Fri
Feb 21 2014 12:00pm

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

David Drake The Sea Without a Shore 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.

6 comments
Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
I dunno Liz.

Using real life battles and transplanting them (with some names and situations changed) has the advantage of being able to bring the authenticity and weight of history to a fictional battle. Can you be too slavish? Maybe. But there is also an anticipation to seeing how the author uses the source material, or alters it.
Clark Myers
2. ClarkEMyers
Seems quite obvious the RCN series is too scattered in time - should be more with less time between. The Road of Danger is tagged RCN and is the only thing tagged RCN while The Sea Without A shore is tagged Royal Cinnebar Navy and again the sole use to date of the tag.

Might be useful to have a rehash of the series with more shared tags than the author's name.
Clark Myers
3. ClarkEMyers
…….does make me wish that Drake could give the reader a wider
variety of nuanced perspectives…….



It’s a worldbuilding decision I wish Drake would bring more
closely, and more nuancedly, into view………
Emphasis of course added to could. I'm struck by the use of could in context. Maybe one of the things that distinguishes, in the author's terms, his space opera and his military SF is the perspective. Perspective to include both the character's point of view and the world the character is seeing. I don't find in the RCN series the distinction made in the review supra between civilization and barbarity - however named - whether the usage be in fictional or historical settings. Then again nowhere in Drake's writings do I find much of a monopoly on violence and no possibility of such - though much on the price and consequences of violence.

Perhaps a book using the general setting that featured Bernis Sand and Deirdre Leary and more Miranda Dorst than Daniel Leary with all the violence planetside would be more nuanced?
Alan Brown
4. AlanBrown
Mr. Drake is a compelling writer, but his world view is pretty grim, and it is that grimness that keeps me from fully enjoying his work. And, as a student of history, and a reader of nautical fiction, I found that this particular series was a little too formulaic for my taste. So I stopped reading this series after the third book.
Although, this is probably more a reflection of where my own tastes have been going more than a reflection on Mr. Drake's writing. I read less and less fiction these days, and even less of that is science fiction.
Clark Myers
5. ClarkEMyers
I couldn't give a precise operative definition of formulaic in this context - though given the nature of series I suppose they mostly all are. That makes it hard for me to imagine a series that isn't. Arguably even to vary a formula is to be formulaic so I'm not sure what is added to the discourse to say a series is formulaic. A genre may be formulaic in the sense of conventions and works may defy the conventions of the genre and even that be conventional in some sense.

The assorted Star Trek whatever rewatches here frequently mention that the narrative detail is driven by the opening credits characers appear and survive - and a sort of Occam's Razor of casting - minimize characters by using and even misusing a recurring cast - hence the current expression red shirt and in the past as frex sympathy frag as applied to Combat with Vic Morrow.

A perhaps useful distinction in discussing fiction, and doubly so in SF where the possibilities are especially open, is the distinction sometimes said to exist between character driven stories by authors who write by the seat of their pants (ultimately from fly by the seat of their pants I suppose) and characters who plot tightly and then expand the plot into a narrative - see also plot and story (hat tip TNH et al). No question that Mr. Drake plots at great length and then writes long - (in his old age P.G. Wodehouse is said to have lost the ability to write long discoursive and funny first drafts and resorted to writing a short not particularly funny story then going back to add the elements he was so well known for doing in the first place) - with no chance that any character will escape the plot and change the story. Given the based on reality with serial numbers filed off nature of the stories they certainly don't wander off in strange or unexpected directions. Some people find it congenial to expand on people in a world from a shared with the author in some sense perspective.

I'd be interested in suggestions for series that are not formulaic and not grim.

Perhaps the eternally to be mourned sequel The Karres Ventures to the Witches of Karres would have been a light hearted series but surely as formulaic as the actual shared work and IMHO failed effort by other people. There is a great deal of humor in some series of shorter pieces Tales From the White Hart but I come up short on series humor that doesn't repeat a funny once ad nauseum.
Colin Bell
6. SchuylerH
@5: If you like the White Hart, you might want to spend some time at Callahan's...

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