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The Far Side of the Stars by David Drake

Cover art by Stephen Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This volume is the third in the Republic of Cinnabar Navy series, David Drake's answer to the Honor Harrington series. Both are military science fiction in the space opera tradition, with protagonists who are members of their respective polities' armed forces and star-spanning adventures in a universe where Space Is an Ocean and the general storyline is about the interactions of various star nations in the political and military realm. However, the similarity ends there. The Honor Harrington series is largely C. S Forester's Hornblower series recycled In Space, and unfortunately, it shares many of that series' weaknesses, including characterization (both individual and of whole imagined societies) that borders on the simplistic. This has become less true in the later novels, as the storyline has taken a turn away from David Weber's original plan, but it's still pretty obvious that Manticore is a stand-in for Britain in the Napoleonic Wars, even if Haven partakes as much of the US as of France -- and there are still grounds on which one can criticize Honor Harrington herself as being to some degree a Mary Sue character, too perfect to be plausible.

By contrast, David Drake has drawn upon the work of another spinner of sea stories, namely Patrick O'Brian, whose novels of the adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin became wildly popular in the last decade of the twentieth century, before being brought to an abrupt halt by their author's untimely demise. We can see it most clearly in the two principal characters, although it is the rough-and-tumble Aubrey analog Daniel Leary who's the naturalist rather than the spy Adele Mundy, who is a librarian rather than a surgeon. Similarly, there aren't precise parallels between Drake's fictional star nations and historical Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. Although the Republic of Cinnabar occupies the equivalent narrative space that Britain does in the Aubrey-Maturin Chronicles, Cinnabar is an aristocratic republic rather than a monarchy, and its society is as much reminiscent of late Republican Rome as Georgian Britain. Similarly, the Alliance of Free Stars could be seen as an equivalent of Revolutionary or Napoleonic France, yet its name seems to echo the various Communist dictatorships' habit of calling themselves "democratic republics" or "people's republics."

This novel begins on Cinnabar, with the funeral of Daniel Leary's uncle, Stacey Bergen, the man who taught Daniel astrogation. By some weird coincidence, I was reading those early chapters right at the time I went to the funeral of a relative, so I was all the more aware of the particulars of funerary customs and how they reflect upon a society. In this aspect of Cinnabar culture the model of Rome is particularly apparent, particularly in the death masks of departed family members being brought out from their memorial niches in the household, and the parade with its mummers and clowns as a life-affirming element.

But as so many preachers repeat, funerals are for the living, to help us reach closure and move on after our loss. And similarly our protagonists must move on. Sad as Daniel may feel at the loss of the uncle who was more a mentor to him than his own father, his own career as an officer of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy has not come to an end. Yet at another level it is at something of an impasse, for the Republic has yet again made peace with the Alliance, which means that his services are not immediately needed, nor are those of the spaceship he's come to love, the Princess Cecile, a Komarran corvette brought into the Cinnabarian service after he commandeered it to foil an Alliance takeover of the Komarran government.

But the Princess Cecile is not being sent to the breakers, for this is a universe in which private spaceships are allowed to go armed, and persons wishing to travel into certain parts of the galaxy will want to avail themselves of that right in order to discourage the pirates that prey upon vessels traveling in those areas. And just such people have decided to purchase the Princess Cecile. They are Count Klimov and his wife Valentina, and they would travel to the Galactic North in search of treasures stolen from their homeworld by a renegade some decades earlier. Most important of those treasures is the Earth Diamond, a giant diamond hollowed into a globe and carved with the images of the continents.

Here we learn at last the nature of the Hiatus that brought an end to the original period of human expansion into the stars, and which serves as a sort of equivalent to the Dark Ages in Primary World history. The Hiatus was brought about by a war between Earth and her oldest colonies, a war so fierce that all the combatants were obliterated, leaving only the outer fringe of newly-settled worlds to spend the next millennium rebuilding their industrial base sufficient to travel once again between the stars. Earth was attacked by the simple expedient of throwing asteroids into its gravity well. Not just one or two to disrupt the climate, like the meteor at the end of the Cretaceous Age, but vast numbers more reminiscent of the Late Heavy Bombardment in the final phases of the Earth's formation -- an attack so terrible that the basic geology of Old Earth was disrupted and left unrecognizable. Hence the importance of the Earth Diamond as not just a treasure for the valuable material from which it was made, but also for the priceless information it carries about the historical shape of the Terrestrial continents.

It is believed that the renegade who stole these treasures fled to the Galactic North, a wild and lawless region largely ruled by religious fanatics, but with a government sufficiently weak that pirates are a significant threat to merchants and tourists alike. And while it's possible to pay protection money in hopes of not being harassed while traveling in the area, there's always the risk that the officials won't stay bribed, that the criminals won't stay satisfied, and one will suddenly be in very dire straits. Hence the Klimovs' interest in hiring a former warship and its military-trained crew to take them through these regions -- and thus a perfect opportunity for the Princess Cecile and the Sissies to earn some money. Of course it means that Daniel will not be in unambiguous command of his ship in the way he was as a RCN captain, since he is an employee of the Klimovs as the ship's new owners. But he has enough confidence that they will respect his expertise enough not to pointlessly interfere with his authority in operational matters, so he agrees to take on the mission.

Their first destination is a planet known only by a catalog number. It's uninhabited, but there are peculiar pyramidical structures of crystal that may be natural or may be the artifacts of a vanished people. It's also the home of dangerous predatory creatures that are called dragons for their vague resemblance to the creature in human mythology. Count Klimov fancies himself something of a big game hunter, so he wants to collect one as a trophy, and his wife wants to take a look at some of those crystal pyramids and see if she can find some clues to their origins. After all, the only survey of that world was a hasty one by an RCN crew primarily interested in the planet's potential value to navigation.

Of course there's nothing like overconfidence to make things interesting, and Count Klimov has it in abundance, putting them in desperate straits in combat where they're dangerously outclassed by what they thought to be naught more than a dumb beast. So it's without their hoped-for dragon head trophy that they continue to Todos Santos, the effective capital world of the region. One would think that they'd be a little chastened after their close call with the dragons, but both of them still have the attitude that they're bulletproof, that their wealth and privilege will protect them from the consequences of their indulgences in their vices, whether it be card-sharp gambling or affairs of the heart with lovers already married to someone else. Which means that Adele Mundy barely gets a chance to reacquaint herself with an exiled kinsman before she has to flee with the rest of the ship's crew to get their noble employers out of a nasty jam.

That close call is followed by adventures on several backwater planets, including one where the descendants of the crew of a stranded ship keep a tribal treasure that is an obvious replica of the missing Earth Diamond. Excited at the evidence that their renegade did indeed pass this way, the Klimovs wish to press onward to the world of New Delphi with its oracle tree. There pilgrims may sleep in the inner chamber and receive prophetic dreams, and Count Klimov hopes to gain such a dream to tell him where the Earth Diamond is.

However, things aren't so simple, because on the very night he is permitted into the inner sanctum for his incubation, Captain Leary goes missing. The monastic order of the Service of the Tree clearly expect the loss to be shrugged off as a tragic accident, but they've grossly underestimated the loyalty of the Sissies to their beloved captain. These hardened spacers are not leaving until they have him back, and they're ready to do whatever it takes to compel these monks to admit just what has happened to them.

Rescuing Daniel Leary also uncovers the ugly secret behind the Oracle of the Tree. It has no consciousness of its own, but instead seems to support and amplify a human consciousness -- but in the process, the person becomes an effective prisoner of the Tree, trapped in a dreaming state, at one with the universe yet unable to exercise effective consciousness. For centuries the Servants of the Tree have been kidnapping people they regarded as more valuable in that state than continuing their dissolute or criminal lives -- but Daniel and the Sissies make it clear this state of affairs will be tolerated no longer. Henceforth this role will be filled from the leadership of the Order.

In his brief time bound to the Tree, Daniel now knows where the Earth Diamond is located -- but he sees it only as a means to a greater end. For even when he is on half-pay and under contract to a private employer, he is still a commissioned officer of the RCN. During the brief time he was bonded to the Tree, he saw a grave threat to t he safety of the Republic he's sworn to defend -- but he needs a ship to carry out the attack he needs to make. With the Earth Diamond he purchases the Princess Cecile from his former employers and arranges to get them to Todos Santos, where they can book passage home to Novy Sverdlovsk. Then it's off to attack and cripple the base the Alliance is building, although that involves a trip to refit a wrecked spaceship that they can afford to lose, and which nobody will connect with the RCN, thus avoiding an international incident while the two star nations are at peace.

The character development in this story was interesting, particularly the way in which the author makes explicit for the first time the fact that Adele Mundy is asexual. It was implied in the first two books, in her lack of interest in matters of the flesh and the way in which she was viewed in a strictly collegial fashion by Daniel Leary, a noted lady's man and skirt-chaser. But this could have been dismissed as a general asceticism on her part as a result of her earlier trauma, until the scene on New Delphi when a young woman of the Servants of the Tree, torn between worldly desires and the belief that she is doing too as part of the Order, approaches her for advice and she responds that she has none to offer for the simple reason that she does not feel the desires this woman feels, and thus the other character must work things out for herself.

I'm wondering if this is part of the reason that readers tend to underestimate and discount the degree to which politically conservative writers include diversity in their characterization -- because they don't make a big deal about their characters' membership in various identity groups. Their characters are first and foremost individuals, and the things that would mark them off as members of various identity groups only come up as it's relevant to the story, not as tick-boxes to be marked off to make one's political correctness score. For instance, Michael Z. Williamson has a transgender character in his Ripple Creek novels, but her having been born male and transitioned is only mentioned in passing, so it's quite possible to read right over it and never notice. Yet that can actually be a strength for the story, since far too many novels that are written with particular attention to being Inclusive and diverse often read as having been obviously written with the Political Correctness tick-box lists in hand, and end up reeking of the sour taste of Good For You that brings back far too many memories of being required to read this or that book in class because it would Build Character or otherwise accomplish someone else's goals.

Review posted December 14, 2012.

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