Johnny's Reviews > Princess Ryan's Star Marines

Princess Ryan's Star Marines by Mark G. McLaughlin
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Aug 21, 2013

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Anyone who knows what FUBAR means (let’s euphemistically say, “Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition), the WWII equivalent of von Moltke’s assertion that no battleplan survives contact with the enemy, will recognize the driving force in Princess Ryan’s Star Marines. In manic pseudo-comic (or, perhaps, more accurately, that of “black comedy” (like M.A.S.H. and Catch-22, not minstrels or inner city rage )) style, the reader can identify with the characters in recognizing that things can always get worse. There is almost a “sadistic” funny in the way disaster and inconvenience after unpleasant surprise after miscommunication pile up within this FUBAR of a rescue mission. Things are often as out of control as in a Preston Sturges movie (and, indeed, I suspect that the Corporal Sturges in the novel may be a nod to the cinematic master of comedic confusion—even though there’s a lot more bloodshed in the present work than Sturges would have ever dreamed of). To me, as I will clarify later, Princess Ryan’s Star Marines is a parody of every military adventure ever written, albeit a rather bloody parody (and I’m not using British slang here).

The truth is that the background of the book led me to expect a young adult adventure. Indeed, a dark side of my personality sort of wanted it to be a poorly written young adult adventure. There’s a vicious side to me that wanted to write, “As a novelist, Mark McLlaughlin is a great game designer.” While the c.v. of McLaughlin as game designer is, indeed, impeccable, I have to confess that Princess Ryan’s Star Marines is neither poorly written nor a young adult adventure. Don’t let the understandable nepotism of the choice of cover artist fool you. It may lack realism, but the aspects of warfare in the novel don’t mince words or images. The vocabulary is far beyond most Y.A. literature and, as I will note later, getting the most out of this book requires (or at least deserves) a more sophisticated perspective than that to which the Y.A. genre is designed to play. You see, I didn’t have great expectations for Princess Ryan’s Star Marines, even though McLaughlin generously sent me a review copy. So, let me go back to my first encounter with this intellectual property.

I vaguely remember being at the old Avalon Hill HQ in Baltimore and having one of the developers explain to me that it was a game created for the designer’s daughter. My initial reaction was that it had a lot of fighting for a game designed for a daughter. My next reaction was to remember how my own daughter loved to play Greg Costikyan’s The Creature Who Ate Sheboygan. That wasn’t exactly a game of tea parties and fashion shows, either. The truth is, no matter about the setting’s original purpose, McLaughlin didn’t hold back on the action in the game setting or in the novel.

Starting as a science-fiction miniatures game called Princess Ryan’s Space Marines, published by SimTac and loaded with gorgeous lead miniatures, the property became an elaborate boxed game from The Avalon Hill Game Company with the new name, Princess Ryan’s Star Marines. If you notice the difference, it would be my wager that a certain U.K. company which publishes a franchise that relies heavily on Space Marines ™ sent a “friendly” little “cease and desist” order. But all is not lost because there is a funny line alluding to the Space Marine/Star Marine nomenclature on p. 80 of the novel.

In fact, part of the charm of this novel is the humorous parody of corporations, bureaucracy and the genre. Princess Ryan’s Star Marines isn’t really the juvenile novel I expected (from knowing the history of the game and seeing the cover art—lovingly drawn by McGlaughlin’s son but not creating a sense of realism or plausibility for the universe. Rather, I would say that the novel’s parody elements remind you of those jokes for the adults which are often embedded in “children’s” cartoons. Certainly, lines like Grand Admiral Jellica’s musing, “Thank God my mother built up the public relations department instead of wasting money on battleships. Telling everyone how strong you are is much cheaper and easier than proving it.” (p. 96) And I doubt that too many young adults who haven’t yet entered their chosen careers would really appreciate the truth inherent in the following description: “She would bury them all in bound paper reports. … She measured the efficacy of her argument by the weight of the paper used to support her position.” (p. 102) Or even the very cynical, “A thousand years of history had taught the throne the danger of giving any commander a bigger fleet than the one kept at home. That would put forward unacceptable temptatons that even the most loyal and trusted confidant would be hard-pressed to resist.” (p. 238) Few people who haven’t studied history would understand, “Truth did not get a chance to be the first casualty in this war, it hadn’t even been drafted by either side.” (p. 260)

I liked the mixture of globalized economy and mega-corporations such that shuttles could be described as Ford-Mitsubishi, Dodge-Messerschmitt, Grumman-Porsche, Volkswagon-MiG, Chrysler-Lockheed, and Boeing-Saab (p. 46). Add to that a rather important ship in the story that is attributed to General Electric and you get the idea that the mega-corporations are running the store but no one is taking responsibility. I loved the idea that the crews had to form a “gunnery club” and fund their own ammunition in order to train on the guns. You can imagine how poorly stocked the ammo bay would be under such circumstances, can’t you? And, I was also amused at the hodge-podge of nationalities represented in many of the character names: Indira O’Malley, Patrick Luigi Giuseppi O’Brien, Julia Cacafuentes-St. Smythe, and Ivan Gregorivich Solistes. Dare I mention obvious parody names like Mr. Midshipman Horntooter? How about concluding the list of “I”-alliterated ships (Indefatigable, Indestructible, Invincible, and Indivisible) with Indecipherable (all we need is Inconceivable or Indisposed to fill this out)? I also liked some of the acronyms like WIMPs, Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (p. 225) and INCC (Imperial Navy Corps of Correspondents—p. 240). In fact, I liked hmm ‘n haw, I mean, H.I.M.N.A.W. (Her Imperial Majesty Naval Auxiliary Warship) as an acronym, as well. In short, some of the book’s atmosphere is so “tossed against the wall” that it will jar some readers out of their suspension of disbelief. If that doesn’t put you off, read on.

Some of my favorite lines appeared toward the end of the book (or maybe, I just remember them better as I’m typing this up). As one character supports a commanding officer after a particularly unwise tactical decision, she considers that her commander was “…probably insane, but insanity did not override the privileges of rank…” (pp. 489-90) Another clever phrase was, “Imperial Legionnaires do not simply take ground, they obliterate it.” (p. 499) Although the latter may sound like a recycled Chuck Norris joke, it really fit the situation being described.

At any rate, since the earlier Avalon Hill version of this universe had a hostage rescue as its centerpiece, you certainly can figure out what this novel has in common with the average video game. That’s right! The princess is being held hostage. But even as I share that tiny “spoiler,” let me just protest that she wasn’t “exactly” the hostage the bad guys were looking for and the rescue operation isn’t nearly as straightforward as it would be in a video game. In fact, the constant reality that kept me coming back to this novel was McLaughlin’s quick shifts in tropes and apparent plot devices—not to be confused with the style of using short chapters, quick shifts in point-of-view characters, and cliffhangers.

Lightning-fast camera cuts may be the most common editing style in modern cinema and it may be perfect for the current generation, but anyone who has read my reviews will remember that I even whine about how often George R. R. Martin jumps around between characters in his epic tales. I confess to being a cranky old man who likes to read at a leisurely pace and get involved deeply with characters. So, I have to confess that Princess Ryan’s Star Marines, as well-paced and fast-cutting as an episode of The A Team, Mission: Impossible, or the latest summer blockbuster of an action movie, gave me far too many opportunities to put the book down. Oh, it was good enough to pick back up and I had a lot of head-shaking chuckles and gave my share of admiring nods for clever phrasing, yet the short, choppy chapters gave my ADD too many opportunities for distractions to kick in.

I enjoyed the number of cliffhangers and times that McLaughlin used the tried and true humorous ploy of, “Just when you think matters can’t get worse, here comes that unexpected topper.” In spite of just disparaging the quick cinematic cuts, it’s pretty easy to imagine certain scenes through the lens of the camera (I’m thinking of O’Brien’s clever ploy at the base on Pluto and certain space battles with incredibly outclassed and ludicrously anachronistic equipment in play). I liked the cynical political jockeying behind the scenes—especially those involving the incredibly amoral and Objectivist (in the best Ayn Rand tradition) Senator Hyburium Slatburn. The use of poor and outdated equipment has consequences which prove, in the heat of the action, to be both positive and, as you would expect, negative. Toward the climax of the final land-based battle (I hope it doesn’t surprise anyone that there is a final space-based battle!), purloined (or should that be “borrowed”) advanced technology has quite a different “impact” than the eponymous protagonists were expecting (see especially p. 482).

I also enjoyed the humorous way certain characters quoted different verses from Isaiah (in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) in dueling matches with scripture verses (usually out of context) as their chosen weapons. This was a neat conceit that might have been offensive to some readers if it weren’t the obvious respect shown to the biblical book on p. 492: “’The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah are filled with the Lord’s judgment upon the people of Judah for their sins, but those last twenty-seven chapters,’ she sighed, ‘are pure gold they are, pure gold. They are filled with words of hope and comfort for a once proud people held captive, just as we are.” This observation is somewhat oversimplified (since there is hope in Isaiah 7, 11, and elsewhere, as well as in 40, 43, 50, 52), but it captures a lot of the flavor of the biblical book and demonstrates that McLaughlin wasn’t demeaning the Bible with his verse duels.

So, with all the positives I am offering up about this volume, why does it get a three star rating? Those who regularly read my reviews know that three stars is a solid rating from me, but you’ll wonder why I deducted those two stars. One star was reduced purely because of personal taste. The book is too choppy and jumps around too much for my taste. I know that’s cinematic and modern (post-modern?) in style, but it takes away from the experience for me (as noted earlier). The other is that the denouement of the book isn’t very satisfying—even (spoiler alert!) for a book with an anticipated sequel. It feels very much as if the story was chopped off at the end and this is further evidenced by apparent “rushing” toward the end.

Apparent evidence of rushing would include the confusion of the Witherspoon character in the vice-regal fleet with the Playgum character in the imperial fleet on p. 434. There is no way that Witherspoon would have or could have been on the imperial command ship in that scene. Add to that some typographical errors such as were not particularly noticeable in the first part of the book: “With one gun knocked out and an another ineffective…” (p. 440) or “I’m taking a platoon of your Guards with me. Kept the rest here, in reserve.” (p. 474) Finally, after all the loss of life and effort in getting to the princess (whether or not the rescue was successful), one would have thought that there would be more of a reaction than having a supporting character throw out a punch line (p. 510) which struck me as more petty than funny, anyway (True to the speaker’s character, but unfunny nonetheless!).

So, who would like this novel? Obviously, as with any literature based on another intellectual property, it would appeal to fans of the game. It should also appeal to those who consider The Dirty Dozen to be more than a comedy bit in Sleepless in Seattle. There is a combination between desperation and comedy that is balanced just right to some audiences. It should appeal to those who like to play role-playing games or miniatures games set in science-fiction or science-fantasy universes—even if they don’t play the intellectual property on which this novel is based. And, I think it will have some appeal to those who feel like Joseph Heller could have given us Catch-22 with a somewhat lighter hand. Who knows? Some of us might even try the game—either in its original SIMTAC form or Avalon Hill revision.
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August 21, 2013 – Shelved
August 21, 2013 – Shelved as: science-fiction
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