“I forget you have a sense of humor, Mundy.” David Drake’s The Road of Danger

The Road of Danger is the ninth novel in Drake’s Republic of Cinnabar Navy series, after 2010’s What Distant Deeps. The series as a whole is an excellent example of space operatic military SF, and The Road of Danger proves no exception. Dispatched on a piece of impossible make-work by a jealous admiral, Captain Daniel Leary, his good friend Signals Officer Adele Mundy—librarian, crack shot, and spy—and the crew of the fighting corvette Princess Cecile enter once more into the way of danger.

“…Pleasaunce complained to Xenos,” she said, “and Xenos handed the whole business here to the Macotta Regional Headquarters. Without any extra resources, I might add!”

The Republic of Cinnabar and the Alliance of Free Stars are at peace. Unfortunately, a Cinnabar citizen—whom no one can identify—is allegedly stirring the pot of rebellion on the Alliance world of Sunbright. Since the general resumption of hostilities is undesirable, the Alliance has asked Cinnabar to repatriate their rogue citizen. It’s this inglorious task that’s dropped in Daniel Leary’s lap. A task complicated by the fact that the rebellion-cum-civil war on Sunbright is being backed by a consortium of warring merchant clans on a nearby independent world, who find the situation profitable, and by the fact that, in addition, a rogue Alliance intelligence officer is plotting to reignite the Alliance-Cinnabar war in service of his own ambition.

“Look, Captain,” the lieutenant commander said, “Admiral Cox needs to demonstrate that we, that the RCN, are making a proper effort to repatriate this rebel leader. But the admiral doesn’t care—that is, nobody really believes that you can succeed. That’s if the rebel even exists.”

But Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy will do their duty as officers of the RCN. Daring ship actions, intelligence work, and the up-close-and-personal shooting of people who frequently deserve it ensue. It’s a perfectly neat little plot, involving twisty politics, bloody warfare, and derring-do. Both Daniel and Adele are pushed out of their areas of comfort before the end, and the conclusion is eminently tense and explosively satisfying. By the finale, Daniel has satisfied his admiral and upheld his nation once again, and Adele has brought off complicated intelligence machinations with panache.

For me, though, the working out of the plot isn’t the real attraction of this novel. The characters and the worldbuilding are what bring me back to the RCN series book after book (all of which, fortunately, succeed quite well as standalones as well as in series), and The Road of Danger lives up to its predecessors. Drake’s universe has a quasi-Roman, quasi-Napoleonic feel. I personally find myself engaged in an ongoing argument with the ethical pessimism and civilisation-barbarism oppositions on display throughout his work as a whole, but that doesn’t prevent me admiring the seamless way the RCN universe fits together, and it doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the argument, either. I mightn’t agree with how Drake presents the world, but he makes his case convincingly, with grace, and a good sense of humour.

By becoming… a member of the crew of the Princess Cecile, Adele had found herself forced to observe human behavior with her own eyes. She had become fairly skilled at the business, though she still would have preferred to gain her information through recordings and the reports of third parties.

The relationship between the two main characters is a partnership of equal-but-different after the mode of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin. Daniel Leary is the Aubrey of the partnership, a dashing and successful naval officer with a killer professional instinct, an interest in natural history, and an equable disposition. Adele Mundy is the intelligence officer, dispassionate, pragmatic, and very competent when it comes to shooting people. She doesn’t quite think of herself as really human, and she’s more comfortable with data than people.  Together, they make an excellent—and very entertaining—team.

As do the secondary characters. Lieutenant Vesey of the Princess Cecile has her moments to shine,* in command in the midst of hectic space battles, and the crew themselves, familiar thanks to the previous eight instalments, develop in interesting ways. I should probably say that I’m endlessly amused by Hogg and Tovera, respectively Leary’s and Mundy’s retainers. (Though I also find them rather disturbing, since they’re both quite murderous sorts.) Tovera is the kind of woman who says, “I expended six rounds instead of three, that’s all,” in answer to a question of Any problems? She is, after all, rather the sociopathic type.

*I appreciate Drake’s female characters all the more for having recently read a number of SF novels (which shall go unnamed) that rather failed on this point.

I’m entirely too fond of this series, which begins with 1998’s With the Lightnings — though to my mind the best place to start is with the second volume, Lt. Leary Commanding, where Drake really finds his speed with the characters and the setting. The Road of Danger is a solid instalment, with meaty character interaction and plenty of excitement. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Liz Bourke is looking hopefully forward to more exciting space opera.


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