Jun 122014

WarboundWarbound, by Larry Correia

Synopsis: A secret group of superheroes saves the Earth from an approaching planet-consuming alien in a 1930s noir setting.

Book Review: First the good parts – Larry Correia can spin one hell of a yarn! He writes a cool alternate-history world with fantastic settings, from a superhero prison to a walled-off Berlin filled with zombies. His pacing is good and his action scenes are riveting. I kept turning pages when I knew I really should be doing something else, which a mark of a good book. He does dead-pan humor extremely well, I laughed out loud several times. It’s exactly over-the-top enough to be a great ride, and very entertaining. When he sticks to doing what he does well he writes great fiction!

The book does have two major failings.

First, it falls into the Superman trap that many superhero stories stumble into. The primary actor in any scene has exactly the right amount of power to just barely overcome their obstacles. It doesn’t matter what the power-level of the threat is. If it’s a stab to the chest, they’ll barely survive. If it’s an army of goons they’ll suddenly be impervious to bullets and wade through them to get to the boss, and then barely survive the city-block-exploding powers of the boss. And they always have just the powers they need to make it through, which leads to things like Superman’s Brick-Laying Vision and that starts to take the tension out of things when you catch on. Larry tries to paper over this by emphasizing that they are pushing their power right to the limit, but there’s only so many times you can read “he burned through the very last of his power” before it loses all impact. What’s the downside of burning through your power again? You gotta rest of a few hours while your power bar fills back up? Good thing you didn’t run through all your power until right at the very end of the boss fight. Again.

(also, how frikkin stupid is it that so few people have the Healing Kanji? Sullivan wouldn’t even give it to his own side, and the entire human race was literally on the line. I guess it was more important to him that he stays the only super-special one. It made the faceless-goon fights boring, as they just died so easily.)

Secondly, Larry has long said that he’s opposed to message fiction, and thinks novels should be about entertaining the reader. This probably explains why he’s bad at writing message fiction – he probably hasn’t read much of it so he doesn’t know how to do it well. The first Correia book I read (Hard Magic) stuck to telling a great adventure tale. Warbound dabbles heavily in message fiction, and it brings it down. I can tell Larry has something to say, which is by far the most important part of writing message fiction, so I’m sure eventually he’ll be able to do it well, if he keeps working at it. But he’s new to this aspect of storytelling, so he blunders through it and makes a mess of things as he goes. For example – his exchange between Francis and the President of the USA (Roosevelt) is completely tone deaf as to how real people with lots of power actually talk. They act more like the puffed-up mayors of a large town than people who shape history. His portrayal of political power games could be most charitably called… naïve. It was so jarringly bad that I had to think for a while, then go back and re-read the entire passage while doing Roosevelt as the Nazi Major from Hogan’s Heroes. If your political commentary only makes sense when the other side is acting like a caricature, you really need to work on your knowledge of how politics is played at the higher levels. And while I realize Correia is politically to the right of me, this is a problem on both sides. It seems like both the left and the right really get off on portraying the other side as Evil Nazis, and it makes for both bad politics and bad writing.

More to the point, in good message fiction the message is an integral part of the story. You can’t remove the politics from a Heinlein novel without gutting it entirely. Much of the “message” in Warbound feels tacked on, and could easily be removed without affecting the story at all. The Active Camps served absolutely no function in the story. Neither did the bizarre non-sequitur line about “real” gold currency being replaced with worthless paper currency (which I realize is a bugbear of the radical wing of the libertarians, but seriously, wtf?) And good message fiction should maybe take just a step back sometimes and not assert that it is the answer to all of life’s problems (I’m looking at you Ayn Rand). In the epilogue Correia finally comes out and directly states that if everyone was like Sullivan, the world would be damn near perfect. “If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.” /sigh

There are also a few disturbing glimpses into what Correia idealizes. The characters are creepily joyful in the use of violence. They enjoy hurting the people on the “other side,” and at one point a character is disappointed that a confrontation was resolved before it could escalate to violence and he wouldn’t be able to kill anyone today. Women are treated as property to be protected rather than agents who can make their own decisions about their lives (Hammer is not allowed to join the men in saving the world because one of the men really likes her, and doesn’t want her to get hurt. Despite the fact that if they fail the entire world will be destroyed and she’s dead anyway, so they might as well fucking let her help out! Or even give her the option. Also when Lady Origami takes a lover an older man takes on the role of regulating her sexuality, telling the lover that he must now marry her or face his wrath. Because as a woman she can’t make her own choices, and must have her virtue protected or some shit?) However while these are things that make the book crappier in my eyes, they will make the book better for other readers. I’ve long been a proponent of doing things that make you less valuable to the general public if you can make yourself much more valuable to a specific audience. I’d rather be loved by some and hated by others than just kinda “meh” by everyone. So despite the fact that I disagree with him, I gotta give him props on the decision.

Still…. ewww.

Larry is a rising force, and I’d watch for his stuff. Eventually it will be flat-out amazing. But for now he’s still working out the kinks. In this particular case – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: OK, just look at how many words I wrote above. I think this is my longest review yet. The man really gets you talking! Warbound is harder to give a Yes/No on than most books. It’s great for sparking discussion, which is the primary measure of a good Book Club book, so normally I would give it a hearty recommendation. However we had a smaller-than-normal turn out because several people simply couldn’t finish it. The action was too comic-book-esque, the violence too wanton, and the message parts too flimsy. We had a very wide range of scores. I think you may have to play it by ear, taking the composition of your particularly book club into account. I would give it a wary Recommended, with that caveat.

  12 Responses to “SF/F Review – Warbound”

  1. I disagree with one point of your review. In the previous book it is revealed that the Japanese are very advanced in some Kanji because they experiment on unwilling humans. The Healing Kanji kills if not done exactly correctly. The Grimnoir would never do such experimentation and Jake did all his experiments on himself and it almost killed him. So that’s why the West didn’t use the healing Kanji.

    I also think you fell into a trap of putting today’s more enlightened perspective on sexual equality into the 1930’s. Magic Land or real 1930’s that’s how men acted and treated women. Look at the battle Elanor Roosevelt fought to allow women to even be allowed to fly _ferry missions_ or her battle on behalf of the Tuskegee Airmen and other African-Americans fighting. From Wilson until the mid-40’s minorities were only allowed to be cooks! (BTW: earlier we see how a Black person was treated in that era and when Corriea has him die saving a redneck town from a giant Demon and become a folk hero that’s exactly how the results of the courage of African-American’s in the Armed Forces helped to start the tide of civil rights)

  2. Larry responded to your critique on his website (and was rather complimentary). You should take a look at it (monsterhunternation.com).

  3. Good review. But I have a few quibbles.

    First off, it’s understandable, but I think you’re responding to a “period” piece as though the actors should behave as though it’s today. Southunder’s (I believe that’s the man who “regulated” Origami’s behavior) was acting in a way that’s completely consistent with a man of his time.

    As for the message fiction, as far as I can tell, Correia didn’t say “don’t do message”. He seemed to say, “story first. THEN message”.

    And as for “what Correia glorifies”, I think that attitude is pretty common among warrior-types. Hurting people is what they do.

    • Pete, I’m going to update your last point, where you say,

      “And as for “what Correia glorifies”, I think that attitude is pretty common among warrior-types. Hurting people is what they do.

      I believe it would be more accurate to say, “Hurting bad people is what they do.”

      • As long as you’re willing to assume that every enemy solder, no matter how much they’re just trying to stay alive and go home, is bad, sure.

  4. At least you read it before you reviewed it. Kudos for being fair, although I disagree on a couple points. Larry clearly explains that the successful use of any Kanji is incredibly difficult and dangerous, and it is the rare individual that can do it.
    Also, Larry stated that story comes first, then one can insert the message, if you have one. The story must entertain (which you clearly admit it did) before the author espouses any message. He does not oppose a message in fiction. He opposes fiction written purely for the sake of the message.

  5. Overall, a fair review, with the caveats mentioned in the 1st four comments seconded here. I would also say Correia isn’t any worse at message fic than China Mieville, for instance. But your distaste for Larry’s, and mine for Mieville’s, marks why Message First is bad–and thus makes Correia’s point. You are always going to turn off people who disagree with you when the message is fronted. So if the message is fronted past the story–like in the Lotus War, for another example–reading becomes tedious.

    Second, saying the women are treated as property is not entirely accurate. Faye does whatever she barking well pleases, and no one is going to stop her. Lady Origami didn’t make me see her that way either. You’re missing a vital element. It wasn’t just “an older man” telling Sullivan to treat her right. It was her CAPTAIN. And yes, a Captain has the right–indeed, the moral imperative–to intervene as advocate of, and guardian for, the best interests of his crew. Just like when Picard did that for Data in TNG. It wasn’t ‘treating Origami as property.’ It was making sure his crew was treated with proper respect. And Origami wasn’t held back in combat either…

  6. Thank you for doing the review. A few quibbles that others have covered adequately. I hope you continue to enjoy correia’s work as I do.

  7. Thank you for at least taking the time to read the book.

    I’d say, if you think Larry was “demonizing” FDR in this book, you should read a bit more history. For this time period, reading contemporary accounts, not just memories told decades later or sanitized third-hand accounts by Historians, but the actual discussions of the time, is mandatory.

    The thing with the Power – and Power Levels…a few people DO get defeated when they run out of power before they run out of enemies. The Major characters manage to budget their power levels to make it through – but, duh, that’s why they are major characters. It is at least a little more believable than, say Sean Connery with the stupid little .25 Beretta, killing 7 guys from forty feet with seven shots – while the bad guys are firing hundreds of rounds of 9mm and can not seem to get a bullet anywhere near him.

    Also, the episode with Pirate Bob Southunder and Jake Sullivan? He not only acted as a man of his time would, you forgot this part.

    Sullivan: “So I should expect you to get out a Bible and a shotgun?”

    Southunder: “I wouldn’t have to do nothin’ She get’s unhappy, she’d burn you to a crisp.”

    He was actually, not so much worried about Lady Origami, as he was for Jake’s safety.

    I recall a story told to me by a friend of my parents a fellow nicknamed “Spider”.. My dad was stationed at an Air Force Base in Japan, where he met my mother. He and Spider were having a beer, and my mother came in the door. Some soldier thought she was one of the professional “hostesses” and grabbed her.

    Spider asked my dad, “aren’t you going to do anything?”

    He said, “Yeah.” and ordered up three beers.

    My mom tossed the paratrooper into a wall, knocking him unconscious, and threw two more of the guy’s buddies out the front door.

    Dad just handed her a cold beer when she came over to them.

    This is a story about war and violence, and people who do bad things to bad people. I grew up in that world, and I’ve spent a lot of my adult life in that world. I enjoyed the whole series immensely, and I look forward to seeing the next Trilogy in this series.

  8. What a pleasant review. I’m so used to having Larry’s stuff vilified and demonized that it is pleasant to read someone who A) can actually write a review, and B) read the book.

    I enjoy alt history and really enjoyed this series. We are history buffs in this household and he actually downplayed Roosevelt a bit. And don’t get me started on Wilson ;)

    But, a good review. I would like to read your review on the next Grimnoir series (which I just learned about today!) Well done.

  9. I am glad to see this review, and I certainly hope Correia’s enthusiasts take the time to actually read Ancillary Justice and Neptune’s Brood and Parasite all the way through. The excerpts in the Hugo package really aren’t enough, but your library can get them for you, if they’re not the sort of thing you would buy. Before I realized the first two books of the Warbound series would be in the packet (and good on Baen for that,) I ordered them through interlibrary loan.

    I also read the book–all three books in the series, actually. I would say this review hits the nail on the head, though I would add 1) there are some basic science blunders. I’m not talking about the magic, but about things like confusing the effects of gravity and inertia in the fights (and having lighter-than-air craft confuse the main character’s gravity powers, when gravity acts on hydrogen just like anything else), and having Charles Darwin (at the beginning of Hard Magic) predict that Actives would supplant regular humans when there is no evidence that being an Active either runs in families or leads to having more kids. Darwin did understand how evolution worked. 2) the Message kept popping me out of the story–modern insecurities and talking points waving at me from decades when the mindset was very different. If your politics align with Correia’s, you won’t notice; if you don’t–absolutely he writes Message to the detriment of his story.

    These had a lot of promise–they certainly could have been good books. Loved the supers/airships combination, for instance. But it’s hard for me to empathize with Faye when, for example, she thinks about how glad she is that the plan has changed, and she doesn’t have to go rescue her captured friend–she can just kill and maim people instead and that will be much more fun. I realize she’s only about fifteen, and there’s a reason why child soldiers are so feared–but being glad that she’s going to leave her friend in enemy hands just… um. Ew.

    If you’re writing for an audience that likes characters that enjoy killing, by all means you can do that. That means the book won’t be to a lot of people’s taste, and they’re not likely to vote for it for a Hugo if it’s not to their taste, but that’s a choice you can make.

    The Chinese guy contrasting paper money with real money made me laugh; paper money was first used in China, in the seventh century. (Banknotes in the seventh century, currency by the eleventh; in the 1930s they were using a combination of paper currency and coins, sort of the way we do now in the US. The Chinese guy came from a society with a very long tradition of paper money, and would no more think of paper money as “not real” than the average American does.) The *American* characters might have thought of the paper money as “not real”; the *Chinese* characters, not so much.

    In the end, it’s like McDonalds. McDonalds sells tons of food and makes boatloads of money, and why not? When you’re hungry and tired and don’t want to think, it’s inexpensive, tasty, satisfying, easy to find, and can be trusted not to make you sick in the short term. But when people vote on Best Restaurant, McDonalds loses out to fancier restaurants that make less money. This isn’t prejudice, it’s because McDonalds doesn’t have anything that rewards closer attention, or makes you want to take your date there. Correia sells tons of books and makes boatloads of money, and why not? When you’re bored and tired and don’t want to think too much, his stories have enough zing to take you away from your troubles. But it won’t have my vote for Best Novel, because on closer attention the Message means the story doesn’t hang together so well, and it doesn’t give me a sense of wonder or make me regard my current world from a new angle the way both Neptune’s Brood and Ancillary Justice, in the separate ways, managed to do.

    To each their own; there’s nothing wrong with liking McDonalds. But it’s not massive prejudice against McDonalds when it never wins Best Restaurant.

  10. All three books kept me enthralled. It’s been a few months since I read the last one but….

    Your review seems as if you’re working out your own issues as you explore the last book’s “two failings”.
    Folks, they’re great reads and highly recommended.

    If you’re wondering, try and find the first one, flip to the middle, read about ten pages. You’ll know if this series is for you.

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