Review: To Sail a Darkling Sea

In ‘ To Sail a Darkling Sea’, the sequel to ‘Under a Graveyard Sky’, the Smith family continues doing what they do best: killing the infected and reclaiming the world, piece by bloody, zombie-ridden piece. As they recover ships and rescue survivors of the plague, Wolf Squadron becomes something more than a rag tag fleet of vessels. It becomes a machine (not well-oiled) representing the blood, sweat and tears required to raise a civilisation from the ground up. Or, in this case, from the ocean.

Stripped back, this book is about logistics and in that respect, it’s a fantastic read. The aftermath of any apocalypse is likely to be messy. Zombie apocalypses in particular. Dead or undead, zombies have atrocious manners and little respect for personal hygiene. Any space left in their care is soon going to stink. They don’t mind, but the survivors do…and not just because of the smell. Unsightly messes aside, rotting bodies will breed new and wonderful diseases. It would be a shame to survive one apocalypse only to succumb to the next super bug.

Steven John “Wolf” Smith already ran a tight ship (nautical cliches are a must for this one). He and his family – wife Stacey and daughters Faith and Sophia – began clearing ships and rescuing people just two weeks after disaster struck. But as the contingent grows, so does the need for order, and this is where ‘To Sail a Darkling Sea’ excels. The details. John Ringo covers everything from likely conditions for survival, for both the infected and the uninfected, patterns of behaviour, transition to the world after, and finding a job and a purpose within in the fleet. He examines politics and government, which are two entirely different things, economy and order, how to mesh civilian and military discipline, and how to raise children in a world that is not their own.

There is also the matter of the disease that caused the problems in the first place. There are plans for a cure, but plans take plans and those plans take plans. The world isn’t going to save itself and organising more than four people can be like herding cats. Hence the introduction of military discipline.

I reveled in these details, particularly the careful instruction of guns and ammo with a meticulous breakdown of damage per weight – how many zombies they can kill with the ammo they are carrying. In a video game, the value of a weapon (and ammo) is generally determined by a DPS (damage per second) ratio as compared to what you are killing. It’s the same principle, and the discussion of ammunition types is also fascinating. I’m a writer (and some time housewife). I don’t own a gun. But I’ve been killing stuff for thirty odd years on my computer. I know the differences between 5.56mm and 12 gauge and in the face of a zombie apocalypse, I’d be kissing a box of 12 gauge.

The structure of Wolf Squadron is fascinating. A place must be found for everyone they rescue. A fighting force needs support staff; cooks, cleaners, administrators and caregivers. The list is endless. Someone has to print up ration chits. Someone has to design them. They need mechanics and engineers. Mariners and pilots. I found it amusing that they had a surplus of solicitors.

The scale of the disaster is represented well, as are the problems of the reemergent civilisation. The military action is superlative. The zombie killing and clearing scenes are gripping. So, what’s the problem with this book? The women. In particular, Faith and Sophia, ‘Shewolf’ and ‘Seawolf’. The daughters of Steven Smith. They’re thirteen and fifteen, respectively, and they are BADASS.

I had a lot of difficulty suspending disbelief here. I tried. I tried really hard. I more of a problem with Faith. As a caricature, she’s kind of funny, but the author’s love for her comes across as sycophantic at times. It made me uneasy. Faith is an idea, not a person. She does make for an entertaining read; I had images of ‘Lollipop Chainsaw‘ in my head; young girls swearing and swinging weapons around, barely bothered by the gore splashing back at them. There is a playlist for every action and Faith could fire and reload in time to the music, whilst dancing. Neither Faith nor Sophia get seriously injured, however. Even after being ‘dogpiled’ by zombies. They handle the death of comrades and the aftermath of the apocalypse with grit and determination. They gain the respect of every man, even those more than four times their age. They are inducted as marines, without training and given rank, command and medals.

That their father let them carry on the way they did bothered me. He did respond to some of their antics with a combined father/commander talk, but then he turned around to smack down anyone who crossed his daughters’ paths. That their mother apparently had no say bothered me more. Stacey Smith is conspicuously absent from this book. I understand she will get a chapter of her own in the print version. I doubt she will be upbraiding her daughters for their unruly behaviour, from flirting with men twice their age, swanning around in bikinis, drinking at thirteen and swearing like the proverbial sailors.

It’s the end of the world and the old rules don’t apply, obviously. But with Steve Smith paying so much attention to the other aspects of rebuilding a civilisation, I would think he’d be more protective of his children. Of their reputation and well-being, at least. If not their psyche.

In general, women are not flattered by this novel. I’m not a rampant feminist and I did appreciate the author’s attempt, at times, to blur the line between the sexes, to insist women could be as BADASS as men. But did they have to wear bikinis while doing so? Did they have to enjoy having sex with four different men whilst being trapped in compartments for six months awaiting rescue? I think a lot of men would find these passages unflattering as well, as they indicate a guy can’t keep it in his pants (or in hand) for more than a couple of weeks.

Then there is the container of Paris-original dresses that Faith nearly sacrifices her unit for, because she needs something to wear to the Marine Corps ball. She’ll never get to prom, poor thing, because, you know, zombie apocalypse.

Stepping back, I can say ‘this is a story’ and leave it at that. It’s the author’s interpretation of events. His world, his rules. As a writer, I can appreciate that. But as a reader, I find it hard to enjoy a book that is constantly poking my more delicate sensibilities. Not sure, yet, if I am likely to read forward. There is a plan in place to reclaim the world and kick start our civilisation. I would like to see what happens next and I can hope John Ringo has a plan to mature the girls. But will I like it? Guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

(Featured image taken from the original painting by KMI Studio, LLC)

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