Review: Black Tide Rising

If you haven’t read John Ringo’s awesome Black Tide series, you’re missing out. It started as a trilogy, spun out into a quartet, then inspired an anthology….not that I would know anything about that. Heh.

The premise is simple: Imagine if The Walking Dead was reasonable, and the characters smart and likable. It started with a not Zombie plague, even though the airborne virus turns the majority of those infected into violent, mindless savages with a bad tendency to bite. Due to stupid squishy policies (like a ban on shooting to kill the “poor unfortunate souls who are merely sick” …. ow. I just rolled my eyes too hard), the infected are allowed to survive until they are so numerous, civilization collapses.

Of the original quartet, the heroes are the Smith family, a group of preppers who have a survival plan for everything. Their solution to zombies? Hit the water on a boat.  For those of you who insist that Fear the Walking Dead came up with that, Ringo did it first, and screw that show.  If you don’t like that fact, tough.

Moving on.

This anthology, Black Tide Rising, is mostly a slice of life of the rest of the world during the Zombie Apocalypse, with authors from all over the place, including John Scalzi.

First, the good.

Never Been Kissed, by John Ringo. It’s a three page short story, mostly just a setup for the rest of the anthology, and a reflection of the world that the survivors have left behind, and all of the missed opportunities. And all of the teenagers who have never been, and will never be, kissed. It gets four stars, doing an awful lot with very little.

Up on the Roof, by Eric Flint. This one was just plan fun, and takes many of the elements that people have liked from Ringo novels — the details of how things get done. A family in Indiana have to figure out how to survive the infected, and the plague. Their solution? The nearby tank farms (tall structures with flat roofs, and minimal ways of access). It was fun, complete with all the questions of how to improvise a quarantine zone, a secure location, as wel as maintaining the sight lines for shooting incoming enemy. Five stars.

Staying Human, by Jodi Lynn Nye.  Making a vaccine for the plague has only one source: grinding up the spines of those are already infected. This follows the story of one hunter of the infected, who has her own agenda: she’s out to get the infected who slaughtered her family. I’d give this one three stars.

Do No Harm, by Sarah A Hoyt. I’ve only read the occasional short story from Hoyt, mostly in the Chicks in Chain Mail series. But this one made me want to buy her collected works.  This was basically the Black Tide universe meets the tv show, The Night Shift (if you have not seen that show, go out and watch them. You won’t be disappointed. That show is awesome). The setting on this one is a Texas hospital in the middle of the infected outbreak, and the shift must fight its way out through the former patients. This one was tightly written, fast paced, and it even had a proper appreciation and understanding of what a Physician Assistant is (you have no idea how much I like that). Five stars. Though it’s also odd when there were people I know dying on the page — last October’s Radio show guest Jonna Hayden is one of our bite victims, among others. So that was fun.

Not in Vain, by Kacey Ezell.  This is the story that inspired the cover, cheerleaders with guns. The basic premise is that a cheer coach (former USAF) and her team have come back from a meet, and they’re on their way to the nearest hospital to make some vaccine with a doctor friend of theirs. I think the gunshots stared on page 2 and the story didn’t slow down until it stopped. In fact, the only problem I had with the story is that it stopped at all. I really would like the continuation of this plot thread in the next anthology. There will be a next anthology, right, Mr. Ringo?  Five stars. Make it six.

How do you solve a problem like Grandpa?, by Michael Z Williamson. This is every prepper saying “I told you so.” We start with the younger generation worried about their grandfather becoming a hoarder — he has stockpiled MREs, a few hundred guns, and the pile is growing. Then the plague hits. And grandpa has the last laugh. Four stars.

Best Laid Plains, by Jason Cordova, Eric S. Brown, This was the comedy portion of our show. Thieves are about to break into the Louvre during the outbreak, and have to go through a lot of infected to do it. Four stars.

The Meaning of Freedom, also by Ringo himself. The heroes of the original quartet make a discovery about the infected, and some possible uses for them. Then it enters into a moral quandary that is going to look grizzly. I think five stars, mostly on the grounds of how much thought went into this.

These are the good stories. In fact, the great stories. These are the stories I want the follow up to. There was a great execution, and a perfect presentation, making me care about people I only spend a few minutes with, and I want to know what happens next. I want to see them survive. Even if we’re not making it a day to day, minute by minute followup. I just want to see what it looks like five years later. Maybe even one year later.

The less than good.

On The Wall, by John Scalzi and Dave Klecha.  How did this story get into this collection? This one wasn’t merely phoned in, it was called collect. Standard writing tells you who, what, where, when, why, and how. This one barely has “who,” Early Perry Mason novels were described as being transcripts, but this one barely even had identifiers on who’s speaking at any one time. Where is it? When is it? No idea. We barely got a Who! Which means Doctor Seuss would have done better. This story wasn’t even substandard, it was subpar. I’ve seen more effort put into books written by James Patterson. Who am I kidding? There are court transcripts that had more effort put into the writing of them than this. There was zero context — seriously, I couldn’t even tell that this was in Ringo’s world unless it had been in the anthology. It was paint by numbers all the way, and it felt like a bad episode of F-Troop. And yet, somehow, it had to be written by two people? Seriously? Hell, I should have tried my hand at a story. No stars. In fact, negative five stars.

Battle of the BERTs by Mike Massa … better than Scalzi’s short story, but that is a bar set so low, you’re more like to step on them and slip on it like marbles. BERTS are Biological Emergency Response Teams, who hunt down and capture zombies, in order to remove their spines and make vaccines from them. Unfortunately … stop me if you’ve heard this one: a city during the apocalypse is being run / kept safe because of either big business or the local street gangs, who are themselves in conflict. If that sounds like RoboCop, or Escape From New York  (Or LA), or any other random dystopia, you’d be right. It even has the standard downer ending. It annoys me because it is filled with the despair that never really took hole in the series.  Black Tide was all about the hope of survival, by any means necessary (actually, no, it was all hope of civilization, not just survival).  This one actually made me feel cheated. It covered aspects of the world that I wanted to know about from book one that Ringo never followed up on … and it failed to really follow through on it. This could have gone several different ways, and it chose the least daring, and most obvious, conclusion. Two stars.

The Road to Good Intentions, by Tedd Roberts — I’m not entirely certain what to do with this one. I really don’t.  I didn’t really like it, but then, I’m sure I missed something, somewhere, because I’m not entirely certain about the ending. We have an engineer and his wife out in their little backwoods cabin when the outbreak hits, and he’s linked up with the local community, with their local preacher, who’s treating this like the genuine, religious apocalypse. I’m not certain if the punchline was the standard “atheist in a foxhole,” or the creation of a new zealot, or what. Three stars, I think.

It’s actually made more confusing by the next story.

200 miles to Nashville, Christopher Smith.  A prison transport carrying a hitman falls into the middle of a pocket of infected, and have to fight their way through them, as well as a religious cult insisting that they have the cure to the plague. It’s disorienting, especially since it takes place in a similar neighborhood to the Roberts story. The Roberts story ends with a radio broadcast, this one opens with a radio broadcast, and if you blinked, you could almost swear that Smith’s story is the continuation of the Roberts’ story– that our scientist has become an end times cult leader, and playing a game of Deliverance in the back woods.  It’s a three star story, though I won’t say it was the best of the bunch, it’s nowhere near the worst.  In fact, I think I would like to follow these two characters in another story down the line. The characters were interesting, I’m just not entirely certain if I liked the story then were in. Heck, I’d say that this was a four-star story, I may just have been too tired at the time to fully appreciate it.

At the end of the day, this was, on the whole, a net positive. In fact, on the strength of the good stories alone, I think I’d give this an enthusiastic five stars.  Even with most of the not-as-good stories, on balance, it would be a slightly less enthused five stars. But Scalzi’s tips the balance downward, to four stars.

However, don’t take my word for it. I may have misread or been in the wrong frame of mind for the latter stories. Buy the book, read the book, because the good stories alone are well worth the price of admission.

About Declan Finn

Declan Finn is the author of Honor at Stake, an urban fantasy novel, nominated for Best Horror in the first annual Dragon Awards. He has also written The Pius Trilogy, an attempt to take Dan Brown to the woodshed in his own medium -- soon to be republished by Silver Empire Press. Finn has also written "Codename: Winterborn," an SF espionage thriller, and it's follow-up, "Codename: Winterborn." And "It was Only on Stun!" and "Set To Kill" are murder mysteries at a science fiction convention.
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