REVIEW: Under a Graveyard Sky by John Ringo

Monday , 28, April 2014 9 Comments

There are at least two axises on which we can categorize books: serious vs fluff, and well done vs poorly done.

Serious vs Fluff

If a novel is poorly done, it doesn’t much matter what it attempts to do: it is a failure. (Although the topic of what makes a book either a success or a failure is a complicated one; that’s a topic I hope to dig into over time as these reviews continue).

Today, though, I want to speak about serious vs fluff. Lord of the Rings is serious. The Sword of Shana is fluff (it is also poorly done , but that’s not relevant). What makes LOTR serious while SOS (and, yes, someone please send help ASAP) is fluff? Intent, complexity, characterization, congruence between aim of the novel, tone of the language, originality of the world, nuance of the characters, depth of the moral code, etc.

Tolkien scores on every criteria. The point of the novel is to explore the battle between good vs evil. The characters are complex, real, and conflicted. The tale has as its purpose to explore what moral behavior constitutes – even among us tiny non-famous people – can do in the real world , and there is perfect congruence with the characters in the book and both the seriousness and silliness of the language they use. The world is stunningly original (a fact that may not be aparent after half a century of derivative works – one is tempted to say “Middle Earth is just like every other fantasy novel”. Indeed. This is not a failure in Middle Earth!). The moral code of Tolkien is woven through every decision, every moral choice made or left unmade by his characters.

(As a side note: it is not a criterion that establishes seriousness, but the amount of effort spent on a work tends to correlate. Tolkien took more than a decade to write LOTR – only 125 polished words per day.)

We need not be overly analytical about serious vs fluff – once one has decided to pay attention to the topic, it is obvious. China Mieville’s “The City and the City”: serious. “Red Shirts”: fluff. Ken Macleod’s “Fall Revolution” series: serious. Brenda Cooper’s “The Creative Fire”: fluff.

(Note, by the way, that “serious” vs “fluff” has nothing to do with “author has politics that I approve of”. In the examples above the two serious books were written by actual communists, while the two fluff books were written by squishy inside-the-bellcurve moderates )

Friendly fire

Ideologically, John Ringo is a member of the Good Team.

I can think of few better people to share a foxhole with (either a metaphorical one in a culture war, or a literal one in the other kind).

That said: Ringo’s stock-in-trade is fluff.

This is not to say that he’s a bad author. In fact, the opposite is true: he is a very skilled author. I have never read anything by Ringo that did not live up to the promises made on the back cover.

…but that said: fluff.

Is fluff bad?

The answer is the same as “is beer bad?” or “are hot dogs bad?”. Either can be delicious, and really hit the spot on occassion. …but a diet made up of only fast food an alcohol is best left to the subjects of Dalrymple’s rants – it’s not a good way for us to live.

So as fluff, how does it do?

Under a Graveyard Sky is the initial book in the Black Tide Rising trilogy. The topic is "scientifically possible zombie outbreak". The viewpoint is primarily from one hyper-prepared family: Steve Smith. And this is where the Mary Sueing and the industrial quantities of fluffiness start. I accept that utterly typical powerless viewpoint characters are sometimes underwhelming (although no one diss on Sam or Frodo in my hearing). But to go to the other end of the spectrum risks problems as well. When, on page 2 or so, we learn that not only does ex Special Forces soldier Steve Smith have a family playbook of emergency preparedness, but the book contains a special code for zombie uprising, I felt the first sigh escape my lips.

A few pages later where we learn that his wife is smoking hot, and just as toned now as when she was 25, I sighed again.

And when I learned that his 13 year old daughter was more calmly self-possessed than most hardened military veterns three times her age, I sighed a third time. Oh, and she's a crack shot. Fourth time.

The book moves along with snap and verve: the apocalypse is in full swing within a few chapters, and our heroes take to the high sees to ride out the plague. The "B" thread, where we see the classified biowar labs that are trying to crack the zombie plague and develop a cure is interesting.

In short order the apocalypse is total: 99.9% of the Earth's population has zombified and the Smith family start trying to rescue humanity by finding other small ships on the high seas and searching them for survivors…often sole survivors locked inside cabins against the zombies that roam the ships.

As I said: Ringo is a good author, and he always delivers what he's promised. So if you read the back cover and say "You know, I could really go for a pretty unrealistic tale about a hyper prepared family – including a bad ass 13 year old girl – surviving the zombie apocalypse on a boat", then you will be utterly satisfied.

I picked up the book, took Ringo at his word, handed over my cash, and was happy with the transaction. It was a fun diversion for a few hours, and I was burned out and tired from work and other stress. Some men turn to loose women, other to bourbon, I turned to Ringo.

So on that score: this book is a solid B or B+.

Then again, I was recently at a bookstore and picked up the sequel and read the first 30 pages over a coffee.

…and then put it back on the shelf.

Having cotton candy once a year at the State Fair is a fine thing.

Having it every single week is not.

Prose (7/10): Ringo can tell a rip roaring tale. He does not, I believe, edit or write a second draft, so phrases get reused a bit too often.

Plot (6/10): Zombies. Boats.

Characters (3/10): Mary Sue characters straight out of a "all my character stats are 18!" gaming session.

Ideas (3/10): Zombies. Boats.

Overall (5/10): If you haven't had cotton candy in a while, enjoy. If you have, go get a steak instead.

sample text:

“What?” Sophia asked.

“Just concentrate on getting us to the middle school intact,” Steve said, consulting his smartphone. He pulled up an app and punched in certain parameters. On the third hit he’d found what he was looking for and dialed a phone number. “Hello? My name is Jason Ranseld with the Aurelius Corporation. We need to rent a boat matching the parameters of the one you have for sale. Is there any way that we can get a two-week lease? No? We’d consider buying if we could talk about the price. And I’d need to look it over…Would Saturday afternoon work for you? This is a snap-kick for a major client . . . Of course, three would work perfectly…Thank you, I’ll meet you there . . .”

“Sailboat?” Sophia said. “That’s full up bug-out for a biological emergency!”

“I finally got to pull up the code sheet,” Steve said. “Biological, viral, latent, wide-release, previously undetected, currently no vaccine, hostile activities parameter.”

“I got all of that except latent and hostile…Wait! Zombies?”

“Something similar,” Steve said as they pulled up to the fortunately close middle school. “Cell phone.”


“Cell,” Steve said, pulling a burn phone out of the bag. “This is your new one. Only the numbers on contact list.”

  • Ringo has been like Heinlein for me. I appreciate his outlook, but his books are hit and miss. I really liked _There Will be Dragons_ (Ringo) and _Job_ (Heinlein). I hated _Unto the Breach_ (Ringo) and _Number of the Beast_ (Heinlein) for much the same reasons you give for calling this one fluff.

  • Really, though, _Dragons_ had the same Mary Sue flaws. There were just some elements of _Breach_ that pushed the envelope of human nature too far beyond believable.

  • Craig says:

    It’s probably worth saying that this use of “serious” is not the opposite of “funny.” Jonathan Swift was both funny and serious. By contrast, P.G. Wodehouse wrote funny fluff. (I suppose I should have tried to come up with more F/SF examples — though Gulliver’s Travels really isn’t that far off.)

  • JP says:

    His 13yo daughter was really too much, especially when she (somehow) survived being dogpiled by a dozen zombies.

    That said, I got it from the library, and I enjoyed the fluff.

  • IwillB says:

    You have a term to wrap around that brain cloud. That is a goodness. Way better than calling it a miasma or a dark cloud of evil. You gave it a name. Must we use both? Can it not just be a Mary or a Sue? Must it be a Mary Sue? Could we say it is the same as an Elna May?

    Can’t a book sometimes just be a book you enjoy? Must you torture it with tautology? Yes yes, I know, you’re that lowest form of life eternal, the literary critic.

    You can’t admit you liked it without admitting that you’re also a little bit twee.

  • emdfl says:

    I pick up JR when I need some white-noise for the brain. That said he does enjoyable white-noise. Heck, I’ve probably done the “Ghost”(OH NO JOHN RINGO!!!1!) series two or three times, heh. If that’s fluff, I say fine by me. Serious I don’t need after working all day. Not to mention that IMHO far to much “serious fiction”(is that an oxy-moron?)is often nothing more than an authur pontificating on his latest cause-du-jour.

  • Doesn’t sound like anything I have any desire to read.

    John’s books have been like that as of late.

  • Nathan says:

    I think the review missed the big ideas in the series. Yes, it is fluff, fun fluff at that. However, Mr. Ringo has said:

    “I cannot write ‘Walking Dead’ because I simply hate people who cannot solve problems with intelligence and common sense and I also cannot justify such people surviving in a mystical zombie universe. Dawn of the Dead never made sense to me. Those people were all zombie burgers long before they’d have made it to the mall…Those people will die fast, do die fast, in ANY major disaster where pro-action can help you survive. People survived in Fukuyama who broke from the herd and went ‘Getting while the getting’s good.’ Katrina. Hell, the WTC. There were survivors who got up and left their offices at the first thump who were the only survivors on their floors.”

    In short, what prepared, thinking people might do instead of the collection of freaks and sheep that populate typical zombie stories.

    The other, frightening idea that is overshadowed by all the fluff is that he thinks this is inevitable. That we’re almost to the point where the same people who make computer viruses can graduate to real viruses.

    Don’t get me wrong, this is fluff and it follows the pattern of all his first books in a series, focusing on logistics and why people fight instead of setting the tone for the series. (For that, you want to read the second book.) But it isn’t as shallow as zombies on a cruise ship.

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