Ah, big guns and big tits! Nice to know that, for all the strides SF has made over the decades gaining literary legitimacy, there's a publisher like Baen only too happy to drag us drooling right back into our pimply adolescence. Not that there's anything wrong with good space opera action. And Baen, home of such exciting talespinners as Bujold and Weber, has published some great ones. That, however, does not stop them occasionally donning the rubber gloves, getting out the scrapers, and seeing what the bottom of the barrel has to offer. This time the septic system has coughed up Cally's War, a sloppy, sexed-up — and as I'll explain, appallingly dishonest — prurient-interest teaser that has more bad dialogue, stock characters, and unintentional humor than Paris Hilton's had yeast infections.
I'm not certain to what extent John Ringo — who seems to be collaborating with everyone who's ever wandered into the Baen offices short of the pizza delivery guy — actually contributed to this book. The writing reflects none of the wit or flair he's exhibited in his own work, leading me to think his input might well be limited to letting newbie Julie Cochrane set her story in his Posleen future, with the odd suggestion or two. That, and collecting a royalty check. Cally's War feels like it's Cochrane's show all the way, an assumption bouyed by the fact that only she offers a dedication. If so, it's a pretty feeble power fantasy. This is like Robert Heinlein's Friday reworked for the XBox Live crowd — except the action has been inexplicably left out. (In other words, don't expect anything inside to live up to the promise of the comic-booky cover.) What we're left with is a clumsy, confused, and endlessly padded plot starring an utterly unsympathetic heroine who spends more time groaning her way through really, really bad sex scenes than carrying out her mission. Apart from that, I guess the book's okay.
Earth has prevailed against the Posleen. Cally O'Neal is a female assassin — middle-aged but rejuvenated to appear young and, apparently, resist all pain and heal from wounds like a superhero — working for the Bane Sidhe, a secretive organization opposed to the Darhel, crafty elfin aliens who have some sort of stranglehold on galactic politics the threat of which is never made plain. She is assigned to go undercover on Titan working for a Fleet Strike general, in order to winkle out who's been betraying the Bane Sidhe to the Darhel. Before getting underway on this, Cally is tipped off to the whereabouts of a Fleet Strike colonel named Petane who earlier sold out a Bane Sidhe team to the Darhel. While on vacation, she nips up to the Windy City and takes him out with extreme prejudice.
The precise relationship between Fleet Strike and the Bane Sidhe is muddled — they don't seem to like each other, that's for sure, but in the case of hiding rather than executing Petane, they seem to work together; so why all the betrayals? — and, as I mentioned earlier, the Darhel never pose a convincing threat. Much is made of their timidity, which argues against the believability of the idea they'd pose one at all.
Cally is never given the sort of character development that would make her hardness sympathetic, or make readers empathize that her personality is the result of a hard-done-by life. Rather, we get tons of stupendously unerotic sex scenes that read like Penthouse Forum letters without the "you'll never believe what happened to me" preface, oddly interspersed with clichéd bits of heart-tug stuff that lets us know Cally really likes kids and dogs and her girlfriends sure hope she'll settle down soon.
The story is clumsily structured. We are fully two-thirds of the way through the book before we get to Titan, where Cally spends most of her time boffing both the general and his aide — who himself happens to be a Fleet Strike brigadier working undercover to find the Bane Sidhe mole! Prior to this, Cochrane makes some ill-advised storytelling choices, in what I must assume is an attempt at good worldcraft and humanizing her cast.
For instance, when Cally heads from her home in Charleston to Chicago to whack Petane, she hitches a ride with a stoner truck driver who says things like "dude" and "totally bogus" which such frequency that even Keanu Reeves would be embarrassed. The chapter runs for around 30 pages. The minutiae of the trip would make sense if this truck driver were to become a supporting character of some significance (though I was dreading that prospect, I can tell you) or if any of the details about post-Posleen Earth — which aren't in and of themselves lacking narrative interest — had a bearing on the plot as it unfolds. But it doesn't really. The driver exits stage left when the chapter is over, as do many of the other bit players who, if anything had actually been done with them, might have given the book the real people it's so fervently looking for.
But all of this I've outlined is really not much more than mediocrity in action, and hardly deserving on its own of a one-star dismissal. No, my main objection to this book is its disingenousness. Cally's War wants to be taken seriously — as a political thriller (it isn't thrilling) and as a sensitive character study about an unhappy woman at a crossroads in her life who must make hard decisions about her present and her future before she passes the point of no return. What it really is is late-night Cinemax exploitation cheese. Don't get me wrong: I enjoy a hot sex scene as much as you do (don't be bashful, admit it). But Cochrane doesn't even write these without resorting to bodice-ripper clichés, with prose like "his world exploded in a mind-shattering orgasm that left him quiet and still in its wake." Be still my loins.
Nothing, however, is as bad as the opening chapter, in which Cally — in disguise, naturally, and not yet introduced to us — rubs out a target by allowing him to think he's lured her to his apartment. Turns out the guy is a vicious sexual sadist who suspects the hot blonde "secretary" he's escorted home is more than she seems. So we're treated to an extended scene of sexual torture, at the end of which, suddenly, the presumed-dead woman (described as a "limp and half-dead mass of blood and matted blond hair") leaps into the air like Wonder Woman and kills her torturer and his cohort in seconds flat. It's at this point she is introduced to us as Cally, our heroine, and not a secretary at all! Cochrane seems to think we'll be surprised by this.
Now, you might ask why, if Cally was capable of doing this all along, she didn't just take care of business the instant she got in the guy's car alone with him. It simply makes no good storytelling sense. Setting aside her regenerative super-healing powers and evident immunity to pain, why allow herself to be stripped, whipped, and flayed to a bloody pulp at all if she didn't need to (and what woman, superpowered or not, would need or even want to)? Answer: because scenes of hot women getting sexually tortured give the mouth-breather crowd boners.
And that's what condemns Cally's War in the end: its dishonesty. Not that it's smut, but that it's smut pretending to be serious SF. But serious SF relies on plausible, logically consistent storytelling. In Cally's War, plausible storytelling takes a back seat to two-bit exploitation, as its first chapter shows. Cochrane has had to dispense with plot logic — indeed, she commits the cardinal sin of genre fiction writing, by violating the rules she has laid out for her own character — in order to give us a graphic scene that pretends to be about ramping up dramatic tension when what it's really about is cheap titillation. (This kind of thing occurs again as the book nears its climax, in which a captured Cally's interrogators decided to resort to gang rape, just because they can and, hey, hot damn, it's gang rape!)
Again, I'm not offended by cheap titillation; I'm offended by dishonesty. I recall reading a news item shortly after Bush's re-election that revealed that porn consumption in red states like Utah — those self-professed "moral values" voters — is higher than anywhere. Perhaps those are the hypocrites that might buy the notion that Cally's War is a serious SF action/suspense epic, and the concomitant bulge you get in your jeans now and then is just the result of, you know, remarkable dedication to dramatic realism. But I'm not one of them. I like my sex — and my novels — like I like my politics: sincere. Cally's War fails because in neither case — hot porn or space opera action — is it the real thing.