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Lt. Leary Commanding by David Drake

Cover art by Stephen Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

With the Lightnings, the first in David Drake's military science fiction/space opera series, began with the encounter of uber-geek librarian Adele Mundy and the son of the man who destroyed her family as part of a complex battle for power in the highest levels of Cinnabarian society. It was a purely accidental encounter on the distant world of Kostroma, where Cinnabar was struggling against its hereditary enemy the Alliance of Free Stars for influence, but it nearly brought them to the point of pistols at twenty paces. Only a sudden shift in the Kostroman political situation prevented that, instead throwing them together to survive and rescue their fellow Cinnabarian citizens, then find some way to turn the situation back to the Republic's favor.

In the process of fighting their way across a hostile landscape, Adele became integrated as a loyal member of Daniel Leary's crew, a warrant officer of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy with a valuable technical skill as an information officer. For the first time in years, ever since the Proscriptions that suppressed the Three Circles Conspiracy (which may well have existed only in the fevered imaginations of Corder Leary, Speaker of the Senate of the Republic of Cinnabar and Daniel's estranged father), Adele has a family, people to stand beside her, a place where she knows someone will have to take her in. Furthermore, she's acquired a retainer in the bland and colorless Tovera, formerly an assistant to an Alliance secret agent on Kostroma who'd tried to subvert Adele and was involved in the attempt to install a government favorable to the Alliance. Tovera is a psychopath who knows that something is missing from her psychological makeup, something that most people take for granted, and in order to compensate for that lack and give her life direction, she's taken to attaching herself to a strong superior. Adele is uncomfortable having Tovera following her, knowing this bland-faced woman would happily slaughter her way through a crowd full of children if ordered to do so, but feeling it even more dangerous to have this woman fall into other hands and under the guidance of someone even more ruthless and less ethical than herself.

At the conclusion of With the Lightnings Daniel lifted as commander of the Kostroman corvette Princess Cecile, which he had commandeered into the service of Cinnabar as a prize. But now he and his crew are back in Xenos, capital of the star nation of Cinnabar, and things aren't so simple any more. Although Daniel got most of his crew safely off Kostroma in the Princess Cecile when everything fell in the pot, he may not be able to keep his new command, of which he had been so proud of. He shows her off to his Uncle Stacey, the man who taught him to be one of the RCN's finest astrogators, but it seems almost certain that it will be given to a more senior officer once it is formally taken into the RCN. Not that the prize money he's gotten for taking it won't come in handy, but having to go back to being under the command of some other officer is a disappointing cloud on the horizons of his mind.

Now that Adele is back home for the first time after the Proscriptions destroyed the rest of her family, she discovers that her disinterest in things material and political aren't quite so extensive as she had believed. When she visits the old family townhouse of Chatsworth Minor, she gets a rude shock -- the distant cousin who managed to secure it had completely redecorated it in a style so frou-frou as to be stomach-turning to a woman with fond memories of the simplicity of polished hardwood floors and wide-open sunlit spaces. Furthermore, she's treated with such condescension by Mistress Rolf that she becomes determined to reclaim this one portion of her family's legacy and turn the usurper out on the street.

Meanwhile, the political situation is getting interesting on Strymon, an isolated planet that is an "ally" (read vassal state) of the Republic of Cinnabar. Like many of the worlds of this far future, Strymon uses the terms and outward forms of a republic, but functions more like a monarchy, with its presidency being for life and selected by a group of electors limited to certain elite families -- with the effect that it tends to stay in the family, becoming effectively hereditary. The previous President has been overthrown, and the minor heir has been placed in office as a puppet leader, with the real power being vested in an uncle who is hostile to Cinnabarian interests.

Now the Cinnabarian leadership wants to set their own rival heir in office, a young man whom they have kept on Xenos as a hostage for the last several years. But to do so, they must get Delos Vaughn to Strymon, and that task falls upon Lt. Daniel Leary, as a condition of his being confirmed as commanding officer of the Princess Cecile.

They haven't even lifted ship when it becomes obvious that the sinister Callert Vaughn does not intend to permit his nephew to return and threaten his grip on power. Daniel and Adele are invited to a party at the Anadyomene Gardens, a nightspot that features little groves planted with the vegetation of a thousand worlds -- an especial delight for Daniel, a born naturalist who could spend hours studying the ecological relationships of the species in a single acre. But they're no more than settling in to enjoy themselves when they're fired upon -- in spite of the rules that no one is to take weapons onto the premises. Fortunately Adele's aide Tovera has been able to sneak in her compact submachine gun, which means they are not altogether helpless.

Having survived the attack, they face their next challenge -- catching up with Commodore Pettin's squadron, which left for the minor world of Sexburga some days earlier. But just lifting off requires making it clear to Delos Vaughn that a naval corvette is not a royal yacht, and no, it will not be possible to take his entire truckload of personal belongings with them -- something that does not exactly endear Daniel Leary to Delos Vaughn.

Once they lift, Daniel begins a journey that will put all the skills he learned from his Uncle Stacey to the test. The Matrix of sponge space, through which travel the interstellar spaceships of this fictional universe, is a place where other parallel universes impinge upon one another, allowing a ship to gain access to alternate physics in which the speed of light limit is far higher, and thus travel vast distances with great rapidity. But finding one's course in it is as much an art as a science, relying upon the practiced eye of a skilled astrogator to recognize the subtle signs of a bubble universe's useful qualities in the golden shimmer of light that suffuses the Matrix. Daniel believes that, with the aid of Uncle Stacey's training and notes, he will be able to chart a far swifter course than the Commodore's older, less well operated, ships.

However, doing so also requires him to make far fewer drops back into sidereal space, stopping only to take star sightings and make course corrections rather than rest at planets -- which makes the journey risky in another way. Prolonged travel through the Matrix has strange psychological effects upon the crew and passengers. Some people say they're catching glimpses of those other universes through which one passes, while others suggest it's the effect of the human mind trying and failing to cope with That Which Should Not Be. But whatever the cause of this phenomenon, the effect is quite clear -- people begin to hallucinate. After a few days, even Daniel himself sees strange people walking through the corridors of his ship, sometimes passing right through the walls. And not all of them are entirely human.

But Daniel proves as good as his word, and he delivers his command to Sexburga in time to be waiting when Commodore Pettin arrives. While he's socializing with the local elite, he hears stories of the world's South Continent holding ruins of a prehuman civilization -- and this is a world that at least claims to have originally been colonized before the Hiatus, the thousand-year dark age in which space travel ended and all the various human worlds were on their own, struggling to rebuild their industrial base to the point they could send out starships once more.

Given Daniel's fascination with all things biological, the prospect of taking a first-hand look at the supposed ruins is just too much to resist. So off he goes on an expedition, taking a hand-picked team from his crew, but riding on aircars provided by the local leaders. The latter proves to be a big mistake, since he has hardly more than touched down before the aircar takes off, abandoning them. It seems that Delos Vaughn was more angry than Daniel realized about not being catered to when he arrived on the Princess Cecile.

Thus begins an arduous trek across the wastelands of Southern Continent and a puzzling encounter with local sophonts that may well be the mutated remnants of a lost colony from before the Hiatus. It's one of those scenes where we simply aren't going to get answers to a lot of the questions that come up -- who are these people, and if they're human, how did they mutate so extensively, so far from the human norm that they're positively grotesque, in so few generations? There's simply no time to investigate, for Daniel's first priority has to be getting himself and his crew out of their jam and back aboard the Princess Cecile so that they can lift off and rejoin Commodore Pettin's squadron on Strymon.

Still, I hope David Drake doesn't completely forget about the mysterious inhabitants of Sexburga's Southern Continent. Given that the RCN series is open-ended, it would be very nice if he were to find some way to return to this world and explore further the mystery he let us glimpse. On the other hand, sometimes it's better to leave some questions unanswered, to let some matters remain always "far trees," to be glimpsed but never approached closely, lest we draw attention to the fictional world as artifice of the author and destroy the sense of vast wide-open vistas, far more than we can ever hope to visit.

Even after Daniel successfully gets his expedition out of the jam Delos Vaughn sought to strand them in and confronts the locals who participated in it, his adventures aren't over. He no sooner arrives in the Strymon system than his ship comes under attack. The RCN's worst fears prove true -- Strymon has now turned to the notorious Alliance of Free Stars, and they have placed their own warships in the system. With his ship badly damaged, Daniel has few options, but Adelle's talents with information lets him make the most of them. It means an alliance of convenience with space pirates, but Daniel is determined to do what it takes to complete his mission.

Overall, it's yet another spectacular entry in a series that, although it may not be as wildly popular as the Honor Harrington universe, is certainly every bit as much a fun read, and in some ways is actually stronger on characterization and worldbuilding. For instance, take such subtle details as the symbol of the Republic of Cinnabar being a winged sandal -- it may not seem all that significant, until you realize that cinnabar is an ore of mercury, and the winged sandal is one of the symbols of the Roman god Mercury. Which only serves to help underline how the old Roman Republic is as much a basis upon which the Republic of Cinnabar is built as is the UK in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The ruthless Speaker Leary with his various clients and hangers-on has far more in common with a Roman Consul than with any British Prime Minister of the Napoleonic era, let alone poor mad King George III.

Review posted November 14, 2012.

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