Monday, November 14, 2016

Substandard Issue

Except for brief cameos, most of the team that series hero Troy Pearce worked with in the first book of Mike Maden's "Drone" series is absent from its fourth novel, Drone Threat.

Which leaves the engine of the book resting on Pearce's shoulders as he navigates both Washington insider politics and his chosen specialty of electronic drone warfare to hunt down a new threat to the United States. A drone somehow managed to breach White House security, land on the lawn and bear a message: Fly the ISIS flag over the White House or face catastrophic retaliation for every day the demand is not met. Troy, as a newly-appointed administration official creating policy for drone warfare, needs to engage in threat-thwarting while also trying to pin down its source and survive the even more hazardous world of White House infighting.

As in previous books, Maden's knowledge of drone operations and electronic warfare is top-rate and he explains it well within the narrative, rarely veering towards plot-stalling infodumps. He's less capable at characterization, but since this is the fourth book in the series he's been able to sketch his main players fairly well by now. The sidelining of the team detracts from some of the fun of the series at the start, as Maden tries to do some more exploring and building with Troy himself. It's not awfully done, but it's not his strong suit either and combined with a plot that yanks back and forth in annoying rather than mysterious ways it helps drag Drone Threat to the bottom of the Pearce series. Without the extra team members and their dynamics to flavor the story, we're left with cut-and-paste set pieces that retread ground the earlier books have already worn smooth. Something really unusual will be required to give this series some oomph if it returns for a fifth outing.
I really don't know what to write about David Weber's 19th "Honorverse" book, Shadow of Victory. I mean, I know what I think of of it -- it's terrible. It's better than 700 pages of stuff that's already happened. Weber fills in some backstory and offers different points of view of many of the events covered in other recent books in the series about Honor Harrington and the Star Empire of Manticore. He does so in numbing detail filled with his favorite clich├ęs. One storyline -- a revolt against corporate masters on a planet first settled by folks from a particular area of Old Earth -- seems to exist only so Weber can exercise the Spell-Czech app he has apparently installed on his computer.

So the temptation is to go full snide, set phrases to "kill" and vent my spleen so much that wind whistles through it. Shadow represents some of the worst features of modern genre publishing. There is no meaningful editing going on here, either for length or style or narrative clarity. Shadows exists because Baen Books knows a big chunk of Honorverse fans will buy anything with Weber's name and one of David Mattingly's Generic Sci-Fi Scenes on its cover. It exists because Weber's desire to tell about important developments in his story in as thorough a detail as possible -- and the belief that he needs to -- dovetails nicely with Baen's desires to sell bigger books with bigger price points.

And although I've thrown a little trash its way in the above paragraphs, I still love the Honorverse and I had more fun reading the first seven or eight Honor Harrington books than I did with a lot of other space opera out there. I think Weber's imagination has provided three of the more fun and interesting universes -- the Honorverse, the Safehold series and the War God fantasy series -- in modern science fiction and fantasy, and I'm grateful for the stories in them. That gratitude and the belief that he's still got great work and fun left in him wars with the desire to give Shadow of Victory the thrashing it so richly deserves, and I say that knowing I've already given in to the temptation I claim to be resisting. So I'll stop with: Shadow of Victory is not good. You probably shouldn't read it, because it might make you want to give up on the Honorverse entirely, and that would be too bad.
The first five books of Tanya Huff's "Confederation of Valor" series focused on Confederation Marine Sgt. Torin Kerr's gutsy and heroic work in keeping the Marines under her care alive. But when she found out more about the war in which she'd been fighting than she was supposed to know, she ditched military service and opted for some more clandestine work she felt could do more good against the Confederation's real enemies -- whoever they were.

An Ancient Peace details the first such mission -- investigating a supposed cache of ancient super-weapons on a lost planet. Shady elements have been selling grave-goods from the race that gave up those weapons, which leads intelligence services to think they're hunting in the right place. Torin and her team are to investigate, but find the ancient grave to be a series of lethal traps and misdirections. They have to survive them if they want to even get out of the vault alive, let alone report what they find. Oh, and there's the gang of grave robbers that got there ahead of them, setting off many of the booby traps and making it that much more difficult for Torin's team. So even though she's not serving anymore, Torin has people depending on her to get them out of an impossible situation in one piece. Lucky for them.

Peace is a lot less interesting than earlier Torin Kerr books, reading more like a very well-written Dungeons and Dragons module than anything else. The weapons are the MacGuffin of the plot, pitting her team against both the clock and a deadly opponent and serving as a kind of fulcrum for this next arc of "Valor" books. But the search for them offers little more than a series of puzzle-solving set pieces and fun banter. Huff does that well, as always. But after finishing An Ancient Peace, it seems like it would have worked a lot better as a short story or novelette, losing some of the set pieces while gaining strength and some narrative legs.

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