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With the Lightnings by David Drake

Cover art by David Mattingly

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

David Weber's Honor Harrington series has often been called "Star Wars as written by C. S. Forester." And in many ways the flagship series of the Baen Books brand does bear a strong resemblance to the Horatio Hornblower books, although as the series has developed it has gone in unexpected directions that no longer provide a precise parallel to the Napoleonic Wars, recycled in space

However, while Forester may be one of the best-known writers of sea stories of naval combat in the Napoleonic Wars, he is by no means the only one. In the last decade of the twentieth century a major contender emerged in Patrick O'Brian's stories of Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin. Not only was O'Brian's series longer, reaching twenty books before the author's untimely death, but there was a certain depth and complexity that made them feel more sophisticated than the Hornblower books, which often felt as if they had been written primarily for the juvenile adventure market. In particular, the protagonists' romantic entanglements are developed in far more detail than Hornblower's two rather diagrammatic marriages, and the complexity of politics, whether among the officers of a naval vessel, within the government of the UK, or international, are shown in shades of gray rather than simplified White Hats and Black Hats. Not every Englishman is always fine and pure, and not every Frenchman is a scoundrel, which means things are always open for unexpected surprises.

Similarly, in David Drake's Republic of Cinnabar Navy or RCN series we see a complexity of character in his protagonists that goes beyond what one typically expects of space opera characterization. While many readers have complained that Honor Harrington comes dangerously close to being a Mary Sue ("she has the flaws of her virtues" was how one reader put it, noting that almost every flaw she exhibits is a virtue carried too far, to the point it causes her problems), both the protagonists of the RCN series show some serious weaknesses, not to mention unpleasant connections in their backgrounds.

Lt. Daniel Leary is an officer of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy, fulfilling a dream he has held since he was a small child. However his father, one of the most powerful politicians in the star nation of Cinnabar, does not see that as a worthy career for his son. Angry that Daniel dares criticize his decision to remarry so soon after his first wife's death, Corder Leary, Speaker of the Republic, has cut off all Daniel's support and treated him as a non-entity.

Thus when we first meet Daniel, he's a very junior officer on an admiral's flagship that's put in on the minor world of Kostroma. If one considers the Republic of Cinnabar to be this imagined world's equivalent of the UK in the Napoleonic Wars (although its government seems to be modeled upon that of Rome in the later days of the Republic, with a unicameral legislature known as the Senate and an aristocratic class comparable to the Patricians) and their enemy the Alliance of Free Stars (whose name is a mockery, since they're a dictatorship every bit as brutal as the "democratic republics" of the former Warsaw Pact countries) is Napoleonic France, then Kostroma might correspond to Spain or Portugal. Their naming patterns do have a faintly Iberian flavor to them, although the outrageously colorful uniforms sported by the officers of their space navy are reminiscent of the Polish kingdom shortly before it was partitioned away to nothing.

Daniel's out enjoying the nightlife of Kostroma's capital city, which is very different from that of sophisticated Xenos, capital of the Republic of Cinnabar. As the son of one of his star nation's oldest and most powerful families, he's accustomed to living high -- but now that his father has cut him off, he's finding that his Navy pay simply doesn't stretch far enough. Sure, his friends will help him, and sometimes he can draw a line of credit against his Navy pay, but it only stretches so far.

The other protagonist is Adele Mundy was the daughter of another of Cinnabar's leading families, the Mundys of Chatsworth. A genius librarian, she considered mere political brangling beneath her notice, preferring the pursuit of higher knowledge on a distant world. But only months after she departed for Bryce, capital of the Alliance, during a brief period of rapprochement between the two star nations, Speaker Leary accused the Mundys and several other leading families of Cinnabar of having conspired with the Guarantor, the leader of the Alliance, to subvert the Republic. In the Proscriptions that followed, Adele's entire family was massacred, right down to her painfully shy ten-year-old sister Agatha, who had to first endure all manner of ill-use and betrayal by those she thought to be her protectors. Adele survived only because the vagaries of shipping schedules put her off-world and in transit when everything went down.

Since the completion of her education, Adele's been struggling in much-reduced circumstances, often struggling just to earn enough to pay for her most basic necessities. Although she'd considered herself something of an ascetic, uninterested in the things of the flesh, the privations have not come easy for the daughter of wealth and privilege, even the scion of the leaders of the Populist party, a family who considered the aristocratic habit of looking down upon the common folk as undesirable and sought to live in simplicity.

The necessity of gainful employment has brought her to Kostroma to serve as Chief Librarian to the new Elector, who wishes to be remembered as a man of learning after displacing his predecessor in a coup. In order to establish his Electoral Library, he fell upon the simple expediency of rounding up every book he could find by means of a door-to-door search, never mind whether they be manuscripts of early explorers from before the Hiatus (Drake's equivalent to the Dark Ages, which separates the original period of Old Earth and its colonies from the modern star nations) or household account books. All of them have been dumped in a jumble in the chambers which are to become the library, and even the simple process of getting shelving for them has turned into a nightmare.

And then Daniel and Adele meet, and the sparks fly. The aristocrats of the Republic of Cinnabar are a proud lot, and duels are a customary way of dealing with offenses of honor. Adele still has vivid memories of the duel she fought while still in school, of the foolish young fellow's face in the moment when the round from her dueling pistol penetrated his skull right between his eyes. And now it looks like Daniel and Adele will meet at dawn and only one of them will return.

But matters are afoot that will prevent such a confrontation. Adele is approached by a man who is clearly an Alliance agent and wishes to entrap her into spying on behalf of the Alliance, doing the very things that Speaker Leary accused her parents of doing. It grows increasingly obvious that the Alliance is meddling into Kostroman politics, trying to engineer yet another coup.

And then it blows up, and only by good luck is Daniel ashore and away from his ship when Alliance forces round up the officers. Suddenly he's in a fight for his life that will force him to team up with Adele for their common survival and that of all the Cinnabar citizens on Kostroma now that the treaty of friendship has been abrogated. It's a journey that will take them out into the hinterlands of Kostroma and some truly hair-raising encounter with the native wildlife. To escape from one particular nasty known as a sweep, an aquatic monster that seems to be straight out of the fever-dreams of H. P. Lovecraft, it will take both Daniel's fascination with natural history and Adele's skill with information systems.

It's a rousing beginning for a new series, and now that the RCN series has reached nine volumes, it's probably not a surprise that yes, it does reach a happy ending. At times it seems like Drake goes just a little far in setting up his fictional interstellar drive to create sailing ships in space, but it can also be argued that most space opera is as much fantasy written with the language of science and technology as it is science fiction. Yes, there is some scientific extrapolation of the possible ecosystems of alien worlds (and given how many exoplanets have been discovered in recent years, it seems that it might be possible that there really would be a large number of worlds with shirtsleeve environments for humans, if one had access to a method of travel that would take one to enough of them within a reasonable amount of time), but by and large the point of this novel and its various sequels is to take us on adventures in unknown lands, adventures that simply aren't possible now that all our own world has been mapped, surveyed and photographed from orbit, leaving no new lands to discover. So we suspend our disbelief in a world in which Space Is an Ocean, much as we do as we read of a world in which wizards shape magic flux or plasm or whatever to work spells and do magic, and just enjoy a story of Wonders.

Review posted November 14, 2012

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