Space Opera Bona: The Sea Without A Shore by David Drake

The Sea Without A Shore is the tenth instalment in David Drake’s popular and long-running Republic of Cinnabar Navy series, starring Signals Officer Lady Adele Mundy, librarian and spy, and Daniel Leary, decorated officer of the Royal Cinnabar Navy. Drake writes some of the best space opera in the business, and while The Sea Without A Shore has somewhat less space action than previous RCN novels, it’s still opera bona.

Forgive me the Latin pun: I’ll return to the RCN series’ classical inspirations, and those of The Sea Without A Shore in particular, shortly.

This is a series novel. You could start here, I suppose, but I wouldn’t encourage it. Much better to enter at With the Lightnings or Lt. Leary, Commanding—both of which were at one point available as free ebooks from Baen. If you’re a long-time reader of the series, on the other hand, you probably already have a good idea about whether or not The Sea Without A Shore is still relevant to your interests.

That does always make reviewing the tenth novel in a series a wee bit tricky…

When The Sea Without A Shore opens, Daniel is without a command, and playing the squire on his family’s country estate. Adele has no assignment either, but, simultaneously, separate parties ask them for favours. Adele is asked by Daniel’s sister, the banker and politician Deirdre Leary, to address a matter of attempted blackmail and extortion in the star cluster of Pantellaria. Meanwhile, Tom Sand—husband of Bernis Sand, Cinnabar’s spymistress—asks Daniel to help him out with Rikard Cleveland, his adult stepson. Cleveland believes he has found treasure on Corcyra, which lies within the Pantellarian cluster, and is seeking investors to help recover it. The Sands fear that he’s doing the next best thing to asking to be robbed and murdered. So who better than Daniel Leary to keep an eye on him?

Meanwhile, Corcyra has broken away from Pantellarian control. The Pantellarians are allied to the Cinnabar Republic, but the rebels on Corcyra incline towards the Alliance. While the Republic and the Alliance are presently at peace, it’s a tentative one, and a political misstep on either side could lead to a renewed outbreak of hostilities… which neither side can afford. Daniel and Adele set out together, but they have a narrow line to walk between fulfilling the obligations each has taken on—and avoiding reigniting the war.

The Sea Without A Shore is tense, snappily-written, and filled with entertaining and occasionally explosive incidents. The pacing isn’t as taut as in some of the earlier RCN novels, and it wears its influences on its sleeve—and while I do enjoy this series a very great deal, sometimes I wish Drake might extend himself a little further away from those influences.

The RCN series bears a fairly obvious debt to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin novels, in the pairing of bluff navel officer and quiet intellectual spy. The debt it owes to the seafaring world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the relations between Britain and France during the French and Napoleonic wars, is plain in the worldbuilding. And the universe of Cinnabar and the Alliance, and the less powerful polities on display, is not only influenced by that of the late-18th century colonial powers, but also that of Rome and the Classical Mediterranean world.

In many ways this makes for great, entertaining fiction (I’m a larval ancient historian in my other life: the Mediterranean world of antiquity is close to my heart), but in other ways, the unremitting cultural chauvinism of those influences, transposed to fiction, does make me wish that Drake could give the reader a wider variety of nuanced perspectives. It seems reasonably clear that he constructs both “civilisation”—characterised by a stable executive—and “barbarity”—characterised by the instability of power—as both equally ready and willing to deploy extreme violence against internal and external threats, both perceived and actual, and that the major difference is who holds, or can hold, a monopoly on violence. It’s a worldbuilding decision I wish Drake would bring more closely, and more nuancedly, into view, behind the entertaining explosive incidents… but I freely acknowledge I have my own prejudices in that regard.

I do also sometimes find Drake’s choice to take inspiration for the events of a certain novel directly from some incident or incidents recounted in the literature of Mediterranean antiquity just a touch distracting. In this case, it was the fact that his foreword acknowledged using the Corcyraean civil war (which interested observers of the Peleponnesian Wars will recall from Thucydides 3.70 and following1) as raw material combined with one of the planets on which the action takes place being named Corcyra. It did rather provoke me into looking for where the inspiration had inspired events… a little too predictably, let’s say, if you’re at all familiar with your Thucydides.

Which won’t, I daresay, be an issue for most people.

These matters aside, The Sea Without A Shore is an awful lot of fun. I hope there are more adventures of Adele and Daniel to come.

[1]Thucydides: “The Corcyraean revolution began with the return of the prisoners taken in the sea-fights off Epidamnus. These the Corinthians had released, nominally upon the security of eight hundred talents given by their guest-friends, but in reality upon their engagement to bring over Corcyrato Corinth. These men proceeded to canvass each of the citizens, and to intrigue with the view of detaching the city from Athens. Upon the arrival of an Athenian and a Corinthian vessel, with envoys on board, a conference was held in which the Corcyraeans voted to remain allies of the Athenians according to their agreement, but to be friends of the Peloponnesians as they had been formerly.”

 

The Sea Without a Shore is available May 6th from Baen.


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

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