Monday, December 22, 2014

Heroes at Work

In spite of the fact that he's spent quite a bit of time saving the world and uncovering ancient mysteries, Dirk Pitt's day job has to do with oceanography and exploration of the sea. In that capacity, he and some other researchers of the National Underwater and Marine Agency are investigating several "dead zones" near Cuba, places where large numbers of fish and other aquatic wildlife have died.

But the dead zones may not be natural phenomena, and there are some people who would rather Pitt and NUMA not learn anything else about them. And there's the added complication that Pitt's children -- twins Summer and Dirk, Jr. -- have found themselves opposed by potentially lethal forces who want to uncover the secrets of some pre-Aztec relics the pair have been seeking. Will the two mysteries intersect?

What do you think?

Of course they will, and of course in back of everything will be a ruthless baddie bent on either destroying, ruling or exalting his position in the world. One doesn't read Clive Cussler (and/or son and co-author Dirk) in the interests of introspective self-analysis. One expects a quick-paced adventure yarn with evil plots, derring-do and a few last-minute escapes, which Cussler has been delivering for about 40 years. The best-written of these kinds of books zip by without making you stop for anything other than a page-turn, a snack or putting on sunscreen, and that sums up Havana Storm quite nicely. As usual, Cussler offers a little bit of maritime knowledge in his story and this time adds a dash of Mesoamerican archaeology for fun. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a book like Havana Storm, even though there's absolutely nothing about it that sticks with you (I read it several weeks ago and had to check Amazon to remind myself about a couple of plot points). Because that's precisely what it's designed to do, and that's precisely what it does.
Faith Lockhart has found out some bad things about the boss she formerly idolized, and is about to tell all to the FBI. But there's a CIA faction that has been using that same boss to gain leverage on the legislators he's bribed, and they've targeted Faith in order to protect their asset. But that same boss knows his CIA contact isn't on the up-and-up either, so he hires a private investigator, Lee Adams, to shadow her. Got it?

Me neither. And David Baldacci neither, really, as this 1999 thriller strangles in entangled plotlines, what-the-heck scenes and more than one Lifetime Movie Moment™. Faith's boss has changed his focus because of a change of heart, though he hasn't changed his ways to get what he wants. Faith and Lee grow close for no good reason whatsoever (and in one particular interaction, a very bad reason), and an Unexpected Turncoat is telegraphed so far in advance Samuel Morse himself was working the key.

Saving Faith was Baldacci's fifth novel and demonstrated his increasing smoothness and ability to pace the sometimes outlandish plots he was using. But here none of that development is used in service of going anywhere or doing so with people who are either believable or likeable. In that area, at least, Baldacci the author took a significant detour on his way to the much more disciplined thrillers of his "Camel Club" and "King and Maxwell" series.
David Weber's "Honorverse," the fictional universe home to starship heroine Honor Harrington and her Star Empire of Manticore, started in 1993 with On Basilisk Station. As the Harrington series became a monster hit, Weber began to branch out into other corners of his world, of late beginning to work with co-authors in the different series -- Eric Flint in the Wages of Sin series and Jane Lindskold in the young adult The Star Kingdom novels about the earliest settlers of the Manticore system.

With A Call to Duty, Weber opens up a period before the discovery of Manticore's "wormhole junctions" that will catapult it to regional and economic power in its section of the galaxy. He teams with Timothy Zahn, a top-selling science fiction author in his own right perhaps best known for the "Thrawn trilogy" of Star Wars novels that carried the characters forward from the end of the Return of the Jedi movie.

As Duty opens, Manticore is still a fairly small star nation struggling to maintain its defenses against pirates and raiders in light of several of its own political leaders thinking that such defenses are outmoded cash sponges. We follow along mostly through the person of Travis Uriah Long, an enlisted spacer who sees firsthand the kind of impact official neglect has on the Royal Manticoran Navy -- both its people and its ships. Long may have no idea whether or not a defense force will ever be needed, but he is pretty certain that if it is, the chances the Navy will be up to the task aren't great. His fears may prove out when pirates raid an interstellar nations conference -- can the weakened and demoralized RMN even respond?

Zahn helps Weber tame his word flow and tendency to set way too many scenes in meetings. Because they want to tell a story of Manticore's rise from a political perspective as well as a frontline one, there has to be some conferencing, but less than Weber's been guilty of on his own.

The Long POV chapters are the strongest, reading not unlike a good old-fashioned Heinlein juvenile as the drifting young man finds skills and purpose as a spacer and may even begin to find some wisdom of experience. The space action is tightly-written and fast-paced as well, so even if the characters are drawn with broad brushes and familiar strokes there's no real bog-down. There is plenty of stage-setting for subsequent books, but it doesn't get in the way of Duty's storyline either. Should Weber and Zahn be able to maintain the mix of action, politicking and set development of Duty (or improve on it a little), then they've opened up another diverting corner of Weber's Honorverse.

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