Friday, March 6, 2009

Book Review: The Far Side of the Stars

Crewmembers scurry up the ship's rigging to adjust the sails, while the captain takes a star sighting.

A scene from a Horatio Hornblower novel? No, just typical duty on board the RCN (Royal Cinnibar Navy) starship Princess Cecile. (The "Riggers" are wearing space suits).

The Far Side of the Stars is David Drake's 3rd novel in his popular Lieutenant Leary series. In this setting, starships traverse the galaxy using sails to harness Casmiri Radiation within "bubble universes" linked by "the Matrix." Fanciful? Maybe, but the author tells his stories convincingly and with consistency.

Once back in normal, or "sidereal" space, ships are propelled by matter/antimatter high drives and plasma thrusters. Adding to the naval lore, starships land on bodies of water to take on reaction-mass for fuel and to absorb thruster blasts.

The series, is the author's tribute to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels, featuring Lt. Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy. He's a devil-may-care officer in the Royal Cinnabar Navy with an appetite for the ladies. (The younger and more bubbleheaded the better). She's an austere librarian-turned signal officer and spy. Together they make a formidable pair against Cinnabar's main enemy--the Alliance of Free Stars.

However, their relationship wasn't always so platonically harmonious. In the first book, With the Lightnings, Lt. Leary was part of a diplomatic mission to the planet Kostroma. There he met Adele who was supervising the Elector's Library. They initially struck-up a friendship until they discovered they were from opposing royal families. Daniel is the estranged son of Corder Leary of Bantry, Speaker of Cinnabar. While Adele Mundy is the sole survivor of the Mundy of Chatsworth, the oldest family of Cinnabar. Adele's entire family was executed for conspiracy--on the orders of Daniel's father.

The two nearly fought a duel until Adele realized Daniel and his father weren't on speaking terms and when all hell broke loose from an Alliance-sponsored coup attempt. After thwarting the coup, the pair are assigned to the corvette Princess Cecil in Lt. Leary Commanding. By this time both of them have earned their respective reputations: He as a firebrand officer and she as a deadly marksman with a dueling pistol and first-rate hacker. (By this time Adele's been recruited as a spy for Cinnabar).

In this story, Cinnabar and the Alliance are at peace--supposedly. So both sides draw down their military forces--supposedly. The RCN decides to pay-off Princess Cecil and puts the crew on half-pay. Thanks to an inheritance from his famous uncle, Commander Stacey Bergen, Daniel is able to purchase the ship and convert it to a "private yatch." At the same time, Cinnabar's spymaster Mistress Bernis Sand assigns her to escort the Klimovs, a noble couple from Novy Sverlovsk, on an expedition to the wild Galactic North. The spymaster arranges it so the Klimovs hire the Princess Cecil and her crew for the expedition.

Of course, Adele's real mission is to ascertain the status of a former RCN battleship and crew of mutineers, while the Klimovs are searching for a priceless artifact stolen years ago from their starsystem. Daniel Leary's mission is to keep everyone alive but the discovery of a secret Alliance base puts their survival in jeopardy.

There are 16 customer reviews listed on; of which 4 reviewers gave the book a 5-star rating and 6 gave it a 4-star rating. There are 4x3-star ratings and 2x2-star ratings. The most common criticism from the 2 & 3-star raters were the book read like a series of short-stories rather than a novel, and the sailing technique for propelling starships through space was too far-fetched.

I enjoyed the book too much to notice any defects in the story. David Drake is one of my favorite science fiction authors. However, one of the 4-star rater's comments described Drake's writings and characterizations as "quiet, not showy." I use the words "subtle" and sometimes "obtuse." That is the author often describes things in an indirect manner, which is clever, but sometimes causes me to re-read passages when I realized I missed something. At the same time though, Mr. Drake can be very graphic in his combat descriptions. The reader gets a clear picture what bullets, fired by electromagnetic energy and propelled to hypersonic speed, can do the the fragile human body.

Overall, I give this space opera a 5-star rating along with the previous books in this series. It was refreshing to read that as mankind reached the stars he cast-off political correctness into the depths of space.

So if you're in the mood for a science-fiction-age-of-sail yarn, you can't go wrong picking up any of the Lt. Leary books.

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