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In Death Ground
by Weber & White
In Death Ground, by David Weber and Steve White, is a sequel to Crusade, set in the Starfire wargame universe. Don't avoid it because you haven't read the prequels or played Starfire; I've done neither, and I had no trouble with the background. Do avoid it if the idea of reading an interminable disjointed succession of space battles doesn't thrill you. In Death Ground has some great moments, but most of the story (and I use that term loosely) bored me silly.
The novel opens with a Terran survey ship, charting unexplored warp points, blundering into a star system controlled by an unknown and distinctly unfriendly arachnoid species. The Bugs promptly slap together an overwhelming task force and go charging back up the survey ship's path, massacring naval ships and slaughtering civilians for food. The Terran Federation and its alien allies take offense, and spend the rest of the book courageously fighting back despite the Bugs' overwhelming numerical superiority.
The Bugs are actually pretty good enemies. They're innumerable; they're inscrutable; they nuke planetary populations from orbit or land and eat the people a la carte. Basically, the Bugs are the sort of neighbors that make you feel downright cheerful about genocide.
Characterization is pretty shallow, but that's ok; there's such a large cast that it has to be spread thinly, and not many characters last long enough to do anything with an extra dimension anyway. However, it's very alienating to repeatedly have your viewpoint character shot out from under you as their ship vanishes in a cloud of incandescent gas. (Occasionally, for variety, they vanish in eye-tearing balls of fire instead.) You can only have so many captains courageously sacrifice their ships before it takes on an air of self-parody. And even the characters that survive are abruptly abandoned when the action shifts elsewhere.
In Death Ground reads like a novelized wargame campaign: endless battle statistics glued together with prose that's generally workmanlike and occasionally laughable. Each battle is described in excruciating detail; the authors apparently feel compelled to provide complete numerical statistics for each class of ship. (Are there really any readers out there who care about the exact number of fighter craft wiped out in each pass?)
The final irritation is that more than 600 pages of mutual destruction aren't enough to finish the war; that's left for a sequel. At least one subplot is left completely unresolved, but I can't figure out whether it's a hook for the sequel or if the authors just forgot about it. Either way, it's deeply frustrating; I'd just like to know whether it was clumsy or deliberate.
If you're a fan of military SF and appreciate detailed (very detailed) descriptions of battle, you'll probably enjoy In Death Ground. If you're a fan of Honor Harrington but not of military SF in general, avoid it; I'd recommend cranking your suspension of disbelief up to its highest setting and trying Weber's Path of the Fury instead.
-- Christina Schulman.
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