Review: 'Rise of the Penguins' and 'The Warlord, the Warrior, the War', by Steven Hammond
The War of the Species has begun. An ancient race of penguin has reemerged. From this race a powerful leader declares himself Overlord and unites the penguin clans of the world. His goal: to drive the human presence away from Antarctica and to exact revenge for the atrocities of the past against penguinkind. (Rise of the Penguins blurb)
Killer penguins are rising up in a war against humans for world domination! Is Steven Hammond serious? Judging by his hilarious Facebook page, hell, no! But his Rise of the Penguins series (published through CreateSpace, no matter what he says about Rockhopper Books), is so straight-faced that it is a good example of Rambo-type take-no-prisoners military fiction. With spear-carrying penguins.
Rise of the Penguins, December 2012, trade paperback $19.99 (8 + 722 pages), Kindle $3.99.
The Warlord, The Warrior, The War, September 2013, trade paperback $6.99 (6 + 112 pages), Kindle $1.99. Both by Steven Hammond, Clovis, CA, Rockhopper Books.
The penguins were relentless. They kept coming and coming. […] Beach goers who were enjoying a late spring afternoon were taken completely unawares. The carnival-like atmosphere of the day turned to carnage. To give their families a chance to run, men swatted at the diminutive horrors with boogie boards, umbrellas, or whatever they could find. […] The local sheriffs arrived shortly thereafter and gunfire erupted as the deputies laid down suppressing fire to cover those who still had the ability to escape. Some made it – most didn’t. […] A single penguin against a car had no effect, but hundreds made quick work of Detroit, Germany, and Japan’s best. Twenty cops repeatedly fired into the mass of the penguin incursion, but as one went down, three replaced it. The officers were soon overwhelmed and had to make a hasty retreat.(p. 5)
Penguins have the reputation of being silly, stupid, avian Antarctic clowns. But humans have forgotten that ominous popular cartoon T-shirt of the late 1980s: “Penguins Have No Mercy”, showing bullet holes in the background as a penguin raises a submachine gun. Since Antarctica was reached in the late 18th century:
… they were seen as […] a source for lamp oil, food for sled dogs, or other uses which resulted in the death of millions of penguins. This was a time they never forgot. (back-cover blurb)
Their evolution in the 20th century to embarrassingly funny cartoon fodder was little better. For many decades, the penguins seethed in silence. Then a leader emerged from the emperor penguins. Calling himself the Overlord, he built up an elite cadre known as the Royal Emperors who took command of a newly-organized Penguin Defense Alliance.
From the Antarctic coasts to the Argentine and Australian beaches, the Falkland Islands, the Galapagos, everywhere there were penguin colonies, they joined the Penguin Defense Alliance – not always willingly. Emperors, Rockhoppers, Chinstraps, Gentoos, Macaronis, Kings, Magellanics, Adélies, and others swelled their ranks. The Overlord built up their strength and planned over years for a global war of liberation. And then they would strike everywhere simultaneously!
Rise of the Penguins follows three groups. One is Overlord Antaean and his lieutenants (the Royal Emperors Supreme Commander Liutites, General Diutes, General Talus and Consort Mearna; the Kings Colonel Kimmer and Commander Kiley; the Rockhoppers General Treeg and Captain Nok as well as many others) and armies as they invade the human homelands. A second is the human defenders, as seen through the eyes of wildlife photographer Randy Lee and climatologist Gina Rosedale. (See the cover by Pablo Fernandez.)
The third is the penguin rebel underground; some of whom agree with Antaean’s anti-human goals but not his brutal subjugation of other penguins, and some of whom want peace between both penguins and humans. But the dissidents are fragmented, and have no real leader – until Lieutenant-General Lavour, the small Chinstrap penguin who is the company commander assigned to Pack Ice Command, begins to question the constant warfare and Overlord’s real motives.
Rise of the Penguins gets off to an almost-fatal start. The penguin high command is shown as so sadistic that there is no real doubt that Overlord’s Penguin Defense Alliance is unstable and will soon turn the other penguins against it:
“Sir, a message from General Diutes,” announced Lieutenant-General Lavour.
A large flipper struck the unsuspecting Chinstrap across his beak and sent him flailing to the ground.
“This is not a social gathering. You will address me as Supreme Commander and wait for me to acknowledge your presence before you speak! Is that understood, Chinstrap?” Liutites angrily proclaimed, adding an evil, condescending tone to his rebuke. (pgs. 3-4)
It is not usually recommended military practice for a commanding officer to publicly brutalize his staff in front of the troops, especially for an insignificant offence. Roman Emperor Caligula turned his personal Praetorian Guard against him by just publicly ridiculing the Guard’s commander. This is especially a bad idea in terms of emphasizing penguin species superiority in a supposed bastion of penguin equality.
In fact, this is an excellent example of why this novel basically does not work. It is too straight-faced for a comedy and too unbelievable for a serious drama. The setup is not convincing. Have humans really been preying on penguins for the last 150 years? Consider the number of penguins still left, and compare it with those of the species that humans have really been preying upon, such as the passenger pigeon (now totally extinct), the wild turkeys, and the American bison (reduced from millions to barely enough to keep from going extinct).
I could accept for the sake of drama the concept of all penguins rising up in a war of extermination against humanity, but not the penguins adopting human military formats such as formal armies with generals, colonels, majors, captains, and so on down to the sergeants, private first classes, and regular grunts. Why spears and not guns? Hammond does cover that; the spears can be used with just flippers, while the guns would require fingers to operate – and when the penguins absolutely have to have fingers, they mutate a new penguin species too conveniently.
Unfortunately, this touch of reality just calls attention to the unreality of the rest of the novel. Yes, the penguins would need a language to communicate among themselves, but here their own language is too much like English, and they learn and adopt the humans’ English and Spanish much too easily:
”Hello. I [Randy] don’t know what to say.” He was caught off guard once again by the penguins’ intellect. It was one thing for them to know how to speak one human language, but two was totally unexpected and left him flabbergasted once again. “My name is Randy. What’s yours?”
“I am Leepoh.” (p. 172)
Too much of the story is motivated by inexplicable “feelings”:
“You’re right Captain Nok, but the longer you’re here, the more you’ll get this feeling of a …” Lavour paused as he chose his words carefully, “an undercurrent of mistrust.”
Leepoh and Nok looked at Lavour, not believing what they heard. Leepoh and Nok exchanged glances. “How so?” asked Leepoh.
“I can’t say exactly, nor do I really know. It’s just a feeling.” (p. 148)
This is followed too soon by:
Something was giving him the feeling of being watched, but he couldn’t place what or how. (p. 148)
Leepoh was compelled to see the human for reasons he could not explain. All he knew was that he had to. (p. 149)
Rise of the Penguins alternates between long scenes of the penguins’ almost-generic ruthless attacks against all humans, and the humans’ defense as personally seen by Randy and Gina. It grows increasingly unbelievable that Randy and/or Gina just happen to be in all of the key human scenes; and that, while all of the other humans die dramatically, they just happen to escape to the next key scene.
Another embarrassingly obvious setup is the Emperor and King penguin commanders’ arrogant disdain of the other penguin species, at the same time that they espouse the equality of all penguin species. This is a foreshadowing of the distrust among the penguins that will doom the Penguin Defense Alliance, which the Royal Emperor penguins treat from the beginning as an unofficial Penguin Empire, of which they are the divinely-ordained natural ruling class.
But for undemanding readers who just want a lot of anthro military action against unsuspecting humans, Rise of the Penguins is hard to beat. The first 95 pages are devoted solely to a combined Rockhopper and Gentoo colony’s long, bloody retaliation against a ship of Hispanic poachers, which sets off the War of the Species.
Rise of the Penguins is a massive 722 pages, but this is just the beginning. The cover blurbs and the advertising make it clear that Steven Hammond is making the War of the Species a life’s work. There is a nudge-nudge-wink-wink attitude about his announcement of his expectation of winning the Nobel Prize in Literature for this, but not about his promise to produce numerous sequels. His second book, The Warlord, The Warrior, The War (September 2013) has already appeared (a mere novella at 112 pages), and he is currently at work on Whispers of Shadows, to be published in 2014.
The humans have brought the fight to Anarctica … As the War of the Species rages, the Overlord has sent General Diutes to regain control of the fracturing Penguin Defense Alliance. Desperate for a strong leader in the General’s absence, Antaean offers the rogue Warlord of Planarseae the chance to take Diutes’ place and stall the human onslaught. But Talus and his band of outcasts have no loyalty to the Overlord ... Russian-born mercenary Trofim Grekov has spent the past twenty years as a specialist in handling esoteric biological threats. Hoping for a final payday to retire to a quiet life, he accepts an offer from the dubious Colonel Jenson. In Antarctica, Trofim will learn the truth about what he is fighting and who he can trust … if anybody. Set against the backdrop of the action in Rise of the Penguins, events in The Warlord, the Warrior, the War will have implications for the future of mankind and penguin alike ... (The Warlord, the Warrior, the War blurb)
The Warlord, the Warrior, the War is a completely separate story (cover by Caner Inciucu), set against the background of humanity’s counterattack in Antarctica. There are two groups, one of penguins and one of humans, both composed of the kill-crazy outcasts of their kind. Nobody in either group can trust his or her partners.
“We do not fight for the Penguin Defense Alliance or the Overlord; we fight because that is what we are born to do. We are mayhem, we are chaos and we are fear.” (p. 35)
That is the penguins’ General Talus, the Warlord, the commander of Forward Command One, but he mirrors the attitude of the humans. The only slight difference is that the penguins’ p.o.v. is with their commander, while the human international mercenaries’ is with one of their lesser members, Sgt. Trofim Grekov:
In the next instant, Trofim’s knife was unsheathed and the edge of the blade pressed against Fabio’s mouth in the time it took to blink. He leaned in close to the driver and spoke slow and quiet. “I don’t need a chauffeur on this trip. If I hear one more comment like that, I’ll cut your jaw from your head to make certain you won’t say it again.” As if having an eight-inch blade pressed against his mouth wasn’t enough, Trofim’s Russian accent punctuated the threat. (p. 41)
And Trofim is one of the more stable of the human mercs, who have been entrusted with an A bomb to attack the penguins. Can either side keep from killing all of its comrades before the other attacks?
As I say, these two books are straight-faced penguin-vs.-human military action for undemanding readers. What is recommended to everyone is Steven Hammond’s very funny Rise of the Penguins Facebook page.
With the guards fully distracted, the penguin infiltrator easily commandeers the helicopter.