Today's book review is The Far Side of the Stars by David Drake.
But before I get to the book review, I want to put in a plug for the Baen Free Library, Baen Books' experiment in giving away books on the Internet so people will go out and buy dead tree editions. I've been reading some books online. For no reason I can really explain even to myself, though, I haven't been doing reviews of them. But anyway, David Drake is one of the authors with some books there. I started The Tank Lords (Hammer's Slammers #1) and after a few chapters with violent death on every page, I couldn't take it. But I decided to give With the Lightnings a try, and I liked it much better. And then I read Lieutenant Leary Commanding. And I enjoyed those books that I read for free enough that I bought this, the third book in the series, a few weeks ago at Borders. So, publishers, take note: because I had the chance to read for free, I bought a book by an author I don't read that I would not have bought otherwise. It works. So keep doing it, and do it more.
Anyway, that brief digression past, this is the third book in the Lieutenant Leary series, and if you're going to read them, you should start at the beginning, 'cause this book doesn't really explain who the main characters are.
This is pure space opera; in fact, it's really a naval adventure story from the days of sailing ships and cannon. That goes for the whole series, actually; this book specifically takes those characters and puts them on a gentleman-adventurer side trip. Unfortunately, there are some places where the outline says we have to go here so the characters get dragged there without taking the time to actually be in character, and there's an episode that's a little out of proportion cosmically with the rest of the book and strains suspension of disbelief and the feel of the story. I still thought it was fun, but it had some definite flaws that make it weaker than the earlier books in the series -- and are likely to be too much for more picky readers to forgive. 6 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
Lt. Leary returns to Cinnabar a conquering hero (for his exploits in the previous volume), only to find out that his ship the Princess Cecile ("Sissy") is being dumped by the navy because she was heavily damaged and the navy doesn't really trust ships they didn't build. Leary is sad but makes a big show of understanding that this is how things have to be in the navy, and if he tries to get sentimental about it it will just damage his career. Leary's uncle Stacey Bergen, the legendary astrogator, dies, and there's a big funeral. At the funeral, Lt. Mon talks to Leary. Mon brought the Sissy back to Cinnabar (because Leary was busy with another ship), and a bunch of stuff went wrong, and the crew are convinced he's unlucky. Count Klimov, a rich noble from a minor system has bought the Sissy as naval surplus, and hired Mon as the captain, but Mon can't attract a competent crew because of the "unlucky" rep, and can't figure out what to do. As this is developing, Leary gets word that his estranged father wants him to take over Uncle Stacey's shipbuilding business; without a good leader running the company, the investors will want to liquidate it. When Klimov meets Leary, he decides he wants Leary to be his captain instead. Without bothering to examine Leary's motivations, we just abandon everything Leary had built up about wanting to follow his navy career path, and after getting Mon to agree to take over the shipyard (which he's very happy about; he has family on planet and was only taking the job because he needed the money) and finessing Klimov to agree that Leary was an independent contractor and the crew reported to him, he invites the crew to join him and takes the job.
We then proceed to have a bunch of adventures; I may leave some out or get them in the wrong order. Klimov fancies himself a Great White Hunter, so they land on a world where there are 35' flying lizards that pretty well deserve the name dragons (no firebreathing). Klimov wants a trophy, until they nearly get killed by one, and then he wants to leave the planet ASAP. On Todos Santos, Klimov gets into a poker game with Capt. Semmes, commanding an Alliance battleship Bleucher. Klimov takes Semmes for a great deal of money (probably not actually his own), and nearly gets killed by Alliance spacers, but Leary pulls off a daring rescue. I'm missing a few bits here; they visit a nameless world where a ship wrecked a couple of generations ago and interact with descendants of the crew living as savages. The savages have a treasure that at first they think is the legendary Earth Diamond, Klimov's real goal on this quest, but they realize it's just a crude copy. Then they go to the planet of the Oracle, where a strange sentient tree grants real prophetic visions to people who pay large amounts of money. Leary is kidnapped by the acolytes and involuntarily put into symbiosis with the tree. The crew are on the verge of tearing the place up when they find him. And apparently the tree is God, or something pretty close to it, and while Leary was connected to it he had complete understanding of everything in the universe. Including the knowledge that his predessor in the role of interface between the tree and humans was the legendary John Tsetzes, and his mummified corpse holds the real Earth Diamond. Leary also learned that the rumors that the Alliance are building a base on Radiance in violation of treaty are entirely true, and he needs command of Sissy to get the news back, so he buys the ship back from Klimov for the Diamond. Then they have a run-in with the Bleucher, managing to get it to land on the world with the shipwrecked savages, and Adele uses her super spy powers to hack the Bleucher's computers so that when they light their thrusters to take off, the antimatter High Drive will activate instead, in the atmosphere, and blow up. So they leave the Alliance battleship stranded and run back to Todos Santos, where they try to appeal to Adele's cousin, who'd mutinied with the Cinnabar battleship Aristoxenos a generation ago. Daniel means to bring Zennie to fight the base at Radiance, but Purvis the captain isn't willing to lift the old hulk. So Leary goes with plan B, going back to the world of savages, salvaging the High Drive motors from the old wreck, hoodwinking the Bleucher's crew into running off and hiding, mounts the old engines, and flies his stolen battleship to Radiance, where by using it as a decoy, stirring up the Radiance locals, and having Zennie arrive in the nick of time after all, manages to neutralize the base and escape alive to return to Cinnabar once again a hero.