both at the same time, and there are quite a few bits that should keep this out of the hands of young adults, and which give me pause for general consumption at any age. I'm not suggesting that there isn't a market for such, but that for a lot of folks it will take away from a book that otherwise had a lot to offer. Which is a pity, because Ringo has the knack of high intensity military fiction. Of course, the author and publisher may well disagree, and feel they are getting hefty sales figures out of exactly those bits, but I submit that by moving a few of the more lurid scenes off screen, they could have their cake and eat it as well.
Recommendation-wise, it's a tough call. Choosers of the Slain is fast paced compelling reading, but it's got gratuitous S&M, torture and some really disgusting views of the inside of the sex trade. I guess that's better than making it all look like good clean fun, which we've seen other authors do, but I'm convinced that this could have been a much better and vastly more accessible story if only a little more editorial restraint had been applied to the author.