Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmaster’d with a piece of valiant dust? To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I’ll none. Adam’s sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.
–Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, Act II Scene I.
There’s a surprising amount to like in Valiant Dust, Richard Baker’s space opera debut. (Though I’m disappointed in the ways in which it fails to live up to its title. A space opera that looks to take its title from the Much Ado About Nothing quote where Beatrice rejects the prospect of a husband should play a bit more with marriages and misunderstandings and sheer wonderful sarcasm than Baker’s novel does. But let me set aside my thwarted desires for Beatrice-levels of pointed snark.)
Valiant Dust sets out to be space opera in the mode of (space) navy adventure story thoroughly influenced by C.S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower. Its cover copy boasts that it’s “Honor Harrington meets The Expanse.” I can see the likeness to the Harrington series: Baker’s space opera powers are very clearly modelled on the same English/French/Austrian/Russian great-power issues of the late 18th and early 19th century that David Weber uses as the framework for Honor Harrington’s star nations, though Baker complicates matters by including analogues for European colonial possessions, such as India and perhaps Tunisia, and by having his main character, Lieutenant Sikander Singh North, be the fourth son of a colonial potentate. But unlike the Expanse, Valiant Dust isn’t hiding any weird alien shit in its interstices.
Sikander Singh North is a prince of a planet that is, essentially, a colonial protectorate of the powerful space nation of Aquila. He’s been an officer in the Aquilan Commonwealth navy for ten years, and has now received the position of gunnery department head aboard the light cruiser Hector. He’s junior for the post, and several of his colleagues disapprove of him on grounds of where he comes from. Fortunately, he has a mostly sympathetic captain, but he must prove himself to some of his direct superiors.
Ranya el-Nasir is the niece of the sultan of Gadira, and the daughter of the previous sultan. She has a keen interest in military affairs, and apparently no female friends or acquaintances. Gadira, a planet whose culture is Arab-flavour (despite its Turkish/Ottoman approach to titles) and chauvinistic, is a client state of the Republic of Montréal, but is currently in the throes of domestic unrest. This domestic unrest is being encouraged by agents of the Empire of Dremark, who wish to replace the Montréalais as Gadira’s imperial patron.
Enter light cruiser Hector, the Aquilans, who wish to see the status quo prevail, and Lieutenant North. Said lieutenant is immediately quite taken with Ranya. There are street battles and plots and ship actions and sex on private islands.
This is a perfectly acceptable military space opera debut. It’s not anything particularly to write home about: faintly reminiscent of David Drake’s RCN novels, it lacks their dash, verve, and depth of attention to worldbuilding. But perhaps I’m being a little unfair, as Valiant Dust does something with its worldbuilding that particularly annoys me (leaving aside offhand references to a repressive “Terran Caliphate”). Aquilan society appears to be fairly egalitarian, but Lieutenant North picks a fight with a fellow officer over an insult to his (female) date at a social event—his date is presumably not capable of standing up for her own honour?—while in Gadiran society, rather more segregated by gender, Ranya seems to have no female companions at all, not even a secretary. The first of these reveals the author hasn’t actually thought much about how gender works in his future societies, choosing to project his assumptions about his present upon them, while the second reveals a lack of understanding of how women go about their lives in socially and politically sex-segregated environments.
Structurally, Valiant Dust is a fairly well constructed Hornblower-style novel. The main plot is straightforward. The flashbacks to a terrorist attack on North’s family that led to him being sent away to the military are a bit heavy-handed. The prose is plain and unadorned, and the characterisation works more in types than in individuals, particularly when it comes to people outside the viewpoint characters. This isn’t necessarily a drawback: Valiant Dust tells a decent adventure yarn without many frills, and that’s enjoyable in itself.
I’m going to be honest with you. I was afraid Valiant Dust might be awful. I hoped it wouldn’t be. I mean, I really hoped it wouldn’t be: I always want new, good space opera with a military flavour. There’s never enough of it. (And I imprinted young on Honor Harrington.) But novels by blokes, especially debut military SF novels whose cover copy refers to their main character proving himself “with his fists” and refers to a female character as “headstrong” and identifies her only in relation to her male relatives… well, they’ve sorely disappointed me before. Military space opera has frequently been fertile ground for working out terrible politics with cardboard characters. (Or maybe I’m a jaded cynic? But I think I’ve just read a lot of bad fiction. Let us not speak of them by name.)
Valiant Dust surprised me by clearing this low, low bar. It’s not awful. It is, in fact, a hell of a lot better than I feared it might be. (And I’m so very glad.) Although Baker doesn’t quite think through his worldbuilding or the lives of women within it—and while women are often referred to first in terms of their attractiveness to Lt. North—Baker’s female characters are permitted both competence and individuality. The worldbuilding is not as shallow and one-dimensional as it could have been, and it avoids Islamophobia—which is unfortunately never a given with fiction by Anglophone writers of military fiction these days.
Valiant Dust wobbles in parts, but as far as Hornblower-esque space opera goes (and I’m a sucker for a good navy story), it’s a solid and entertaining —a very enjoyable—story. Early David Weber and late David Drake are legitimate comparisons, and I’m always on the lookout for more fun military SF.
If Baker can raise his game just a little, maybe next time I won’t praise his work by reference to low bars. Valiant Dust shows promise. But a man with thirteen novels behind him ought to do better. I look forward to seeing if he can.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.