books to make my flist's heads explode: John Ringo
Lately, some folks on my f-list have been looking at Lord King Bad profic. brown_betty gave us LEOPARD LORD, and cereta reviewed THE SHEIK, and burger_eater pointed me to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books's take on Shayla Black's DECADENT. These books, it should be admitted, are deeply awful, and as portrayals of their authors' ids, they're more than a little alarming. You don't want to look, but you can't look away. The awfulness becomes sublime.
So why am I commenting about this? Well, because I feel a little like Richard Dreyfuss in JAWS, during the scar scene: "I got that beat. I got that beat."
Permit me to introduce John Ringo.
Ringo is the author of a bajillion books, including fantasy and military SF. The novels (oh, yes, there is more than one) we'll be considering are from the PALADIN OF SHADOWS series. These are modern-day action thrillers in which -- well, let's look at GHOST, the first novel in the series. The story begins with our hero, Mike Harmon, a accidentally witnessing the abduction of a college coed. He witnesses it because he just happens to be lurking in the shadows and watching the coeds himself. This is Mike's recreation. Why? Well:
He knew that at heart, he was a rapist. And that meant he hated rapists more than any "normal" human being. They purely pissed him off. He'd spent his entire sexually adult life fighting the urge to not use his inconsiderable strength to possess and take instead of woo and cajole. He'd fought his demons to a standstill again and again when it would have been so easy to give in. He'd had one truly screwed up bitch get completely naked, with him naked and erect between her legs, and she still couldn't say "yes." And he'd just said: "that's okay" and walked away with an amazing case of blue balls. When men gave in to that dark side, it made him even more angry then listening to leftist bitches scream about "western civilization" and how it was so fucked up.
Ladies and gentlemen, *our hero.*
You think that paragraph alone would make this book awesomely bad, but no. IT GETS MORE SO. Yes, you will be horrified by a lot of this, because Mike Harmon's adventures are by turns awesomely horrific and horrifically awesome; I freely confess that I cannot stop reading these books, because *I have to see what Ringo does next.* I do, however, have a finely-tuned defense mechanism: whenever something trips my circuit breaker, causing me to cringe away from the page, I utter aloud a cry that resets my noggin. You will probably need it yourself, so I provide it here, as a public service: "OH JOHN RINGO NO."
GHOST is Ringo's own admitted Lord King Badfic, his id run wild. By his own account, he was trying to write several books he was actually contracted for, but GHOST kept nudging at him, and finally he just wrote the damn thing to *make it go away* so he could get back to fulfilling his contracts. Ringo locked the spewings of his id away on his hard drive, until he mentioned in passing on an online forum that yeah, he'd written another book, but it was *awful* and would never see the light of day. Naturally, folks were curious, and when Ringo posted a sample, nobody was more surprised than him to find that the response was, more often than not, "Hey, man, I'd buy this."
So his publisher put it out, and the books are now doing pretty well for them. I'm sure this is a pleasant surprise if you're Ringo or his publisher, but it's also got to be a little embarrassing; he's committed the literary equivalent of charging money for folks to watch him roll naked in a pile of dead and smelly fish. And then being begged for encores. As of this writing, I have only the first three books in the series, because dammit, I will buy crap, but I refuse to buy crap in hardcover. That's *expensive.* I mean, I could be spending that money on *guns.*
To resume: Mike hitches a ride on the back of the van that kidnaps the coed. Mike, you see, is a former Navy SEAL, call sign "Ghost." "Fifteen years in the teams had left him with degenerative damage in half the major joints in his body and a back that was compacted enough for a fifty-year-old," but like most action heroes (see: Stephen Hunter's Earl Swagger and his son Bob Lee, both of whom I love) Mike's old injuries don't enjoin him from going strong in the actual action scenes; they're more atmospheric than anything else. It turns out that terrorists are kidnapping young women as part of a Diabolical Plan ("Let us rape them to the Glory of Allah!"). Mike's plan to go for help -- alas, he left his cell phone charging at home -- goes toes up when he is spotted by a sentry and has to kill the man in self-defense. If he leaves to get help, the sentry will be found, and the bad guys will pull up stakes. You knew it was coming: former SEAL, outnumbered and outgunned, against a swarm of dastardly Arab terrorists. He rescues the coed, name of Ashley, but refuses to tell her who he is -- he's killed a bunch of people, and he's worried about legal repercussions.
"I really want to know who you are."
"Well," he said, grinning, "if you ever see me again, for the first time, be overwhelmed by a wave of lust and need to give me a blowjob right then and there, even if it's in public, okay?"
"Sure," Ashley said, shaking her head. "Men. Maybe not in public, but we'll talk, okay? This has..."
"Don't let this put you off of men, God damnit," Mike said, firmly. "I didn't risk my fucking life to have you go lesbo. All men aren't these filth. And if you decide they are, you're spitting on what *I* did . Because the *good* guys want to get laid, too. Understand?"
THE WHOLE BOOK IS LIKE THIS.
Unfortunately, Mike has only disrupted one shipment. He finds documentation indicating the bad guys are on the way to Atlanta's main airport, and gives chase -- only to accidentally spy them at a smaller one, and realize they've laid a false trail. No backup, again, so he hides in the plane shipping the roofied coeds off to Syria, where their rapes and torture will be videotaped for jihadist progaganda. Mike manages to disrupt the torture and gets the word out via sat phone, then sits back to wait for rescue while setting up a defensive perimeter with the help of some of the more athletic coeds. Learning their names is too much bother, so he dubs them "Babe" (for Babe Ruth; she plays baseball, and learns to apply her skills to grenades), "Bambi," and "Thumper." They are, of course, naked, and Mike pauses to appreciate the view as he sends them scurrying to fetch him ammo. ("Dead bad guys and naked girls. It's like an op in a titty bar. All I need is beer and steak, maybe some heavy metal or Goth music, and this would be perfect.")
Lest you think it is all blood and guts, Mike and a ROTC cadet named Amy bond over music; during off moments, they sing "March of Cambreadth" and "Winter Born," and he confesses his less savory inclinations.
"You've never actually raped a woman, have you?" Amy asked.
"Depends on the definition," Mike replied. "I don't think any of the hookers in the third world are actually volunteers. I keep that in mind when I fuck 'em. It helps."
...I... I just... OH JOHN RINGO NO.
I am going to skip over a bunch of stuff, like the hostages setting up a webcam link and getting live coverage on FOX News, but let me just tell you that the cavalry comes and rescues the coeds and the injured Mike, but not before he kills the president of Syria and Osama bin Laden, both of whom happen to be at the facility, and cuts bin Laden's head off to put in a pail as a gift for the President. AND he convinces several of the coeds to become staunch Republicans.
AND THAT IS JUST PART ONE.
I feel about the PALADIN OF SHADOWS series the way that a lot of people feel about ALL-STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN: it is so horrifically awful that it becomes TOTALLY FUCKING AWESOME. Unless, of course, you have triggers about some or all of this stuff, in which case my recommendation is TO RUN AS FAR AND AS FAST AS YOU CAN. I will, however, say that GHOST and its sequels are *excellent* for reading out loud to people, particularly friends who are horrified and actively begging you to stop. (And you will be inclined to disregard such pleas, because you will need to share the pain.) I should note that, as you may have gathered, the series -- GHOST in particular -- is not just slaughtering terrorists and deeply skeevy sexual stuff. GHOST is an example of explicitly ideological fiction, and I think that subject is worth a minor digression.
There are two kinds of ideological fiction: the implicit and the explicit, the former being more common. Implicit ideological fiction does not directly champion a particular ideology as such. More often, it presents a world rooted in that ideology's assumptions. As you'd expect, when it comes to surviving and triumphing in such a world, the characters who incorporate the morals of that ideology do remarkably better than anyone else. Stephen King's novella "The Mist" is a pretty good example of what I'm talking about. The onset of the mist itself is a the fault of the military-industrial complex. Christianity provides not a comfort, but a rationale for slaughter. The human villains are comfort food for the leftist viewpoint. This does not make "The Mist" a bad story. It is, in fact, pretty goddamned awesome. But some aspects of it are a trifle obvious, particularly if you've sussed King's political leanings from such works as FIRESTARTER or THE DEAD ZONE.
A lot of fiction these days is implicitly liberal, because a lot of writers lean vaguely left and so their stories reflect their internalized truths. This may not be obvious for folks who lean to the left, and focus on the progressive failings of books (particularly representation and diversity), but for folks who lean to the right, it's a little jarring when, for example, a DC comics story implies that the US government shot war correspondent Lois Lane in order to get Superman to fly to the battlefield post-haste, on the grounds that his presence would motivate the enemy to surrender. If you lean to the left, this is a compelling storyline because it reflects your own unease with the US at war, and distrust of the government to do the right thing under these circumstances, as well as the belief that the government is more likely than not to actively do evil in order to facilitate its ends. If you're more conservative, you may well find that storyline deeply offensive, considering that the US is in the middle of a war with people who literally behead journalists they don't like.
This tendency of a lot of fiction to be implicitly leftish means that conservative and libertarian ideological fiction tend, by reaction, to be explicitly ideological: the writers aren't content to treat their worldview as a given within the spectrum of their story, but make *winning ideologically* a component in the story. This is doubtless satisfying and comforting, but it has a tendency to wind up being too much on the nose. That's not to say that liberals don't do it, too. Richard North Patterson is a wonderful thriller writer, but his Kerry Kilcannon political novels are just appallingly tone-deaf in this regard; Patterson can't write convincing conservatives to save his life, and so Kilcannon's opposition comes off as being about as deep and believable as the token liberals in Tom Clancy novels. Actually, no; the token liberals in *Vince Flynn* novels! And don't get me started on Aaron Sorkin.
The various types of ideological fiction also differ in how they treat the loyal opposition -- by which I mean, the people who disagree but are nominally on the same team. In conservative ideological fiction, the loyal opposition is steamrolled; they're there, but are defeated or ignored by Our Heroes, who are of course Faithful and Right (pretty much any Tom Clancy novel; 24). In liberal ideological fiction, the loyal opposition is defeated and becomes the subject of public opprobium, while Our Heroes are admired for being Faithful and Right (as in TRANSMETROPOLITAN, say, or my beloved BABYLON 5, or to a lesser degree in SERENITY, or half of John Grisham's novels, or... incidentally, could I just request that if any of my liberal friends decide to write a political intrigue, would you please not foist yet another goddamned haircut of Watergate or Murrow vs. McCarthy on the world? BECAUSE I HAVE FUCKING SEEN IT). In Libertarian ideological fiction, there generally *is* no loyal opposition; Our Heroes are Faithful and Right and those who disagree with them are either misinformed (and over the course of the novel are educated to become Faithful and Right) or outright evil. (Also, Libertarian authors are, for the most part, constitutionally incapable of lecturing an audience on merely one political question; they want to convince you on all of them, and all at once.)
(The writer whose ideological novels have done the best job of portraying honest but implacable disagreement, in my view, is Allen Drury. His ADVISE AND CONSENT series makes for a fascinating study of ideological fiction in its own right. Another day.)
Anyway. Mike has rescued a number of nubile college women from rape and torture at the hands of jihadists, slaughtered innumerable terrorists, killed the president of Syria and Osama bin Laden, and plugged the author's favorite bands and movies. Also, the United States has, as a punitive measure, dropped a low-yield nuke on Syria. You would think that would be enough for a book. Hah. As I said earlier, that is JUST IN PART ONE. In part two, Mike, independently wealthy after getting the bounty for Osama, is now doing a lot of fishing on his newly-purchased and heavily-armed yacht. He meets up with two young college girls and invites them onto his boat, where he promptly introduces them to the joys of BDSM. With emphasis on scenes that incorporate non-con and slavery scenarios. But don't worry! He gets their moms' permission first.
No, really. He does.
"Yes, ma'am," Mike said, taking a breath and definitely not sighing. There was a pause as he listened to Pam's mother.
"Go ahead," Mike said, raising his eyebrows.
"Probably ring," Mike said. "Some ball but only monitored. Possibly cock." ... [Ellipses in original -- DH]
"I will be." ...
"I'm still making up my order in my mind," Mike said. "But leather. Probably locking." ...
"Can't cut it off if there's a panic attack," Mike said. "You can cut leather." He looked over at Pam, who was staring at him, wide-eyed, and shrugged.
[ . . . ]
"Fine," he said, nodding. "Good talking to you, too, ma'am. No, I won't say that in front of the girls. Yes I will. Goodbye."
"Was that conversation about what I think it was about?" Pam said, staring in horror.
"Yep," Mike said, shaking his head. "You two have got a couple of kinky moms. I guess the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree."
"Oh, God!" Pam wailed. "I did so not want to know that!"
"It was better than having the conversation with her yourself," Courtney said. "Trust me."
She's not kidding. Here's an excerpt of that conversation:
"There's things I'd like to talk about, but you're my mother. I don't think you'd understand."
"You might be surprised, dear," Abigail said gently.
"If you do understand, I don't want to know," Courtnet said, sighing, then paused. "Mom, have you ever heard the... term, I guess: scene."
There was a very long pause.
"Yes," Abigail said, calmly.
"Oh," Courtney replied, her eyes widening.
"Is he a top or a bottom?" Abigail asked.
"A what?" Courtnet asked.
"Is he a dominant or a submissive, then?" her mother asked.
"Dear, do you know what a spreader bar is?"
"Mom!" Courtney gasped. "No. And I don't want to know if you do!"
"You know those rosewood planter hangers in your father's and my bedroom?"
Does it get worse? Yes.
"I don't think you know what truly good is, dear," Abigail said, trying to get through to her.
"I know Pam came at least three times last night," Courtney said. "And I don't know whether to count this morning as one, two, or one continuous amazing climax, Mother, if you want me to be blunt."
"Oh," Abigail said. "Uhm... What was his name again?"
"Well, your father and I do swing," Abigail said.
"And, I suppose I'm probably too old for him, but some guys do enjoy mother-daughter action..."
OH JOHN RINGO NO.
This goes on for about eighty pages, and then Mike gets a call to go intercept a smuggled nuke, which he does. And no, he's not done yet. There's also a part three, in which Mike takes time off from whoring his way through Eastern Europe to stop a terrorist nuke from going off in Paris. But not too much: when Mike gets frustrated, he hightails it to a brothel, waves a large sum under the bouncer's nose, and gets a pretty fifteen-year-old whore for the day. He brutalizes the young woman, mentally and physically, taking occasional breaks to make her sleep cuddled next to him until he is ready to brutalize her again. It is an awful, gruesome, drawn-out sequence, and if you read it it'll make you sick. But it's not the worst part. That comes at the end, when he gives her a huge tip.
"I'm not particularly proud of that side of me," Mike said as he pulled on his clothes. "It comes out from time to time, but I don't like it. That," he added, gesturing with his chin at the money, "doesn't make up for what I did to you. But... it helps. Both you and me. And I'm sorry for how I treated you, but I was at a point where it was do what I did or kill somebody. And, unfortunately, right now there's nobody left for me to kill."
"Is okay," Magdalena said, pulling the clip off the roll and counting the money. "Not like, much hurt, much... bad memory." She got to the end of the quick count and looked at him again, curiously. "But for this, is okay. Would do again."
"Yeah," Mike said as he holstered his piece and picked up his jump bag. "But then you'd be acting. It wouldn't be the same."
Then, of course, he *buys her from her pimp,* and takes her along.
Sometimes, alas, OH JOHN RINGO NO does not offer much in the way of relief.
The acquisition of Magdalena marks the beginning of a long-running trend in the series: Mike's accumulation of whores. It is almost a running gag. It is not funny yet -- at this point, it is, in fact, just *immensely* disturbing and wrong -- but this is the beginning of a trend, so I feel obliged to note it. He takes in whores and sex slaves the way old ladies take in cats. ONLY MORE SO. As we will see. You will be relieved to know, however, that nothing else happens to Magdalena: Mike just buys her out of sexual slavery and takes her on to Paris, where, off-stage, she finds a suitable man to charm and runs away with him while Mike is off trying to stop a nuke from detonating -- and there, mercifully, GHOST ends.
As you can tell, GHOST is a pretty horrifying read. I re-skimmed it writing this, and I had honestly forgotten just how painful to the psyche it is. So you may ask: *Hines, why the hell were you reading this?* And the answer is: because I read the *second* book *first.*
Yes, that's right. I mentioned it above, but in case you'd forgotten: this is a series. And while the first book seethes with anger and disturbing sexuality, the second, while not exactly mature or brilliant, is solid guilty pleasure for those who like men's adventure. The second book also features, amazingly, some characterization. Where the first novel only focused on portraying Mike's hard-assedness and the depths of his depravity, the second features big chunks of him just interacting with characters *without killing or fucking them.* And Ringo doesn't do a bad job of portraying those other characters; most are stock, but a couple are somewhat fun. The first book, GHOST, is an unending stream of horrors, one after the next; the second, KILDAR, is heavy on wish-fulfillment fantasy and has its share of freaky shit, but it's actually rather fun to read if you have a weakness for its genre.
What genre, you ask? AHA.
The opening of Kildar finds Mike in Georgia. No, the other one. The former Soviet republic is a rough place, and Mike, who's bumming around the world while dodging fatwas, manages to get insanely lost during a snowstorm and wind up in the ass-end of nowhere. And ass-end of nowhere in Georgia is *seriously* ass-end of nowhere. It's a small town, with an inn, and a mildly corrupt Claude Rains of a police chief who'd like to curtail the rampant drug-running, gun-running, and sex-slave-running of the mostly Chechen criminal enterprises -- but he doesn't have the funding or men, so elects to stay alive. Oh, and a brothel staffed with nubile young girls. (Look, it's a JOHN RINGO novel, okay?) And it has the Keldara.
The Keldara are a stubborn, proud tribe of farmers. Who can kick serious ass, when they've a mind. Their history is mysterious, and they're not inclined to share. But their women are beautiful, their beer is jaw-droppingly magnificent, and it just so happens that they have a tradition of being beholden to a feudal lord, a foreigner who comes to them from the outside world...
You can see where this is going. And you're absolutely right.
Once you get past GHOST's initial spleen-venting, the PALADIN OF SHADOWS series falls into a much-maligned, much-loved genre which, for lack of a better name, I call "Man Builds Stuff and Gets Lots of Pussy." This is, quite frankly, what got me reading the series: I am not much for stories of a guy just killing terrorists and getting laid a lot; but let him start building a small kingdom while killing terrorists and getting laid a lot, and I am there. I confess that have a soft spot for these kinds of stories. I suspect that *lots* of men do: even if we don't build things ourselves, we like to *read about* guys building things: castles, weapons, companies, societies. It's really very soothing; it combines the pleasures of fiction with a those of a do-it-yourself manual. The same impulses may explain why a lot of male writers aren't content to have their hero just carrying, say, a 1911 as his sidearm; they have to tell you what make, model, whether it's got an internal or external extractor, what aftermarket parts he's tuned it up with, and who he bought them from, until you know all about his Kimber's Ed Brown slide stop and Wolff springs.
(Curiously, the sex-related parts do not require details of every thrust; if the chapter fades to black with the hero hopping into bed with two nubile wenches, honor is satisfied. John Ringo, alas, often carries honor considerably farther.)
Mike becomes the new Kildar -- i.e., the Keldara's boss -- and moves into a huge, majestically decorated caravanserai. He starts improving the Keldara lot with pickups, tractors, and new wells; to improve the local security situation, he registers them as a militia and starts importing weapons and trainers.
Also, to take care of the trainers' needs, he brings in whores.
LOOK, I TOLD YOU. HE ADOPTS THEM. LIKE CATS.
In this case, he rents several girls from the local brothel and moves them in with him, where he puts them on an increased salary and instructs them to help out around the place as well as service him and the trainers he imports. Of course, it'd be too much trouble for the trainers to learn the whores' actual names. So Mike renames them: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Bambi. (If you want to take a moment to bang your head against the table, go ahead; I understand.) The women on the training staff, Mike notes, will have to take care of their own needs. The Keldara are prickly about sexual matters. For this reason, Mike's female servants are older Keldara women. Keeps him from getting all worked up and into trouble, y'see -- look, I'm sorry; I know that table isn't getting any softer, but if you keep up the blunt force trauma, eventually brain damage will set in and you'll *forget.*
Cottontail -- her real name is Katya -- is actually my favorite character in the series, for one simple reason: *she hates the hero.* This gives me something to identify with. Most of the whores and concubines Mike amasses are simple-minded, cheery creatures, happy to have a nice place to live and an owner who's (of course) really good in bed. Katya, OTOH, is bitter, angry, and sociopathic.
The blonde looked at him and lowered her eyes demurely but he'd gotten just enough of a flash to know it was a total act. The eyes that had tracked to him were as cold as a shark's, cold enough that they were a little frightening. Not just resigned cold but the sort of look you saw on someone who'd seen too much combat and discovered they enjoyed killing people and breaking things. Mike occasionally saw the same look in a mirror and knew it was the outward expression of something he didn't want to get involved with. The blonde was a flat killer waiting for her chance.
This makes her a hell of a lot less comforting for the hero and the wish-fulfillment story, but it makes her much more plausible as someone who's been used as a sex slave. When Mike asks her what she wants, her answer is, "I never want to spread my legs for another man." He says he can't do that -- he needs her to be a whore for a while yet (OH JOHN RINGO NO) -- but he realizes she's seriously smart, so starts getting her trained in languages, intelligence... and eventually, assassination. More on that later.
Whores aside, there's a lot less OH JOHN RINGO NO in KILDAR. Huge chunks of the book are given over to buying tractors and pick-up trucks, building dams, training the Keldara to use firearms, that kind of thing. Yes, there's a gorgeous fourteen-year-old teenage girl pursuing Mike, but he's actually putting her off, because the Keldara don't want their girls messing around, and besides she's too young. And you start to think okay, GHOST was really horrifying, and there's still some creepy stuff, but John Ringo's at least got it out of his system.
And then chapter fourteen happens.
The gorgeous Keldara teen mentioned above (her name's Katrina) is kidnapped by white slavers, and Mike and the Keldara intercept their van and shoot the engine up with a Barrett .50 BMG. The van turns out to contain seven teenage farmgirls from outside Keldara territory who were sold into slavery by their families.
"What the fuck do we do with them?" Mike asked, looking at the nine girls lined up by the roadside. They'd mostly stopped crying and now looked at the men with guns in fear. They also were covered [with] blood and in some cases vomit.
"Clean 'em up and fuck 'em?" Thompson suggested.
And that's *exactly what he does.* As Mike rationalizes it, "It was what they knew was coming, anyway." At least if he keeps them, he can see to it they're educated and what not. And so for their own good he will have to take them in, as concubines, and deflower them. With his penis. Some, of course, are too young. He'll have to wait. Until they're sixteen.
"You're going to need lots of oysters, bud," Adams said, chuckling as he tossed the former SEAL a towel. "And Viagra stock."
"Chief, they're teenage virgins," Mike said, toweling off. "Viagra is not going to be necessary."
Of course, as you will immediately have realized, if he's going to have a harem he needs a harem manager: as Mike puts it, "Women are the root of all evil. And teenage girls haven't learned to use their power for good. There's a reason that harem doors had bolts on the outside." So he flies to Uzbekistan and meets with a sheikh, who provides him with a harem manager, who just so happens to be a twenty-six-year-old supermodel-quality extreme masochist who loves to give blowjobs.
You are now weeping. Say it with me: OH JOHN RINGO NO.
At the end of KILDAR, there is a skirmish between the Kildara and the Chechens, but that's really not the point: the book is about Mike and his training staff discovering the joys of the alpha-male paradise by drinking exquisite beer, engaging in traditional male tests of strength and bravery, building dams and rifle ranges and commando troops, and fucking the hell out of beautiful girls whose age range makes you wonder nervously about the kinds of pictures on the author's hard drive. It's alternately guilty pleasure fun and OH JOHN RINGO NO, but it never hits GHOST's level of JESUS CHRIST IT'S A LION GET IN THE CAR.
And then there's the THIRD book...
The third book, CHOOSERS OF THE SLAIN, is the best of the ones I've read. It's certainly the most interesting, and has a little more of a plot. That doesn't mean it's not highly disturbing. A prominent Democratic Senator (he's in the running to become the next Senate minority leader; in the Ringoverse, the Republicans are in charge, as God meant them to be) asks Mike for help: the daughter of a substantial campaign contributor has gone missing in Moldova. She's been -- I know this will be a shock, considering that John Ringo is careful to avoid the "Women in Refrigerators" shtick, because of his strong sensitivity to the portrayal of female characters -- *kidnapped by sex slavers.*
So Mike and company start following up the chain to find the girl. Along the way, they stumble into a massive conspiracy that involves Hostel-style torture-for-fun vacation packages. Also, there is a B-plot in which Mike starts up a business selling the Keldara's beer, and so takes time out of torturing and killing sex slavers to go to a beer trade show in Las Vegas -- look, do you see what I mean by awesomely horrific and horrifically awesome? Basically, Mike assembles a team of Keldara shooters (male) and intel specialists (female), along with Cottontail the Killer Whore, and makes his way through the layers of the sex-slaver network, torturing and killing white slavers as he goes. The torture gives him information about the next level up, which he uses to find the next bunch of guys to torture for information about the level above them, and so on.
Of course, it wouldn't be a John Ringo book unless the hero accumulates women who are 1) whores or 2) on their way to becoming whores. The first of these is a girl named Oksana.
The girl was clearly frightened, even terrified. And, yes, very pretty. About five foot one, long blonde hair and blue eyes. And no more than twelve. She was just starting to get the gangling growth spurt that kids hit at that age and might, indeed, grow some more tit. He wasn't sure she was even menstruating yet.
Mike let the girl sit on his lap and ran his hands over her stomach as she quivered in fear. He was careful to try to skip the bruised areas but she was still quaking, which didn't help much. He had a very real problem with being the sort of son of a bitch he was playing and the entire scene was turning him on more than he liked. He knew the girl could feel a very solid erection under her pert little ass and he knew that made him not only a Class A son of a bitch but a pervert. Unfortunately, short of castration he wasn't sure what to do about his little problem. Other than killing bastards who actually let their demons out. Such as the two other males in
It's okay! Oksana hasn't been made a sex slave yet. She's still a virgin. Mike knows. Because he *checks.*
...I fucking hate myself for reading this.
Next up is Nikki, a hooker who works in a club belonging to sex-slaver Nicu Gogosa. Mike buys her for intel purposes, then winds up keeping her around. After the raid on the club, he liberates a bunch more sex slaves, including a young woman named Daria. She was a virgin before she was forced into prostitution, and now craves rough sex and punishment, but hates herself for wanting it. Mike takes her to bed in a heavy BDSM kinda way -- it's okay! IT'S RAPE COUNSELING!
And there's still more!
"Everything is in fricking Romanian," Vanner said, shrugging. "You read Romanian? I don't. We're using automatic translators. You know how good those are."
"What about Nikki?" Mike asked.
"She speaks English and Russian," Vanner replied.
"Go roust out Russel, a Keldara girl, and one of the Keldara shooters," Mike said after a bit of thought. "Have them go find a street hooker that speaks Romanian and English. Reads it, too. One that won't be missed. Bring her back here. We'll just take her with us when we leave."
"Get a whore." IT'S HIS ANSWER FOR EVERYTHING.
This accounting of the collection does not include Natalya, the sex slave they were sent to rescue in the first place, or Elena and Catrina, two Keldara girls who were kidnapped for sex slavery years ago, or the other sex slaves rescued at the same time as Daria; or the hooker one of the Keldara falls for and decides to bring along -- it's not a harem, it's an *entourage.*
But it's not all whoredom. Well, okay, it is, but there is actually some interesting stuff going on in the book. A fair portion of it involves Katya, aka Cottontail. While pretty much every good-guy character in the book admires, worships, or simply likes Mike, Katya *hates* Mike. This doesn't just make her unique; it makes her the best character in the series, because she's absolutely right about him. Mike knows he's a deeply twisted person, at best a "good monster;" but as often as Ringo has Mike muse on this, when he's loved by everyone who knows him the effect is to downplay or even endorse Mike's depravity.
This makes Katya and Mike an interesting contrast: they're both deeply sick people who take joy in causing pain and suffering. Katya is manipulative, selfish, and cruel towards humans when she has them within her power; where Mike tries to compartmentalize his cruelty, Katya doesn't, and because of this she sees Mike's kindler, gentler slavemaster shtick as a joke and a lie. Which it is. But because Mike is the viewpoint character, the audience is expected to identify with him on a strong level. Katya, meanwhile, is a problem for Mike, one he has to control. We're not expected to identify with her, while we're expected to root for him off the bat. And so Katya's attitude toward Mike doesn't just work to characterize her. It changes the dynamics of Ringo's game. And considering the oversexed, perverse, alpha-male wish fulfillment nature of the series, that's a pretty interesting move.
Here's an example. Katya, aka "Cottontail," and a Keldara named Anisa are on a mission, and they're walking down a street lined with (of course) prostitutes.
Anisa looked around and sighed.
"They are all dressed so..."
"Sluttily," Cottontail said, laughing nastily. "Men like that. They like to have women that are fast, cheap, and easy. They don't seem to worry about whether we like it or not. Most of them like that we don't. They like to hurt us, to use us, to make us feel less than they are."
"Not the Kildar," Anisa pointed out.
"Even the Kildar," Katya replied sharply. "He likes that he owns us, that he can use us."
"He treats you well," Anisa protested.
"But he still owns us," Cottontail snapped, turning to look at the girl and waving at the whores along the street. "We're no better than these! We're owned by the Kildar and he uses us at his pleasure! The only difference is we don't walk the street! We just live in his brothel for the use of him and his friends."
"He said he offered to let you all go," Anisa argued unhappily.
"To where?" Katya snapped back. "What can we do but make our way on our backs? There are plenty of girls here who chose to be here, because even this is better than wherever they're running from! Because they don't have any choice other than to sell their bodies. They don't have a family to go back to..." She stopped and turned away, her face hard.
"Is that what happened to you?" Anisa asked quietly as they continued walking.
"I don't talk about it," Cottontail said bitterly.
"Do you have a family?" Anisa asked, still quietly.
"Just shut the fuck up, okay?" Katya replied. "We're nearly there and we need to get our game face on."
Holy crap, talk about speaking truth to power: the least sympathetic of the recurring characters in the series is laying out exactly what she thinks of the hero. And she hates him. And she's right to. It's an aspect of the book that makes for a really interesting dynamic. If you've been rooting for Mike to kill that terrorist, fuck that girl, become that warlord, it'll sucker-punch you. Ringo has set up his audience to identify with Mike, and cheer him on, and now he uses Katya to pull the rug out from under them. It's an especially interesting choice because Ringo acknowledges Mike to be a creation of his darkest id; Katya's challenging of Mike is pretty much an acknowledgment that *shit is fucked up in here.*
There's a scene, between Mike and his number-two, which pretty much nails the same thing, albeit in a far more grotesque and disturbing way:
"Okay, okay," Anisa said, readjusting her dress. "Here goes."
By the end of thirty minutes with Mike coaching her and Katya making snarky, but pertinent, remarks, she could walk in the heels and even undulate. A bit. Enough to look like a new hooker on the street.
As the two left, Adams let out a long sigh.
"I'm going to have to either go down on the street and hire a girl or take a long cold shower," the chief said. "That was just..."
"Erotic as hell," Mike replied. "You can understand why these pimps do what they do. Besides the money, which in this society is nothing to sneeze at."
"It almost makes me rethink my choice of career," Adams admitted. "And they get to do this all the time."
"And beat the girls around when they screw up," Mike added.
"I'm not particularly into beating on women," Adams said, shrugging.
"Well, most of the girls they get don't particularly want to be hookers," Mike pointed out. "And even the ones that do don't want to give up most of their hard-earned money to the pimps. So they beat on them until they learn better. It's a sucky situation. And you know the fun part?"
"What?" Adams asked, frowning curiously.
"How many whores have you fucked in some third world shithole?" Mike asked, turning to look at him. "We're the reason this goes on. You can't just say 'it's males' when you're one of the males that benefited by it."
"Tell me something I don't know." Adams shrugged. "I don't notice you losing sleep over it."
"I do, sometimes," Mike admitted. "And I'm the one that enjoys beating on women. I wish I had the money to buy up every whore and potential whore on the planet and put them someplace safe."
"But if you did, you'd just have more kidnappings."
"There's that," Mike admitted, sighing.
"You ever think about this whole system as a good thing?" Adams asked.
"What in the hell do you mean by that?" Mike snarled.
"Think about it," Adams replied calmly. "In the States, the predators snatch some girl off the street, rape her and kill her. Here, they snatch them off the street, rape them and sell them. Alive."
"Now there's a hell of a thought and no lie," Mike said quietly. "But you think that some of them don't die in the process?"
"No, a bunch of them do," Adams admitted. "But a bunch of them live, too. For a given value of life. Which means still breathing. Concentrate on bringing home a live one and leave the fucking existentialism for after the mission, SEAL."
"Will do, Chief," Mike said, grinning.
"Now I'm gonna go find some abused, raped, forced-to-be-a-whore whore and fuck her silly ass off. For cash. Without beating on her. End of angst."
...I... yeah, sorry, I kind of need a minute after that last bit.
Really, that scene is kind of brain-melting; it combines the horrifying "OH JOHN RINGO NO" stuff with a bit of self-examination and a character dynamic that subverts a big chunk of the series premise. The hero's channeling of his perversion so that he doesn't become the thing he fights winds up feeding the thing he fights. That's interesting. Most of the time, Mike's enemies can be opposed, defeated, destroyed, and so Mike comes out a champion of good; but this is something he can't destroy. This does not make the series *good,* mind, but Ringo is doing something different here, and it's weirdly interesting. I get the feeling I'm seeing Ringo doing some extremely disturbing self-examination, as a writer and as a man; it's not his primary focus by any means, but if you look at GHOST and then look at CHOOSERS OF THE SLAIN, you don't see maturity, sensitivity, or plausibility, but you do see something that looks a bit like growth. He's developing the series in a way that's freakish and yet strangely compelling, and I find it hard to wrap my brain around, because I'm honestly not sure what he's trying to do.
Oh, wait -- I just realized that I forgot to tell you about the whole part of the book where Mike discovers that the Kildar has droit de seigneur and is eagerly expected to deflower the Keldara women on their wedding night, in order to bring honor to them and their husbands. And the chapter he spends taking Keldara beer advertising photographs with a fifteen-year-old girl licking froth off the top of a beer bottle, BUT GODDAMMIT I HAVE TO DRAW A LINE.
There is one more thing. Mike needs some infiltrating done, and decides Cottontail is the one to do it. To keep tabs on her, he gets in touch with people in Black Ops to have her augmented. ...no, not like that. Like this:
Katya looked over the long list in wonder.
"What is 'micrometallic skeletal enhancement?'" she asked, her eyes wide.
"You don't want that," Mike said, looking over her shoulder. "Unless there's been some radical development in nanotechnology they're sitting on, it would mean stripping off your skin and muscle to get it. On the other hand, you'd be bulletproof, to low velocity weapons, over most of your body. Jesus Christ. There aren't many of these that are listed as actually used. But the ones that are scare the hell out of me. At least the 'sonic transceiver' is listed as 'tested, stable.' But I was joking about the poison fingernails! [. . .] Go for the 'subcutaneous nonmetallic puncture device.' Means you can carry a knife anywhere."
"I like the poison fingernails," Katya said. "I can use them on this mission!"
No, she does not exactly become Whoreverine, but it is close: Katya gets augmented with an electronic snooping and communications system, poison fingernails, subcutaneous pouches for smuggling weapons, and a dose of a combat drug that gives her thirty seconds of batshit insane berzerker speed and hyperstrength. And then she goes off and kills men, which she enjoys heartily. And it's actually a little relieving -- Katya's a nasty person, but she's had such a shitty time over the course of the books that you're really rooting for her to go out and kill sex-slavers left and right.
The PALADIN OF SHADOWS series is arguably the most horrifying series of books I have ever read. It has a hero I can't stand, politics so strong they're comical, and sex scenes that are downright horrifying. And I cannot stop reading it. I am going to buy every single one, and if Ringo ever comes out with a spin-off featuring Katya as Cottontail the Bionic Whore, I will buy that too. Because dammit, there's bad, and then there's so bad you have to memorialize it for future generations.
Update: ...Amazon just announced to me that they've shipped my pre-ordered copy of book 4, in paperback. OH JOHN RINGO NO.
Update, also: John Ringo's very good-natured reaction.
Update, yet again: The OH JOHN RINGO NO t-shirt contest?! I'm surprised, too. But the request was made, and the request has been heard. Trying to gauge interest; there could be some charitable good to be had here.
Update, re: T-shirts: Okay, it's official. You can now buy OH JOHN RINGO NO shirts to benefit the Helen Bamber Foundation, which (among other things) helps women who were forced into prostitution. Which is what Mike does. In his way. John Ringo, a real class act, has graciously endorsed the project and the designated charity. The shirt design is by vito_excalibur, and it's absolutely terrific. Details here; shirts are here.
Update again: As of Thanksgiving 2008, we've raised seven hundred dollars for the Helen Bamber Foundation. Thanks, everybody.
Update again: Shirts discontinued because everybody who wants one has one.