January 14, 2005

With the Lightnings, by David Drake

The first time I read this book, the first in Drake's Lieutenant Leary series, I suggested that Drake was channeling David Weber--he of Honor Harrington fame. By the time I'd finished the second book in the series I'd gotten the clue. Drake wasn't trying to out-Weber Weber, he was doing an homage to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels. There were just too many parallels for it to be by accident, and so when I set out to re-read With the Lightnings I had my eyes open. But more of that anon.

For those coming in late, the Lieutenant Leary series is pure military space opera. Daniel Leary is a Lieutenant in the Royal Cinnabaran Navy; the Empire of Cinnabar is one of two leading powers in the human-explored galaxy. He's come to the planet Kostroma as part of a diplomatic mission to the new ruler of Kostroma, but he has no particular duties; he was chosen only because he's the son of Corder Leary, one of the most powerful men in the Empire, and someone thought the Kostromans would be impressed by that. In fact, Leary hasn't spoken to his father since some years prior, when they fell out over his joining the RCN. Since then he's been scraping along, trying to get ship duty. Now he's got it, and he's bound and determined to enjoy it as much as he can.

Meanwhile, Adele Mundy has accepted a position as librarian to the ruler of Kostroma; the fellow wants to be accepted as a patron of learning, so he began his rule by looting every other library in the capital. Mundy's a post-graduate of the Academy on Bryce, and is extremely accomplished at winnowing, categorizing, cataloging, and above all retrieving data--whether she's supposed to have access to it or not. She's a Cinnabarran citizen--a member of one of the great Cinnabaran families, just as Daniel Leary is--but hasn't been back to Cinnabar in sixteen years, when the bulk of her family was put to death in the aftermath of a failed coup, by order of Daniel's father. Later it came out that the Alliance was behind the coup; the Alliance is the other major power in the galaxy. Adele's parents and baby-sister were among the dead, leaving her with a kind of pox-on-both-their-houses attitude toward both Cinnabar and the Alliance.

Daniel and Adele meet under uncomfortable circumstances, and surprisingly become friends. This is just a few days before the Alliance foments an uprising on Kostroma--and by chance Daniel is the only RCN officer left at large after the first hours. He's got a chance to save the day, and given the kind of book this is, you just know he's going to pull it off; it's time to sit back and enjoy the ride.

As I say, I was looking for the Aubrey and Maturin parallels this time through, and I found one that's just plain silly. Probably the best known scene in all of O'Brian's work is in the very first book, Master and Commander. And it's the best known because it's the scene that's most likely to cause first-time readers to put the book down and stop reading O'Brian forever. It's Stephen Maturin's first time aboard Jack Aubrey's new command, the sloop Sophy, and Jack has requested a midshipman to give Stephen a tour of the rigging. And Stephen is afraid of heights. What follows is, when read in the right spirit, a remarkably funny scene composed of two monologues--the midshipman reciting the names of all of the parts of each mast, and the different sails, and so on and so forth, in exacting detail, ad infinitum ad nauseum, and Stephen not listening because he's so worried about falling to the deck and killing himself, while yet trying to make the appropriate responses. Really, you shouldn't pay any more attention to the rigging than Stephen does, and then you'll get through the passage OK. But people always try to make sense of it, and then they fall out of the book. Pity.

Shortly before the uprising begins it's Founder's Day on Kostroma, when they celebrate the first landing on the planet. There's quite a spectacular parade, and Leary has figured out that they best place to sit and watch is on the roof of the ruler's palace--provided that one has binocular goggles to look through. And so Leary waltzes into the palace library and then waltzes Adele Mundy up to the roof to watch the parade. He nonchalantly walks down the tile roof (a 30 degree slope) to the very edge, where he can rest his feet in the rain gutter; while Adele makes her slow and painful way down to him backwards on her hands and knees, she being (natch) afraid of heights. And as she's coming slowly down the roof, Leary begins a long disquisition about what it's like to be out on the hull of a starship during a passage between systems, and what all the different parts are, and did I mention that in Drake's universe the starships have masts and sails? There's no reason for him to be talking about it at that particular point in the story, except to counterpoint Adele's internal monologue about what she'd look like after she hit the pavement.

It's all quite silly, and I had a good time re-reading it.

Posted by Will Duquette at January 14, 2005 08:30 PM