The Way to Glory by David Drake
Cover art by Stephen Hickman
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
This novel is the fourth in the Republic of Cinnabar Navy or RCN series, which is often compared to David Weber's Honor Harrington series, but is in fact far more heavily influenced by Patrick O'Brian's twenty-volume saga of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. However, it should be noted that the RCN is not by any means a slavish imitation, a direct item-for-item translation of O'Brian's fictional world into space opera. Although Daniel Leary shares Jack Aubrey's fondness for wine, women and song, not to mention his impecunious tendencies, he also possesses a keen intellectual side, particularly when it deals with the natural world, which corresponds more closely to Stephen Maturin's fascination with natural philosophy. And while Adele Mundy does undercover intelligence work like Maturin, she is a librarian rather than a physician, and sometimes seems as much a bloodless machine as the computers she works with. This effect is partly the result of the trauma she endured as a result of narrowly escaping the political disaster that annihilated the rest of her family and thrust her into years of poverty, and partly her being asexual, lacking in any sexual desire for men or women. Also, the Republic of Cinnabar is not a straight translation of Georgian Britain into a star nation, but partakes of the culture of Republican Rome in the last century before the rise of Augustus as Princeps (First Citizen).
In the last volume of this series, The Far Side of the Stars Daniel's beloved ship Princess Cecile was sold off from RCN service, bought by foreign adventurers who then hired much of its RCN crew to travel through the Galactic North in search of a stolen treasure. In this wild part of space, Daniel discovered that Cinnabar's primary rival, the so-called Alliance of Free Stars (whose name recalls the Cold War habit of Communist dictatorships of calling themselves "democratic" or "people's" republics) was building a base on the moon of one of the important planets of that region. A base that would threaten the interests of the Republic of Cinnabar -- and Daniel knew at once that he had to see it destroyed.
He accomplished that act, but because the Republic and the Alliance were officially at peace at the time, his superiors could not officially honor his heroism. As a result, he is back home and on half pay as this novel begins, trying hard not to look too disconsolate about his new situation, lest he undo the plausible deniability he carefully built into that mission. When we first meet him, he's enjoying the night life at a party hosted by the leader of an important political faction. Senator Kearns' son has joined the RCN in a misplaced longing for adventure and excitement, and Daniel winces as soon as he hears the story from the lad's mother, knowing it's a disaster, particularly when there are ample signs he's a spoiled scion of a noble house, full of romantic notions of glory and no practical understanding of what it means to be shut up in a steel tube full of humanity for weeks on end, traveling through an environment completely inimical to human life. But it's already a done deal, so there's no use bemoaning the youth's complete unsuitability for his new station.
Even as Daniel and Adele are doing their best to put a good face on a bad situation, Adele gets a signal from her personal servant, Tovera. This woman is a sociopath, congenitally lacking a conscience, but is intelligent enough to know that certain kinds of behavior are not conducive to a long and prosperous life, so she attaches herself to another person who can provide the direction she lacks. She is deadly in a fight, but never acts in anger, and is in many ways more like the machines Adele uses than a typical human being. And she's been trained by her former employer to be an excellent observer as well as a superb marksman and a ruthless killer. Something terrible is afoot.
And indeed it is -- the ship on which young Midshipman Kearnes had been posted has returned, and things had not gone well at all. The captain, a man named Slidell who has a problematical service record, has executed Kearns and two common spacers for mutiny. Even as Tovera's passing the news, it's also reaching Senator Kearns, who responds with instant fury. Tovera and Daniel's manservant Hogg, a rough peasant fellow whose family have been Leary retainers for generations, are barely able to get them out of the house as the place erupts in fury that could easily get focused upon them for the simple reason that they're RCN officers.
But it's a temporary respite, for Kearnes' faction is angry, and soon the Cinnabar capital of Xenos is in an uproar. When a court martial board clears Captain Slidell of wrongdoing, a decision necessary to the long-term maintenance of discipline in spite of the clear evidence that Slidell acted capriciously in executing the three rather than returning them in chains for formal trial on Cinnabar as would be normal procedure, the city erupts in rioting. Both Adele and Daniel are caught in it and have to use all their wits and skill to get out with their lives and those of people who matter to them.
It's clear that Captain Slidell has to be gotten off-planet long enough for the uproar to die down and people to forget. That means another assignment, and as a result of various back-room manipulations, the crew of his former command and Daniel's crew from the Princess Cecile will be combined, with Daniel as second lieutenant under Sildell's lieutenant from his old command. It's an arrangement almost guaranteed to cause trouble, and that's without what Daniel learns during an unexpected secret meeting with his estranged father, Corder Leary, Speaker of the Senate of the Republic, effective head of state and of government of the Republic of Cinnabar. Although the RCN usually prides itself in being above politics, Slidell's views of matters may well be clouded by old political entanglements -- and Corder Leary wants his son to act as his assassin and settle an old score once and for all.
Thus it's a very uneasy Lt. Daniel Leary who reports for duty aboard the Hermes, a tender for cutters, the smallest ships capable of traveling through the Matrix (the method by which starships of that fictional universe cheat the lightspeed limit and travel between star systems in weeks instead of decades and centuries). His unease is confirmed as soon as he meets Captain Slidell. This man is a psychological disaster, rather like Captain Sawyer in C. S. Forester's Lieutenant Hornblower, or the notorious Captain Queeg in Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. Slidell has one particular psychological twist that makes him particularly dangerous for Daniel Leary -- he is certain that any subordinate with proven talent and ability must be conniving against him, and therefore is a threat not just to his authority as captain, but also to him personally. Thus Daniel is going to be in a very sticky spot.
Their first stop is on Nikitin, a water world where the RCN has an outpost. Because of the way starships of the RCN universe work, water worlds are prized by starring civilizations because they make it easy for the starships to refill their reaction mass tanks for takeoffs and landings, and water provides a superior environment for landing and berthing starships than land. However, Nikitin is not in a good situation -- the Gold Dust Squadron, based there, is reported to be in disarray, and Adele has secret orders to locate and deal with a leak of secret information into the Alliance. That assessment is validated as soon as they arrive to see the flagship of the Gold Dust Squadron listing in its berth, massively damaged as a result of a bad landing. Salvage is in progress, and Slidell quickly volunteers his crew to assist.
Daniel Leary is a man who loves a technical challenge, and the situation with the Cornelwood is not dissimilar to that of the country craft he salvaged in the Galactic North in order to have plausible deniability in his raid on the Alliance base at the end of The Far Side of the Stars. However, he's no sooner begun offering advice than he realizes he's put himself in a very perilous position with his captain, who really does not appreciate a display of competence in excess of his own.
Worse, Daniel becomes involved in Adele's effort to locate that leak, and in the process embarrasses the admiral, who is not happy to have it revealed that she's been led around by her libido. Of course she can't openly take revenge upon an officer who was clearly doing the right thing, but there are plenty of ways to set up a situation in which a reward proves to be more of a punishment.
In Daniel's case, it's a special mission to a nearby world, Yang, where the local potentate is holding two hundred mercenaries who had been fighting for a rebel leader. These mercenaries are from the Burdock Stars, one of the Cinnabar dependencies, and as such have Cinnabar citizenship. That means they cannot simply be written off as one might the citizens of lesser star nations. But given the continual instability of the government of Yang -- only a year earlier the current strongman was himself a rebel against the previous regime -- the likelihood of a successful resolution isn't good.
Worse, Slidell seems determined to set Daniel up for failure, insisting that he take one of the cutters but unwilling to let him resupply after lift. Only by pulling some very risky favors from an old friend is Daniel able to make sure he leaves the system with full tanks of reaction mass, so that he will be able to lift again from Yang even if he's not able to put down in water.
Yang's strongman, President Shin, proves to be the sort of man who surrounds himself with bullies, including a bodyguard of slightly ridiculous fanatical virgins. Daniel's immediate problem is convincing his own crew not to go in with guns blazing and slaughter everyone. Yes, it'd solve problems in the short term, but at the cost of a major long-term problem with Admiral Milne, who's still sore at having been humiliated. Better a sufficient show of force to convince this petulant little man and his goons that negotiating is in everyone's best interest, and then find a way to convince him he really wants to hand the mercenaries over.
Willing he becomes, but for a price. It seems the rebel leader has kidnapped his girlfriend, and he wants her back. So now Daniel's having to visit the rebel stronghold and try to negotiate her return. She claims she's quite happy with the grotesque, dissipated Generalissimo Ma, but Daniel is certain she's lying out of fear, and sets about to bust her out of there. And in the process of that act of derring-do, he discovers hard information on an Alliance force inbound.
Of course no RCN novel would be complete without a climactic space battle -- it's almost like it's in the contract. But this time Daniel has the additional problem of convincing a paranoid and jealous commanding officer not to become obstructive. How much of Daniel's presentation of his plan is actually reverse psychology, intended to lure Slidell into taking a bait he can't resist, I honestly don't know. But I do know that it ends up in an exceedingly satisfying victory, with Slidell removed from any capacity to cause further harm, without creating any awkward political repercussions in the process.
In previous volumes it was pretty much presupposed that the Alliance of Free Stars was a nasty piece of work, but in this one we get some evidence of specific abuses that the Alliance perpetrates upon its own citizens, particularly the continual spying on each other. It's a nice counterpoint to Slidell's paranoia against his own officers, but it also helps to substantiate what had previously been mostly something we were told, and took for granted because the protagonists did. But now we know that, even if the Republic of Cinnabar isn't all sweetness and light, the Alliance is far worse.
Review posted January 1, 2013.
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