Pile #8 With the Lightnings by David Drake

22 Jan

With the Lightnings / David Drake. Riverdale, NY: Baen Books. 1999. 416 p. [“RCN Series”]

And you thought I only read and reviewed nonfiction (and mostly religious works at that), didn’t you?

The original review can be found here: 8.  “With the Lightnings” http://www.amazon.com/review/R31RF3NY5N6HA7/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

I have read fiction as much as non-fiction virtually my whole life (though understandably, I’ve been reading fiction longer than non-fiction, what starting as  a child and all).  It just so happens when I began a book review blog, the books most at hand were non-fiction, and that Drake’s With the Lightnings ) was the first fiction book I decided to review (or could lay my hands on at the decision making time (ok, so it was the book with the lowest review count on Amazon of the pile before me that led to my decision to review it first, but it was still the first book I could lay my hands on at the time), though it’s not even the first Drake book that I have read -having first been introduced to him through “Hammer’s Slammers” and his collaborative series with Eric Flint “Belisarius’.

A fast paced tale along with its sequels in the  “RCN” series, With the Lightnings is primarily high quality pukp military sci fi  high adventure in the space lanes.  Drake is skilled at presenting a good military romp (the aforementioned “Hammers’ Slammers”, a fantasy series titled “Lord of the Isles” and numerous stand alone novels attest to that).  Harking back to the sailing days of the 18th and 19th century in a way that David Weber’s “Honor Harrington” series doesn’t, Drake presents a rough-and-tumble universe, and doesn’t shy away from placing the nitty-gritty front and foremost in the reader’s face. The feel of the series is like crossing late Republican Rome with the British Navy of the Napoleonic Wars.

Up, Cinnabar!

So then, what is With the Lightnings all about?

Lieutenant Daniel Leary, estranged scion of the Learys of Bantry, is a low ranking officer in the Republic of Cinnabar Navy (read: a freshly minted lieutenant) included in a ‘show the flag’ mission to a ally of the Republic of Cinnabar. Disaster strikes the deputation in the form of a palace coup supported by Cinnabar’s bitterest rival, the Alliance of Free Stars, leaving only himself, his man-servant and a small contingent of sailors from his ship free, along with an exiled Cinnabar native on planet to take up a post as the Electoral Librarian, Adele Mundy (a Mundy of Chatsworth), to keep things from going bad to worse for the Republic. Through a combination of quick wits, personal charisma and leadership on Daniel’s part, along with Adele’s incredible analytical ability (not to mention her ability with a gun) and the crew’s willingness to bust heads,  Daniel and company are able to outwit both native and foreign armies, capture a ship, defeat the enemy, and uphold the honor of the RCN and the Republic. Along the way it could be argued, Adele finds a new family and Daniel a purpose, though it’s not really clear until later volumes how this set of relationships will work out.

“Full of sound and fury, signifying….”

There was no shortage of excitement to be had in the book, and not a small amount of admiration for the abilities of the central characters. And yet, I feel empty after reading of their exploits.  I can read his books for an adrenaline rush but not for understanding the human condition, which is what the best literature does (and yes, even science fiction can be accounted literature on occasion, I think especially of Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell  in this regard -note to self:  make Sparrow a future review). He’s good at describing the human condition, but not explaining it, or overcoming it, at least that is, in the world of the RCN.

A Leary  Without Honor…

Quite frankly, its hard to like, or respect, Lt. Leary as a person.  Coming from an aristocratic family he brings the baggage of aristocracy with him, despite his ability to bond with deck hands. The principles he does have, he holds with adamantine solidity, yet he is equally cocksure in his prejudices, his “us versus them” mentality, and an innate sense of his own personal, and his Republic’s, superiority to other peoples and polities. His intense in natural history adds a little depth, but not enough.

The same judgement can be made for most of the characters: set in their ways, sure of themselves, and of the superiority of their way of life over any other. I can admire their skills their ability to produce when the proverbial fecal matter hits the  rapidly spinning rotary blades, (Adele is a whiz at tickling information out of computers that most people would overlook as insignificant, Hoggs is accomplished at, shall we say, alternative logistics procurement, and Tovera is, well Tovera, though she doesn’t shine  much in this first volume) but all in all, they do not come across as outstanding individuals.  All the characters in this series are very colorful, but flat (true, Daniel is a fairly intense amateur naturalist which also provides Drake a way to introduce discussions of xenobotany and xenobiology, but Daniel doesn’t’ really grow from this exposure).

To be fair, it may not be Drake’s _intention_ to present Daniel and his spacers, Adele, Tovera, and Hoggs or even the Republic of Cinnabar as sympathetic, developing characters (unlike say Weber’s major characters,* they don’t appear to mature as persons: i.e. the Lt. Leary of book one is the same as the Leary of book 4) but I at least expect that main characters will alter some of their perceptions over a multi-year span of adventures, not so here. On the other hand, as the main characters are in their adulthood, their basic personalities are already set, and to expect any basic change

Theirs is a stratified society where family interest and pedigree count for more than personal merit; it is a world where honor counts for more than life -which, in this future time is treated if not callously, as more of a commodity than an end in itself. An example is this line written toward the end of the book, “Adele couldn’t feel sorrow for dead strangers, but the artwork which had shared their destruction made her face tremble to behold.” (p389), and a similar line about Adele’s future hatchet-woman Tovera, who admits that “[T]here is a piece missing” in her life (presumably a sense of direction) who thus has no qualms about using other people to provide “that piece of me that isn’t there” (p390).

And yet for all this, Leary is free of most of the politics that wrap up other characters in other novels and series just like Drake’s writings are relatively free of political intrigue.  What you see is what you get, straight up action.

Leary as mimesis

Other reviewers frequently compare Drake’s work to its inspired model Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Mauritani  series, as well as Weber’s “Honor Harrington” series, and find With the Lightnings wanting. I would submit that just because a famous work of literature inspires a homage, does not mean that the later writer is attempting to copy or improve upon the original. At the same time, highlighting commonalities with Aubrey, or even Hornblower can help to situate the novel’s audience: if you like naval adventure and you like science fiction, and you like action, chances are you’ll like where Drake is going. If you like deep meaningful revelations about human life and destiny mixed in with your adventurous heroes, I advise  you to look elsewhere, although, multiple small shards about what it is to be human do leak out from time to time. It’s possible though I don’t know, that Drake did consciously draw on the form of O’Brian and Forester for his story (and as he acknowledges in later volumes in the series, draws inspiration for, and elements of the plots from actual events in classical history, often, relatively minor ones in terms of overall history).

Last Man Writing: or Drake versus Weber

I realize that in this review I frequently contrast Drake’s Daniel Leary to Weber’s Honor Harrington (the first book of which series, On Basilisk Station is the subject of a future review btw), but that is solely because I think Weber does a better job overall of developing his characters over the long run, not that Drake is an inferior writer. It means also that Drake is an orange, and Weber an apple, having different approaches. Drake’s focus is more on small group interaction even within large scale organizations (which probably owes a lot to Drake’s service in Vietnam), whereas Weber, even when focusing on the command staff of a single ship, does not loose sight of the larger story. Both authors though are equally readable, and devoured as readily.

My next Pile will be Freehold by Michael Z Williamson,  a libertarian science fiction fairy tale, also published by Baen Books. So, until then, keep reading, my friends.

Sources cited:

  1. Amazon.com: Customer Reviews: With the Lightnings http://www.amazon.com/With-Lightnings-David-Drake/product-reviews/0671578189/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1
  2. David Drake -Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Drake
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