The Road of Danger by David Drake
Ahoy, me hearties and avast, ye lubbers! I’d recommend ye be looking fer a berth on the Bonny Lass. Why? Because no-one in their right minds would want to become one of the Sissies. Even being a eunuch is better in status terms. So, maties, we’re going to get into hot water to avoid me timbers shivering, and square off against pirates and warships of the line depending on which flag they’re flying for today. But, above all else, us macho naval men and women will avoid becoming sissies, i.e. people regarded as effeminate or cowardly, unless we decide to follow the Johnny Cash line and teach all our sailors to be butch by calling them Sue (after Sue Kerr Hicks, the man who prosecuted in the Scopes trial).
OK so I’m taking the Mickey here (not to be confused with a Mickey Finn and a free, all-inclusive pleasure cruise to Shanghai). By their nature, books that grow into series have an identifiable set of literary conventions. This targets a particular market niche where people are interested in those particular conventions. Take Patrick O’Brian for example. He’s well-known for the Aubrey-Maturin series which is based on actual historical events. If for nothing else, his fame rests on the incorporation of all the jargon and techniques of nineteenth century life under sail. You hear the rigging creek as the wind picks up and, if there’s anything you don’t understand, there’s always a dictionary. The author never explained any of the jargon for landlubbers. You’re supposed to pick up the mechanics of sailing through the experience of reading about it. So may your binnacles always glow even when you’re close-hauled, the spindrift races above you and you’ve got sprung butts lower down — you should always watch your butt.
Now let’s come to The Road of Danger by David Drake. Like O’Brian, this author mines history for “interesting” situations and then recreates them in either fantasy or military SF. This novel is based on the exploits of Hamilcar after the Battle of Zama had forced the end of the Second Punic War. He was supposed to be a Carthaginian who was left behind the lines in Italy to provoke civil unrest. In fact, he turned out to be quite a successful military leader, so Rome sent a delegation to Carthage and demanded they repatriate their man, or else. David Drake translates this into the ninth outing in the RCN series for Captain Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy. They are given the no-win task of going to recover “Freedom”, the man leading an insurrection on a distant planet. You will understand the problems. No-one actually knows who he is nor how to contact him. He is, after all, the leader of an underground resistance movement. But the fact he’s managed to acquire some heavy-duty hardware and used it in some of the battles suggests he has the support of “governments”, so the politics of this proposed extraction are not going to be easy to navigate.
In describing the story in this way, I’m confirming it as fascinating. Although this relocation to space opera is not exact given this novel’s version of Carthage has not lost the war and so is not quite under the same pressure as the original, it nevertheless retains all the flavour of the problem. Immediately after the end of the Second Punic War, much of Italy and the greater European land mass was in a chaotic situation. Hannibal and his elephants had seriously disrupted the centralised control of Rome, allowing many of the original tribal units to quietly reassert their independence. So it is here. During this lull in active hostilities, many of the planets in this more distant part of human space have agendas that may diverge from the policy interests of both the major power blocs. Hence, there’s considerable lawlessness with pirates disrupting trade and corrupt officials feathering their own nests.
Had all this been packaged as a straightforward political thriller with military SF overtones, I would have been happy to explore the political ramifications and watch our heroes cut through the bullshit with a well-placed broadside of missiles when talking was no longer enough on its own. But the language used by David Drake kept getting in the way. The model of military cunning and brains borrowed from O’Brian works well in Leary and Mundy, but the transplantation of nineteenth century naval traditions and jargon does not. Let’s start with the gap between the officers and the crew. In the days of sail, you needed to be strong, fit and fearless to crew a ship of the line. Living in appalling conditions by modern standards, the men would have to cope with everything the sea could throw at them and then fight equally tough enemies. This did not require them to be well-endowed in the brain department. The primary requirement was they be loyal. The job of captains was to keep them motivated. Jack Aubry and Daniel Leary do it by giving rousing speeches and being supremely competent in battles — never sink a prize ship if it will pay the crew a big bonus when it gets back to port. So the people crewing the Princess Cecile (the Sissies) are as thick as two short planks. Interestingly, Lt Leary also has Hogg as his personal servant (and bodyguard). He’s one of these poacher/gamekeeper figures who steals to order and is not averse to shooting anyone who threatens the master. From this you will understand both Leary and Mundy come from the ranks of the nobility and so are used to telling the peasants what to do. Anyway, the crew is highly competent but intellectually challenged, while the higher class officers are continuing the training meted out by our two leaders. They are improving but still lack the spark of greatness. All this would be bearable if David Drake didn’t constantly distort everything to fit his nineteenth century model. People and machines have to conform to period linguistic conventions.
So there’s your choice laid out as fairly as I can. If you can bear to read a military SF novel written as if it’s describing a series of nineteenth century naval engagements, this is the book for you. It’s got everything including an ingenious way of shooting at an enemy that would not have been available to Jack Aubrey. But if the prose style is important to you, this is probably a book to avoid.
The artwork is by the ever reliable Steve Hickman.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.