In 2010, John Ringo published the first book of the Troy Rising trilogy. Titled Live Free or Die, it is a story on a grand scale, a great symphony of a book but by an author who probably should stick to bagatelles. Though it started well and had my interest, it was a chore to get through most of it. There was enough creativity and verve for a short story, but by the end these had faded and I was glad to be finished.
It is the kind of story I imagine Ted Nugent would enjoy reading. Filled with gun-toting, rugged individuals who thrive on infuriating the Thought Police and composing odes to capitalism, the book might almost seem libertarian until one realizes just how besotted with militarism and American exceptionalism the author is. I have no problem with a man a bit rough around the edges, a touch short on couth and decorum, but Ringo at times goes beyond that into deliberate callousness, especially as regards sex and race.
There are many sensitive liberals who both need and deserve a little rattling from time to time, if only for our amusement, but there are just as many conservatives who could use a dose of circumspection, introspection, and nuance. I am tempted to suggest we lock Ringo in a room with his diametric opposites, to see if there might be a mutually beneficial rubbing off, but I am afraid someone would end up dying.
Live Free or Die begins with an alien race that establishes a portal in our solar system. They have no goals except to neutrally manage the portal, but the next race that appears is bent on imperial control of Earth. They begin by destroying some major cities and then demanding tribute. Though this species, the Horvath, is technologically backwards in comparison to other civilizations in the galaxy, they are yet far ahead of humans.
Enter Tyler Vernon, whose appellation had me thinking of Fight Club throughout. Tyler discovers that maple syrup is, for certain aliens, highly pleasurable and perhaps even more addictive. He wheels and he deals and, before word gets out, has nearly cornered the market on the sweet stuff. He goes on to make what is probably the greatest fortune ever to be compiled in a single human’s coffers. Then he turns to vengeance.
The idea is full of potential. I feel like I have typed that sentence on many occasions. The execution leaves something to be desired. I feel like I have typed that sentence just as many times.
The first act is far and away the best part of the book. It is the part where we are introduced to Tyler, and the part where he most feels like a person. We see him in negotiations with aliens, an enterprise that he carries out with flair and wit. The different parties are so adept at bullshitting and playacting while maintaining such an impeccable demeanor of politeness that one cannot help but be amused by the whole affair.
When Tyler discovers the effect of maple syrup on the extraterrestrials, we feel that tingle of anticipation for what is to come. However, what is to come of the maple syrup industry is dispatched in the first act of the book. Though he never relinquishes his interests in that market, Tyler moves on to other things, and this is where the book becomes dull.
Reading Live Free or Die is almost like reading a series of newspaper clippings about big events of the day. By this I mean that we run through a lot without getting into the details of a participant’s perspective. Ringo has little interest in appealing to our senses; instead, we see meeting after meeting full of one-dimensional characters who bring the reader up to date with their conversations. Dialogue is principally how the plot advances in the second and third acts of the book.
In Ridley Scott’s Alien, we are treated to one of the greatest shots in movie history. It is an extreme close up of Ellen Ripley’s grimy, mud-caked fingernails as her hand reaches up to grab the top of a ladder she is climbing. Her head pops up behind the hand a moment later. That shot encapsulates a lot of what the director was trying to do with the film. It brought all the gritty realism of the sets and stuck it right in the viewer’s face. There is virtually nothing of this in Live Free or Die.
While some interesting things happen, we jump from big event to big event with the ease of turning the pages of a newspaper. And in between these big events are meetings where plans are hatched and scientific details hammered out. The author gives the impression of someone who did a fair amount of research for his book, because there is a lot of science in it but nothing particularly interesting.
Though the idea is big enough to spawn a 5,000 page series of books, this one did not hook me. I do not plan on completing the trilogy. With so many other books to read, the opportunity cost is too high. The reader may enjoy how it begins, but that only heightens the disappointment later on.