Some Golden Harbor by David Drake
Cover art by Stephen Hickmen
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
This novel is the fifth in the Republic of Cinnabar Navy or RCN series, which is David Drake's answer to David Weber's Honor Harrington series. Both of these series are Napoleonic Wars sea stories retold In Space, but while the Honor Harrington series is inspired primarily by C. S. Forrester's Honor Harrington series, this series is more closely based upon Patrick O'Brian's stories of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.
Daniel Leary is a talented space commander, lucky yet impecunious. As the son of one of the Republic's leading citizens, he never needed to learn thrift, and when a breach with his father straitened his financial circumstances, he proved unable to alter his spending habits and as a result has been in frequent financial trouble, much like Jack Aubrey. However, of late his luck and talent have helped to reverse those fortunes, to the point that he could even purchase his old ship, the Princess Cecile, when the RCN decided to decommission her and send her to the breakers. But such luck can also attract the attention of those who consider a successful officer not under their control as automatically a threat.
As this novel begins, he's back home in the Cinnabarian capital of Xenos, taking care of some business left over from the previous novel, The Way to Glory. In particular, a courtesy call on the bereaved family of the young midshipman killed in the line of duty, for while he knows the order that killed the young man was necessary to protect the Republic from its enemies, he is a Leary of Bantry and his honor demands that a faithful retainer's family not be left destitute as a result of the vagaries of service under him. Thus he has come not only to offer his condolences, but also to bring them a sum of money to ensure that they can maintain their rank and station in life. And in the process discovers that his late midshipman's sister is quite a lovely young thing, and her invitation to visit again will be most welcome indeed.
Except he has other RCN business to take care of first. Not every officer in the RCN has the same sense of noblesse oblige toward those under him, and that's certainly the case with Admiral Vocaine, who has taken over as Chief of the Navy Board and has canceled leave for all the common spacers. Instead of letting them go into the city and enjoy themselves as has been customary, he has ordered them all confined to beached hulks that are little better than dungeons. However, Daniel doesn't intend to just stand by and let his Sissies be left in such duress vile.
When a writer enjoys a lengthy career, an observant writer can often discern patterns in the author's writing. Not just the obvious one of favorite themes, since it's obvious that writers will tend to write about what they know well and care about intensely. There are also the patterns of favorite turns of phrase or ways of presenting events. Some of them can become almost like tics, especially if they become obtrusive to the point that the reader becomes consciously aware of them.
In particular, you can expect that any time a character by the name of Platt shows up in a piece of writing by David Drake, that character will be despicable, rotten to the core, the worst kind of lowlife. It appears that when he first began writing, Drake was unjustly savaged by a reviewer by that name who suggested that he did not know whereof he wrote, and was indulging in some sort of unhealthy psychological obsession with the military. Given that this was right after Drake came back from a hitch in the Army in which he saw combat in Vietnam, it should be unsurprising that these words would not only cut to the quick, but also infuriate its target. However, it is also considered churlish and grossly inappropriate for a writer to answer back to a review, however cruel or unjustified, save in matters of objective fact that can be demonstrated by a direct quote from the work in question. So is it any surprise that the anger would bubble forth in his stories, in the form of multiple minor characters of that name who all prove to be villains, and all end up coming to one or another bad end, whether mere humiliation or outright destruction?
And this Platt is no exception. At every point Daniel gets the better of him, ignoring procedure and going wherever he wills. By the time it's over, Platt is thoroughly humiliated, and Daniel has his people back.
It's good to be back aboard the Princess Cecile, the little starship that Daniel Leary took as a prize in the very first novel of this series, With The Lightnings. But there's no time to lie about enjoying being back home, for Daniel has a mission to complete. Specifically, he's supposed to be protecting a relatively obscure backwater known as Dunbar's World from invasion. To do that, he needs to get a good sense of the political lay of the land on some nearby planets. And in the process of visiting Bennaria we get a meeting that gives me a little continuity lurch.
Way back in the original novel, Drake established that while humanity is not alone in his fictional universe, the few alien species they have encountered all require such radically different environments that there is effectively no competition between them. Humans seek stars with Earthlike planets, while the various alien species seek systems that include planets with environments similar to their homewards, where they can live in the equivalent of a shirtsleeve environment. But here we have a lizardman, a reptilian alien, in the company of Corius, one of the leaders of a nearby world. It's pretty clear from the first scene that this Fallert is not a mutated human, but a native of one or another world out there -- which raises the question of where he came from, how he came to be in Corius's circle, and whether we will ever learn anything more about his people.
Of course Fallert isn't the only surprise to be encountered on Brennan. There's also an Alliance exile, Krychek. He was once a Landholder of Infanta, one of the oldest worlds of the Alliance, but ran afoul of Guarantor Porra, the dictator of the Alliance of Free Worlds, the star nation that stands roughly in relation to Cinnabar as Napoleonic France stood to the UK during the Napoleonic Wars, but with more than a little hint of the Iron Curtain in the irony of its name. Those who remember the Cold War will recall the German Democratic Republic, which was the official name of East Germany, a most decidedly undemocratic nation in which elections were merely the rubber-stamping of a slate of candidates selected by the Communist Party, which was of course a puppet to the Soviet Union's Communist Party.
Krychek's story is important because it is easy enough for an author to say that the enemies of his protagonist's nation are evil and tyrannical. It's much more tricky to show concrete ways in which a government is rotten. There are the obvious atrocities, but one runs the risk of reducing the enemy to a caricature of evil rather than a believable enemy.
Meanwhile, Daniel's run into some interesting trouble himself. He's always had a fondness for the theater and for a lovely face, but this time his pretty young actress has turned out to be a female impersonator. The lovely Elemere is in fact one Albertus Mintz of Planchett, one of the minor worlds of the Alliance -- and he's attracted the attention of the fat and corrupt Councilor Waddell, a character with a name that could've come right out of Dickens. A man who does not take well to being refused, and who is willing to commit murder to obtain his way.
Thus Daniel becomes involved in the internal conflicts of the Bennarian government, not because of any grand strategic plan, but simply because the actions of one of its members offends his sense of propriety and he feels honor-bound to put things to rights.
Still, it does get one corrupt and rather nasty official out of the mix when it actually comes time to go to Dunbar's World and slog it out. It's a nasty, ugly ground-pounding fight, very different from the space battles the RCN usually fights, where there's not a whole lot in between escaping unharmed and getting blown to bits. As things get more desperate, Daniel decides to beat a strategic retreat to Pelligrino, where a commercial ship, the Stoddard is laid up for repair. It happens to be owned (through several corporate cutouts) by none less than his estranged father, Corder Leary, the famous Speaker of the Senate who broke the Three Circles Conspiracy -- a fact that proves quite convenient in convincing its officers to cooperate in meeting his demands.
And then it's back to Dunbar's World, back into the fighting. And it's getting particularly ugly as it comes time to take the enemy headquarters. In the process, Adele's badly injured, and there's a strong suggestion that she went into a hopeless situation because she had so much survivor guilt over past battles that she had decided it was time to give her all instead of going on with all those faces hovering in her dreams. But her shipmates are far too loyal to leave her to die, and they bring her back to the ship and to the Medicomp that can heal her terrible wounds.
Still, it leaves Daniel without her capable hand at the Signals console when he most needs her. But she's alive, and the sophisticated technology of the Medicomp can enable her to recover, even in time to get back into the action before it's over. After all, what RCN novel would be complete without the obligatory spectacular space battle at the end?
It's a fight in which Daniel has to split his forces, putting a junior officer in charge of one ship. But this is a Baen book, so you can rest assured that no matter how terrible the butcher's bill, the good guys will triumph, and however bittersweet the ending may be, it will still be a net positive.
Review posted January 17, 2015.
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