Thanks to a white-out level blizzard this fine Minnesota spring that has shut down the critical highway (I’m going to laugh at the next person who says global warming to me) I can’t make it to work and as a happy byproduct I have an extra review for everyone!
Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter Alpha, the third installment in his MHI series, is an amazing read that highlights the singular strength of solid characterization: If you make every character rich and fully realized, then every character should be interesting enough to star in a story of their own. Just like Bujold’s Lord Vorpatril’s Alliance and the first five X-Wing books by Stackpole (I, Jedi included), Correia takes a supporting character, puts them center stage, and then weaves the story through the universe so well that I shudder to think how much poorer the story would be without this installation.
Fans of the first two MHI books will feel a bit of a change in gears here, since the first two books had a heavy flavor of supporting supernatural subcultures (The Magic Elf Kingdom and the gnomes, for example). This story takes place within one subculture (the fangs and claws kind) so there is not a lot of variety. Alpha makes up for that by delving deeper into aspects of the mythology that we have seen before.
The staples that make MHI such a delight are still there. Anyone who has worked around the government can enjoy stories that highlight waste, inefficiency, and corruption (and then defeat those pervasive evils). There is a new bureaucrat on the scene who makes previous feds look like knights in shining armor, a bad guy we’ll love to loathe. Technical and enjoyable shooter details are less important to this story, but they’re still here, and I enjoyed Correia looking at some historical gun as well (to reassure the cutting-edge shooter, there is talk of killer robots in book four, so just hang in there…). High-octane action, meddlesome minions of the moldy Old Ones? Check! But this time Harbringer’s hunters can’t help, and he’s got to save the world almost alone.
Correia’s characterizations are as strong and enjoyable as ever. He treats the culture of Northern Michigan with the same respect and understanding as he gave to the southern culture of the previous books. Finns with whom one durst not mess? Yep. Honorable, capable everyday people from the margins of life who step up and kick monster butt when needed? These Yoopers made me clap my hands more than once. There are not one but two evil overlords to face off with, ghosts of the past to lay to rest, a new batch of monsters cooked up by extradimensional crustaceans of doom, and lots and lots of werewolves, including Harbringer’s undefeated rival for the title King of the Werewolves who is in town to settle the matter once and for all.
Back-story goodies abound. Want to know how Earl kept his humanity under the curse? It’s in there. Where can I get an indestructible minotaur-hide bomber jacket? You’ll see. Where are the other hunter groups? You’ll see some. We even get to meet the dude Z nearly killed before the first book. Who he is and the role he plays turned my head and made me take notice that Correia’s plot arcs are not always so predictable as his detractors might think.
Like any good fractal, each iteration must be identifiable on its own and distinctly part of the whole. Harbringer’s adventure does not just fill in back-story and advance a supporting character. Correia makes the events of this book relevant, even critical to the series as a whole. It uses the extra viewpoint to expand the mythos and track changes that are going to catch the main character (but not us faithful readers) right upside the head in Monster Hunter Legion.
To dig into the story a little deeper from a Christian perspective, Correia gives a lot to like. Personal integrity and self-reliance are ongoing tones in his story. People who sit around and wait for the government to save them tend to get eaten. Those who rely on themselves and friends (who are loyal to them and vice-versa) overcome. Any government will inevitably be run by sinful people, and that will result in abuses of power (similar to the warning God gave the king-seeking Israelites via Samuel). It is an unapolagetically American book in that sense.
There is a special bonus to this book that makes it my favorite Monster Hunter Novel to date. People talk a lot about redemption, paying your debt to society, and that all people can change. This is usually followed by a pause, and then a quick list of the really hated who can never change and just need to rot in prison and die. Correia is one of the few authors I know who doesn’t just say that some of the finest hunters I know have been felons, but he follows J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea and places moral orcs (Moral orcs as opposed to physical ones, in urban fantasy that is an important distinction) on both sides of the divides. There are honorable men and women on the wrong side of the law, and scum-sucking bad guys wearing badges.
There is an element of the old moral-superiority-bigot in the common theme that a bad guy, repenting, has only one more job: to expire. This backhanded idea of redemption continues to imprison the guilty within the definition of their crimes. Vader, having defeated the emperor, is still Vader, and a good world has no place for Vader so he must pass away. If he were truly Anakin again, then the story would have needed a Jedi Master to lead the rebirth of the order, but he is still a Sith Lord according to plot function, no matter what Luke calls him as he dies.
Correia only has an element of the trend. There is another that is rare enough to be pure gold, and that is the concept of true redemption. Characters who start off, fall into, or wrestle with evil can find their way to a new identity. With that new identity comes acceptance, a chance at useful work, and meaning. They have a new definition, not simply a new role in the story, and that makes me pretty happy and jives well with my understanding of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.
This book is full of another idea that I enjoy. Heroes are not devoid of battles, weaknesses, and struggles. Nor, like Greek tragic heroes, are they doomed to never overcome them. Instead, facing and enduring in the face of their own struggles, people gain strength, become more than they were before.
Finally, I enjoy the idea of legacy that lies within this book. Events of the past continue to echo into the future in meaningful ways. Sure, the heroes do the heavy lifting, but if previous heroes had not overcome in past generations the final victory of this or that evil could never have happened. Like engineers, the heroes of this book frequently stand on the shoulders of giants. This is another affirming part of Correia’s mythos that enjoy, the idea that even if the final victory in our conflicts does not lie within sight, our battle to overcome our own challenges in life may still be critical. Fiction like this fires me up to keep going forward, because maybe in my grand-children’s adulthood our struggles will bear fruit we cannot imagine.
A fun romp, some good morals, plenty of action, fun banter, and more: Monster Hunter Alpha is a real treat.