Some Golden Harbor (RCN V) – David Drake

Lt. Leary, sans ship, is sent to Ganpat’s Reach as an advisor. His mission is to untangle a messy inter-system invasion that threatens the interests of a Cinnabar ally. Conveniently, he can hire his own former ship, the Princess Cecile, and most of the Sissies, to convey him. On arrival, he finds a complex web of intrigue and machinations.

I was rather disappointed by this installment. While it was entertaining enough to keep me going, the plot felt haphazard and overcomplex. The three system polities involved weren’t sufficiently fleshed out, and I was often confused about who did what and to whom. Individual scenes were top notch as usual, but the arc of the plot was muddled.

The Way to Glory (RCN IV) – David Drake

Leary has finally been promoted, but due to political machinations he is not given a new ship command. Instead, he is assigned as the executive officer of a paranoid Captain whose last move was to violently quash a mutiny by massacring the perpetrators, one of whom was a senator’s son. Leary cannot play humble, and ends up squarely in the sights of his superior.

The series certainly isn’t becoming dull, but I find that Drake missed an opportunity here. The main plot complication in the early part of the book is the contrast and conflict between Leary and Captain Slidell. However, Leary quickly manages to get himself assigned to detached duty, robbing the readers of a whole raft of interesting situations. If you can look past that, this is still a strong book in the series, though not quite as good as those preceding it.

The Far Side of the Stars (RCN III) – David Drake

At the beginning of the third RCN book, Lt. Leary is beached on half pay after peace has broken out between the Republic of Cinnabar and the Alliance of Free Stars. Through an unexpected turn of events, he is able to once again take command of the Princess Cecile, which has been sold out of navy service but is chartered as a yacht by a wealthy foreign couple who want to venture far into the lawless “north”. Their aim is adventure, gambling, big game hunting, but also a search for an elusive relic, the Earth Diamond.

As is now usual with these books, the main plot is not very linear, with many subplots seemingly there to provide amusement and adventure rather than support the main plot. And as is also usual, I didn’t mind at all. Not totally unexpectedly, Lt. Leary finds a way to return to navy service both himself, his crew, and the Princess Cecile. The action is fast, furious and humorous and maintains the high standards of the previous books.

With the Lightnings (RCN I) – David Drake

I was put off from reading this for a full eight years mainly due to the horrible cover, but also some misgivings about David Drake. While I loved his Hammer’s Slammers, his writing has often been a bit wooden. The blurb just didn’t do it for me either. Well, I’m so happy to be proven wrong. “With the Lightnings” is quality military SciFi. The RCN series has been likened to the Hornblower books, However Drake himself says they are actually based on the Aubrey/Maturin books. Since those are in themselves inspired by the Hornblower series, I suppose both comparisons are apt.

Lt. Daniel Leary is an officer of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy. Cinnabar is a “great power” opposed by “the Alliance”. As in all good adventure fiction of this stripe, the Alliance is “evil” and Cinnabar is “good”. Leary is a supernumerary on a diplomatic mission to the planet Kostroma. Meanwhile, Adele Mundy, a Cinnabar information specialist in exile, has been hired to set up the ruler’s library on Kostroma. While they are there, the Alliance invades Kostroma. Leary and Mundy join forces and, with the help of a group of Cinnabar ratings, set about attempting to escape.

Swashbuckling action only begins to describe this book. Drake has adapted his technology and political/social structures to mimic the age of sail to a degree that would be ridiculous if it wasn’t such a good background for a story. Leary and Mundy are the perfect characters for this kind of thing. Daring, courageous and humorously cocky, yet by no means arrogantly sure of themselves. The locales are colorful, the characters engaging, the action furious and exciting.

The Belisarius Series – David Drake & Eric Flint

Military SciFi/Alternate history in which an evil empire appears in India in the fifth century. Famous historical general Belisarius receives a warning from the future and must counter the threat. This series goes deeper into philosophical and poetical tangents than similar works. Eric Flint’s classic wry humour pervades the prose. The books can almost be read as historical novels and contain quite a few interesting tidbits about the period. The series consist of:

  • An Oblique Approach
  • In The Heart of Darkness
  • Destiny’s shield
  • Fortune’s Stroke
  • The Tide of Victory
  • The Dance of Time

The sixth and final book, The Dance of Time came out over two years late and seems a bit of a late addition. It tied up all the loose ends neatly, even though the actual conclusion to the conflict was foregone by this time. However, the habit of the authors to show off their characters’s cleverness, while only a minor annoyance in the first five volumes, really grated on my nerves in the sixth book. Endless uses of “Why not?” and equally endless enumerations of “how cool are we” items both in the exposition and the dialogue are just plain bad style. Still and all, a satisfying conclusion.

The Inheritance Trilogy – Ian Douglas

These are sequels to the exciting Heritage and Legacy trilogies. As before, the focus is on the Marine Corps and its role in imagined future conflict. Note: Ian Douglas is a pen name for William H. Keith.

Star Strike

This is the first book in the third trilogy about US Marines. The story jumps ahead about half a millenium. The Xul still threaten humankind, but have been quiescent since the events of Star Marines. As per usual, the Marines are hindered by a misguided politician, then proceed to save the day and win a great victory. There is the usual boot camp training sequence with a new scion of the Garroway line.

While the plots are becoming somewhat formulaic, these novels are still of high quality. The action is gritty, the story is epic, and the books are real page turners. I was afraid that all the “future tech” would somehow make the story less relatable, but this is not so. Douglas manages to explain well how technologies like AIs, direct mind link to computers and virtual spaces change the way humans interact. He also infuses the book with a sense of history, and understands that political entities and priorities can shift dramatically over time.

Galactic Corps

The second book of the trilogy picks up the story about a decade after Star Strike. Once again, there is an annoying politician. The Marines now attempt a blow at the very heartland of the Xul, in the radiation saturated galactic core.

While the first half follows the usual formula, the second half, with operations in the core, is truly excellent. Very exciting and with many elements from “sense of wonder” stories like Ringworld and Rendevous with Rama. These are areas that military Scifi doesn’t usually touch upon but could and should more often. A very strong middle book and another page turner.

Semper Human

After a thousand year “break” in the macrostory, the Marines are back. Revived from a centuries long hibernation (de facto a kind of reserve status), they wake to a radically different galactic society, with a plethora of alien races, as well as new offshoots of the human race. The reason for their awakening is that the Xul seem to be altering reality by subtly influencing human minds through the spooky effects of quantum physics.

After the breakneck action of the previous two books, this one feels very slow to start. A lot of time is spent discussing the changes to galactic society of the past centuries. The usual “Marines are anachronisms” message, only more so, and to excess. Once battle is joined, so to speak, it doesn’t feel anywhere near as visceral as previously. The characters are dull and lack the compelling qualities of those in earlier installments. Douglas redeems himself a bit at the end with some excellent historical vignettes, but it is not enough. Unfortunately, the book becomes one long treatise about why Marines have always pulled mankind’s (and in this case Galactic Society as whole’s) chestnuts out of the fire. While I understand and even agree with the message, it is far too heavy handed. So this ninth, and possibly last, book of the saga unfortunately ends it with a sizzle where there should have been a bang. A big, big bang.

The Legacy Trilogy – Ian Douglas

This is the sequel trilogy to the exciting Heritage Trilogy. Set a hundred years further in the future, the books flesh out the backstory significantly and satisfyingly. The Marine Corps focused action remains, improved if anything. Douglas (a pen name for William H. Keith) writes about battles, troops and equipment with a gritty and realistic tone.

Star Corps

Descendants of the An, prehistoric overlords of Earth, have been discovered on a planet in a nearby star system. Suddenly, the delegation sent there is attacked by these “Ahannu”. The Marines send a relief expedition on a ten year voyage (one way) to regain control. This book introduces the Marines featured in the first two books of the trilogy, in particular John Garroway, descendant of the main characters from the Heritage Trilogy. The Ahannu are just a bit player in galactic terms, though.

Battlespace

After a ten year voyage back to Earth, the Marines are sent out again. Their twenty year absence has led to significant problems interacting with society, somewhat similar to what happens in Haldeman’s “The Forever War“. This time, the mission involves securing an alien stargate in the Sirius system, thought to be used by the “Hunters of the Dawn”, a very advanced race that destroys any life that could threaten it. At the gate, the Marines encounter another race, the Oannans/N’mah, which has been fleeing from and fighting the Hunters of the Dawn for millenia. After initial violence due to misunderstading, an alliance is formed.

Star Marines

The action now jumps forward a century and a half, but the main characters are still Garroways. The Hunters of the Dawn, alerted by the destruction of their ship and gate in “Battlespace”, have decided that humans are a threat. A Hunter ship appears in Sol system and attacks. Earth is devastatated. The Marines launch a Doolittle Raid on the enemy, trying to buy the humans time. By the end of the Legacy Trilogy things are still very much up in the air about the future survival of humanity.

 

While the “Marines rule” theme in these books can sometimes be a bit heavy handed, this is quality military SciFi. The back story, only hinted at in the Heritage Trilogy, is fully fleshed out and well imagined.

The Heritage Trilogy – Ian Douglas

The Heritage Trilogy is the first of three connected trilogies about Marines in space, and consists of:

  • Semper Mars
  • Luna Marine
  • Europa Strike

Three very good near future military SciFi stories, loosely connected at the micro level, with a deeper common background. My only small gripe is that Douglas does not concentrate more on the backstory of alien visitors in ancient times. Still and all, a very good read.

Note: Ian Douglas is a pen name for William H. Keith.

The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story – Stephen R. Donaldson

This is the first of the Gap series of five 5 novels, a grand space opera loosely based on the Nibelung Ring operas by Wagner (of which there is a synopsis at the end). A mere 184 pages, it is an idea piece that introduces three characters, and delves deeply into their psyche, especially that of the villain.

Donaldson’s space opera aspects are a constant mild annoyance, since he has taken the very worst of all clichés in the genre, without making even a token effort to be original. It’s like being inside a video game with similar thematics. The plot was barely enough to get me through this novelette length tale, as was the knowledge that it would soon be over.

Dhalgren – Samuel R. Delany

Considered by many to be Delany’s literary masterpiece, I didn’t get very far in this weighty tome. The story, as far as I could make out, is about a traveler to the city of Bellona, a place which has suffered a great disaster. A disaster so great, in fact, that space and time no longer work as they do in the outside world. Very literary, in all the bad ways.

The Raj Whitehall Series (I-VIII) – David Drake, S.M. Stirling & Eric Flint

The human galactic federation is in ruins, and the worlds have devolved to various levels of barbarism. On the planet Bellevue, which is at about the early nineteenth century in development, a young officer named Raj Whitehall and his friend venture into the catacombs under the capital. There, they find an ancient battle computer named Center. With Center’s help, Raj must unite the planet and enable humanity to retake the stars. The story is at least somewhat based on that of the Byzantine general Belisarius.

The first seven novels are written by Drake and Stirling. The last one by Drake and Flint. David Drake writes very detailed outlines, while his collaborators write the actual text.

The first five novels are a set and deal with the conquest/unification of Bellevue. They are nowadays published in two volumes, known as Warlord and Conqueror:

  • The Forge
  • The Hammer
  • The Anvil
  • The Steel
  • The Sword

After finishing the conquest of Bellevue, the personalities of Center and Raj are imbued in computers that are sent to other worlds with launched asteroids. This scenario has infinite permutations as human worlds at various levels of development can be written about. The first of these follow-up novels is:

  • The Chosen

It is a great singleton set on a world with early twentieth century technology. Finally there is the two volume story consisting of:

  • The Reformer
  • The Tyrant

Here, we take a serious step “back in time”, as the planet Hafardine is at about Roman Empire level in it’s technology. The Tyrant is rather different in style from the others due to being penned by Flint. However, his trademark dry humor meshes well with the overall thrust of the series.

This is great military SciFi, with excellent battlescenes and great characters, not to mention a dose of dry humor. Very highly recommended.

Nova – Samuel R. Delany

I first read this book years and years ago as a teenager. I can still remember staying awake half the night, then finishing it the next evening. It is a magnificent grail quest of sorts, complete with manic captain, a demonic enemy, big stakes, a rich and varied past for the characters, and a fabulous setting. The ease with which the prose flows, and the believable and interesting situations and interactions make this one of SciFi’s masterpieces.