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The Ship Avenged by S.M. Stirling

Cover art by Stephen Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

As Anne McCaffrey's fame grew as the author of the Pern books, her fans also took an interest in the other novels she'd written, even those that belonged to completely different fictional universes, and wanted more about those worlds and characters. However, for various reasons (mental distance from the self who had written those works, existing contractual obligations, desire to move on to new fictional worlds rather than try to pick up the threads of old ones), she wasn't where she could undertake the project of writing additional novels in those universes. Thus publisher Jim Baen, who'd already experienced significant success with arrangements for other authors to write in a part of an author's fictional universe that was lying fallow, proposed a series of collaborations, by which Ms McCaffrey would provide an outline and the other author would do most of the heavy lifting of producing a finished text. Since the collaborators would be authors who had a few professional sales but hadn't yet reached significant name recognition, being teamed up with someone on the level of Anne McCaffrey would introduce them to her huge fanbase, and potentially result in a significant bump in their sales of their own original universe novels.

This project had two major parts. In one, the Ireta adventures would be extended with a trilogy that dealt with the Planet Pirates, a threat that was only glimpsed in Dinosaur Planet and Dinosaur Planet Survivors. And in the second half, the world of The Ship Who Sang would be extended not with direct sequels, but with stories about other shellpeople and their partnerships with regular humans in various trying situations. Helva might be referred to as a shellperson of note, but she would never actually appear on-camera in any of these novels.

Among the authors Jim Baen brought aboard for this project was S. M. Stirling, author of the Domination of the Draka novels. And the resultant novel, The City Who Fought, does read very much like "the Domination of the Draka meet the Ship Who Sang." In particular, the villains of the piece, the Kolnari, are tyrannical slavers who have a taste for sybaritic luxury in their casual dress, when they aren't in their power armor suits.

However, they aren't straight-up copies of the Draka. Physically, they've got some weird variant on melanin to protect them from the high UV levels of Kolnar's primary, a melanin variant which gives them skin of a gunmetal black so intense that, in combination with their stark white hair, they bear a striking resemblance to the Drow elves from the various fantasy role playing games. Furthermore, their society lacks the astonishing virtue that makes the Draka such sympathetic villains, to the point of becoming Villain Sues at times. There is no sense of racial solidarity among the Kolnari, and they are kept from going at one another's throats only by strict laws and brutal punishments. Every Kolnari captain is always alert for any opportunity to gain advantage at the expense of other Kolnari captains, and backstabbing and betrayal are as common as cooperation on a raid. These flaws were just enough of an opening that Simeon and the other defenders of the titular city, a space station in a system with no habitable planets but huge asteroid belts, could exploit it to set their enemies against one another and buy just enough time to keep the Kolnari too busy to carry out their plans before Federation forces could arrive with real military force.

The City Who Fought was sufficiently successful that Jim Baen was willing to buy a sequel, but either Anne McCaffrey wasn't interested in producing further outlines or S. M. Stirling came up for the idea on his own. As a result, The Ship Avenged carries only Mr. Stirling's byline, and only the characters that were his own creations have reappeared in it. Since the brainships and the shellperson technology are Ms. McCaffrey's literary creation, none of them ever actually appear on-camera for more than the tiniest cameo roles. Simeon from The City Who Fought is referred to from time to time, since he played a major role in the earlier lives of the principal characters in this novel, but that is it.

In this novel, the Kolnari plan to take their revenge upon humanity for their humiliation at station SSS-900-C. Belazir, now an old man rapidly decaying into decrepitude thanks to the flaws in the mutated genome which give his people their tremendous resistance to radiation and their rapid maturation rates, has acquired a deadly virus that will have ravage humanity and leave those few who are naturally immune to it psychologically shattered. He begins his vengeance by kidnapping Amos ben Sierra Nova, the religious leader of the planet he had earlier tried to invade, only to be foiled. Amos is to become the unwitting carrier of his hideous virus.

Meanwhile, the feral child Joat, who was adopted by Simeon and his brawn Channa, has grown up and become the youngest ship's captain ever, falls into some interesting trouble. A routine delivery to New Destinies turns into disaster when her attempt to evade a spy leads her to break security regulations. She is discovered and fined, but when she protests the inordinate amount, it is doubled twice over. Suddenly she owes as much as the ship is worth, and she cannot obtain a hearing to protest until after the deadline to pay. It appears that her ship will be sold to pay the fine and she will be trapped as an effective debt slave forever.

Joat is not about to give up so easily. In order to raise the necessary money, she takes on a dangerous smuggling job. This leads her through a tangle of underworld connections to the uncle who used her as a stake in a gambling game and lost. He has since cleaned up his act and kicked the drug habit which had led him to make such a stupid wager. Joat's overwhelming rage still leads her to needlessly antagonize him, and nearly ruins everything. Only quick action by one of her crew patches over the breach and they are sent to retrieve Amos from Belazir. Thanks to some inside information from the spy service, they know to be suspicious and not expose themselves to the disease he carries. Unfortunately, Joat has to exchange one of her own crew to get Amos out.

Belazir's son Karak, always despised for his "weakness," has become sick of his father's endless cruelty and smitten by Amos' fellow captive Soamosa, who was to have been Amos' bride. Risking his father's murderous wrath, Karak first gives Soamosa the vaccine against the virus and then hijacks a fightercraft to take her to safety. However, he neglected to protect himself from the disease and begins to fall ill. By some fragment of good fortune they encounter Joat's ship and are rescued. Joat then determines to rescue her crewmember.

Belazir has been satisfying his sadistic urges on this crewman, Bros, who had once been an agent in the struggle to free space station SSS-900-C from the Kolnari. Joat has to masquerade as a human mercenary for the Kolnari in order to sneak aboard their mothership. When she gets Bros free, she runs straight into the attack the angered organized crime forces have mounted on the Kolnari for attacking one of their own (Belazir had kidnapped Joat's uncle and his mistress). Suddenly her tactical innovations turn disastrous because she cannot communicate to them that she is on the same side as them, and she has to return to the Kolnari ship to hide.

After the Kolnari are beaten, Joat still has the trouble of the money owed against her ship. It is going to be sold at auction to pay the fine, and just as she despairs of ever raising enough money to save it, it is taken off the auction list. Her friends have pulled through for her after all.

On the whole, it's a good continuation of the Kolnari storyline, and it's nice to see that Joat grew up to be a responsible person who cares for those who give her their loyalty -- even those who don't have regular fleshly bodies. The moment when she realizes that her ship's AI has achieved personhood and she has no computer powerful enough for him to take up residence in, so that he'll be handed off like any other part of the ship to its new owners, is particularly touching.

On the other hand, the necessity of keeping the brainships and other shellpersons on the margins of the story does lessen the sense that this novel really belongs in the Brainshiips universe, rather than just happening to be told there. Maybe if the legalities could've been worked out so that they could have played a larger role in this story, it would've had a little more punch. And while it would be interesting to see how Karak's defection will change the Kolnari (and whether he and Soamosa will be able to have children together safely without extensive medical intervention to protect her reproductive system from the sheer invasiveness of a half-Kolnari embryo), the storyline is complete, so I can be satisfied with the fact that Mr. Stirling has written no further novels in Ms. McCaffrey's Brainships universe, and it seems unlikely that her estate will be asking for further ones to be produced.

Review posted January 1, 2013.

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