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Mini-Pile #5 “Igniting the Reaches” by David Drake

24 Feb

Igniting the reaches / David Drake. New York:  Ace Books. 1994. 262 p.

Igniting the Reaches is the initial volume in a short (three volume) series about buccaneer style trade and diplomacy at the point of a sword (or in this case the laser rifle-barrel), set in the far future after the “Collapse” -the sudden decline and fall of the last great human empire a thousand years before the story opens.  The story follows the mercantile exploits of two men from the planet Venus: Piet Ricimer a young deep-space sailor and Stephen Gregg, scion of a merchant family, in their attempt to restore  Venus and Venerian trade to the stars  while making their fortunes. They  do this in a small spacecraft  named “Peaches”  with a ragtag crew that even includes a genetically-engineered former alien slave.  The book  ends up being a set of conflicts between the Venerians and the other two primary human political entities: the  Earth based North American Federation and the Southern Cross, along with other independent traders/privateers or “pirates” (depending on your point of view).

Drake is good at writing combat, but I found it hard to get excited by either the characters, or the plot -even knowing  it’s historical basis in the writings and exploits of  Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and Richard Hakluyt in the Age of Discovery as explained by the author.  In fact, I nearly had to drag myself to finish the book.  It doesn’t flow as smoothly as the RCN series (Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy), nor does it have the punch of “Hammer’s Slammers”, or the character engagement of the Belisarius series (I can’t speak to how it compares to his fantasy works such as “Lord of the Isles” as I haven’t read any of them yet). My other ‘plaint, as the Publishers Weekly review (1994, as excerpted on points out, is the characters’  lack of concern for, and even a moral disengagement about, the consequences of their actions other than  those that lead to the success of their own mission: they take it for granted that life should be this way. This though seems par for the course for Drake’s characters and is not unique to the “Reaches” series.

This last bit, though is partially explained by Drake himself:  in an author’s afterward, he gives a philosophical justification for his writing style and treatment of characters. Commenting that the truth that each person holds in his head is unique to that person and “can’t really be expressed to anyone else,” he yet tries to write his fiction from the standpoint of  this truth, and admits: “One of the ways I achieve that end is to use historical events as the paradigm for my fiction”.  For the “Reaches” series  this involves reading of the exploits of  the 16th and 17th century explorers and  the writings of Richard Hakluyt, and projecting these real life events into a far future setting.

I can’t bring myself to recommend this book to anyone. At the same time, I wouldn’t say don’t read it; that is to say Igniting the Reaches failed to ignite my interest in the characters and not a story I would read again, so becoming one of the “Indifferent” books that will inevitably litter the posts of my blog.


Pile #10 On Basilisk Station” by David Weber

28 Jan

“On Basilisk Station”

This is the first in the “Honor Harrington” series of novels by David Weber that follows the life and career of Honor Harrington, -a very capable female officer in the Royal Manticoran Navy of the Star Kingdom of Manticore,  located far beyond our solar system some two thousand years in the future.

A lot of people poo-poo David Weber because he hasn’t (yet) won any awards for  his science-fiction.  I think this is a shame, and those who do so without reading him are denying themselves a real pleasure, for Weber brings technology, tactics, politics and people together to provide an internally consistent and coherent story universe, within a fully realized world to enjoy.

“On Basilisk Station” is first and foremost a military tale, with clashing empires, massive navies, personal heroism and even countervailing internal political strife, even if at first glance nothing seems to happen. In fact, the first third of the book can appear deceptively slow, not to mention “dull, boring and tedious” to readers who expect action to reign in a book from start to finish without a breather, especially in a book dedicated to C.S. Forester of “Horatio Hornblower” fame. The apparent slowness, however is what sets the stage for the rest of the series.

The prologue introduces both the long range and immediate story plots: the almost certain war between the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the People’s Republic of Haven -an expansionist minded polity desperate to keep afloat a deteriorating socio-economic situation at home, and the current covert-military operation that Haven is attempting to pull off to stack the decks in its favor when the inevitable war happens.

What to do about Honor?

As the story proper opens, Honor has been given command (her second hyper-capable command slot) of the light cruiser H.M.S. Fearless. There’s just one catch: for an upcoming Fleet Exercise, her ship is tasked with field testing a new weapon system (to the detriment of its conventional armament). After demonstrating the inherent vulnerability of said system while scoring an early ‘victory’ in the Exercises, Honor is hustled off to one of the least attractive postings in the entire Navy, the backwater that is Basilisk Station. Upon arrival an even greater snub is awaiting, as the senior officer on station -an unwelcome memory from her academy days- takes the opportunity to return his ship to Manticore for a major refit, leaving Honor’s ship the sole Manticorn naval presence in-system, and responsible for the patrol of the entire star system and its habitable planet in an obvious setup to wreck her career.

Some officers might despair when confronted with such a scenario, but not our Honor Harrington. From stolid yeoman stock, all she knows is that she was given a job to do by her lawful superiors, and that she is there to see it through to completion -no matter how impossible success seems, and despite being hamstrung by the loss of half the Station’s picket strength, a demoralized crew, an uncooperative executive officer, lack of resources, and an unsettled native populace. And so she sets forth, using ingenuity, training and experience (and of course her legal regulatory authority as a naval officer) to put things to right, for the honor of Manticore, the Queen, and the Navy. And it is in the middle of all this activity that a pattern of foreign entanglement begins to show itself, such that Honor finds herself all that stands between her star nation and war. Honor, though is the kind of person who doesn’t know when to give up; she’ll give her all and then some, not shying away from the hard decisions, yet never letting them rest easily on her shoulders.

It is through the thick of battle, as well as in the carrying out of her assigned duties that forms the bulk of the novel, that we see Honor becoming an officer, a character, and a person to respect, the kind of officer that brings out the best in her crew, and a commander that you do not want to let down. Sprinkle in a little good timing, a crew (and civilian administration) that begins to believe in themselves and in her, and seat-of-your-pants missile duels and you get a book that ends with the desire for ‘more Honor, please’ as a reviewer of a later volume says.

Beginning a beautiful friendship

Most of the subsequent volumes follow the pattern set here of a gradual set up -usually with Haven initiating an action, and Manticore -until war truly breaks out- reacting- seen from multiple angles and points of view, political intrigue and the routine of naval life, that leads from to a pulse-racing crescendo of battle scenes, often against great odds, which Honor does not expect to survive, yet manages to pull victory out of desperation, but always, always she is driven by duty -to Queen and country, to her own officers and crew, and to herself. Through the pages you come to know, admire, and eventually love the characters Weber has created, including the plucky little Star Kingdom of Manticore itself.

It is true that the People’s Republic of Haven gets short shrift in this opening novel, but every story needs an obvious ‘bad guy’ for the ‘good guy’ to shine by the contrast of values, actions, and, personnel, but I can assure the interested reader that Haven does not long remain a mere ‘cookie-cutter’ evil empire.

Action?  What Action?  Oh…THAT Action!

A potential problem with On Basilisk Station is that after the Fleet Exercise and Honor’s ‘banishment’ to Basilisk Station, nothing much appears to be happening for the next third of the book (at least one co-worker attempted to read  On Basilisk Station and put it down after only 20 pages. To be far, he does this with any book that doesn’t grab him before 20 pages. I don’t think he likes The Lord of the Rings, for that matter). This is deceptive however, once you realize that what Honor is doing is building up the capabilities and resources of her patrol from scratch. She also has to build up  (or re-build) professional relationships with her crew, the Resident Commissioner, and the shipping that she is to inspect and monitor.  And that’s before trouble with the natives crop up.

From the Top, Please

One downside to the series as a whole is that attention is focused almost totally on the “movers and shakers” of society, Parliamentary intrigue, and of course the Navy. Little time is spared dealing with common life aboard ship (of ratings and NCOs) and the treatment of planet bound general populations is sparse to non-existent; and religion (apart from one obvious example from the second book) seems distant, unrelated to character motivations, and relegated to a private sphere having little or no public consequences -a trend which unfortunately is all to common in science fiction of every stripe. This can lead to the conclusion that economics is the driving force of human history in Weber’s universe.

On the other hand, space opera and naval adventure generally do not often concern themselves with showing every segment of society, so it’s not an absolute obstacle to enjoying the story, though it could possibly be why people dismiss Weber as a ‘serious’ science fiction writer.

Cookie-Cutter Heroes Need Not Apply

My final recommendation: If you are looking for a stand-alone work of military science fiction, this may not be for you, as many persons, and institutions are only briefly touched upon in this opening volume, and not all plot points are resolved.

If, however, you are craving a series that combines political intrigue, galactic panoramas, naval warfare that includes fleet actions as well as hand-to-hand combat, and personal (as well as professional) development over the course of a dozen plus novels and short story collections, and don’t mind the occasional excursus of detail minutiae  that leads to violent consequences, then Weber is your man, and Honor Harrington your woman. (And Nimitz, of course, is your treecat but that’s another story -or two).

My next scheduled Pile is The Highest Tide a fictional reminiscence of a teenage boy’s coming-of-age along the tidal shallows of the Pacific Northwest, the debut novel of Jim Lynch. So until then, keep calm, and read on.

Pile #9 “Freehold” by Michael Z Williamson

23 Jan

Freehold / Michael Z Williamson.   Riverdale, NY: Baen Books. 2004. 667 p.

The original review can be found here:  “Freehold”

“Holding Free”

“Freehold” is yet another in the spate of fast-paced hard military sci-fi to come out of Baen Books in the last two decades, and is itself part of a series of inter-related books written in the Freehold universe by Williamson (though each novel is self-contained, and the series as a whole can be read non-sequentially (chronologically or published order) with the same enjoyment as reading it. as published.

Kendra Pacelli, a sergeant in the UNPF seeks asylum in the Freehold of Granine after being framed in an investigation of embezzled military equipment. She arrives as a refugee, and after a shaky period of cultural acclimatization, begins to find her place in this new society and build a life for herself, just as a cold war with Earth heats up into open conflict, and she finds herself fighting against her own former homeworld.

In this case, the Freehold of Granine is not attempting to hold itself up as a paragon of virtue, or the ultimate Utopia, they just want to be left alone to pursue their own destiny as “a nation of co-operative loners” (p. 228), which is a very apt description of life in the Freehold. Politically, economically, and socially, the Freehold is best described as ‘libertarian’, and very successful in all that they do, as contrasted to Earth under the totalitarian/socialistic rule of the United Nations. And that success is the one thing that Earth cannot stand in the face of its own propaganda.

So what’s the catch?

The Freehold contains a minimalist government (political leadership is predicated on building wealth only to give it away), unregulated capitalism (in every sense of the word) and a live-and-let-live social structure (it is even expected that everyone and anyone will carry personal weapons about their person). The majority religious influence seems to be Goddess based, though the presence of other religions is noted from time to time. With very few laws or regulations, crime, graft and corruption is virtually nonexistent. The one partial exception to this free-wheeling existence is the military, which still maintains a hierarchical, regimented life -though even here Kendra will find major differences in the spirit of discipline and responsibility between her birth planet and her adopted home, usually with the latter coming out the worse for the comparison.

More than half of the book is devoted to Kendra’s life in the military (similar to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and John Scalzi’s An Old Man’s War). Of a 54 chapter (plus epilogue) book, all but 14 directly connects Kendra to the military. Additionally, the major military campaign against the Freehold and it’s Occupation is from chapter 29 to the end.

Everything in Williamson’s book (as in most offerings from the Baen pantheon) is highly realistic -almost hyper-realistic- from its description of combat, military life and training, to passages of sexual liaisons and relationships, which is the one aspect of the book which sits ill with me (the same can be said for John Ringo’s “Kildar” series), and makes this an adult reading experience. The realism serves to push the story forward, and to act as an anchor for contemporary readers, but it can also push the unwary reader away

Another positive aspect for me of reading this type of  hard (military) sci-fi is o want to learn more about things it takes for granted (such as technology and science, economics and economic theory, even philosophy and military science). At the same time, if you don’t leave the Freehold without a few criticisms of social, political or economic policy (both your own and the Freehold’s), then I think you’re not actively reading.

Survey Said..!

Other (Amazon) reviewers either hate him or love him for the implicit message about “libertarian” political economy, and social policy (or lack thereof) and like to compare Williamson’s work (favorably or not) to Robert Heinlein’s work (1). If Williamson is trying to ‘shove’ his political economy and social views down our throat, as one reviewer asserted, he is at least not the first, nor shall he be the last to do so in a a work of fiction (Upton Sinclair’s Jungle comes to mind here), and  at least he goes about it in an entertaining way.   Also, as at least one other  reviewer noted at least implicitly, and hitting upon a truth of science fiction:  it is Ideas, more so than character or plot that take center stage. And quite often, in order to air out the idea properly, you need to take it out of current context and place, thus the future setting (it assists the contemporary reader to achieve the emotional detachment necessary to analyze a concept). Of course, the world wide UN government and the Freehold for all the realistic description, comes off as either “too good to be true” or “too bad to be believable”, but I choose to believe that this was intentional, so that we could see the outcome of the competing ideas in action in as pure form as possible.

All Squeamishness Aside…

As I wrote above, parts of Williamson’s writing are very explicit and sexually graphic, this is something that may or may not change with future works. This may turn some readers off, (I certainly found it off-putting), and yet that too is part of the Freehold mentality: liberty and license as long as it does not hurt anyone else. It’s not a particularly Christian ethical standard, but then the book was not written with a necessarily Christian audience in mind. I can accept that, and still enjoy the story, even if i don’t agree with it’s worldview.

My final thought on the matter: this will not be the last book by Williamson I will read, even if parts of it leave me a little squeamish.


  1. Customer Reviews: Freehold  accessed on 21 January 2013

My next Pile is On Basilisk Station by David Weber (you may have heard of him), so until then, keep calm and read on. *why yes this IS a new tagline, why do you ask?*

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”

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. Customer Reviews: With the Lightnings
  2. David Drake -Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia