Better Than It Has To Be

Review: 'To Clear Away the Shadows' by David Drake

David Drake / david-drake.com

David Drake's books always seem to carry a blurb from the Chicago Sun-Times—a line extracted from an old review that claims Drake has a "prose as cold and hard as the metal alloy of a tank." He "rivals Crane and Remarque" as a writer of military fiction. And there you have it: The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) are joined by Drake's tale of intergalactic mercenaries, Hammer's Slammers (1979).

The publisher can't be blamed for highlighting the line from the Sun-Times. Simon & Schuster (and the Baen science-fiction imprint) have books to sell. But the reviewer who wrote the line? There's someone who probably needs to be bludgeoned with . . . oh, I don't know. Maybe a copy of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948). Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels (1974). Phil Klay's collection of short stories, Redeployment (2014).

Plenty of well-known fiction about war is around, waiting to be read, from Tolstoy's War and Peace (1869) to Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990). If you want to read something more neglected—lesser-known military fiction that nonetheless rivals (or surpasses) Crane and Remarque—try Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry (1926). Or James Salter's The Hunters (1956). Or John Harris's Covenant with Death (1961). David Drake's Ranks of Bronze (1986), a sci-fi tale about an ancient Roman legion kidnapped to fight wars on alien planets, just can't march alongside them.

The thing is, David Drake probably wouldn't mind that conclusion. With the publication of To Clear Away the Shadows this month, Drake has now produced 13 volumes in his series about the RCN, the space-going navy of the Republic of Cinnabar. The series begun in With the Lightnings (1998) and Lt. Leary, Commanding (2000) has gradually let its green characters blossom into established figures in their military service, solving the problems of the hegemonic empire that Cinnabar rules: piracy, border disputes, civil wars on client planets, and power struggles with the republic's great autocratic rival, the Alliance of Free Stars.

Read in a harsh light, the series is hackwork pop. It's military space-opera, falling within a science-fiction genre that runs at least from Doc Smith's Lensman series (begun in 1948) to the 20-odd volumes in David Weber's tales of Honor Harrington (begun in 1992). For all that such books are set in space, these long-running series—following a rising military star from midshipman to admiral—invariably owe an architectonic debt to C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower stories (begun in 1937), recounting the triumphs of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

Of course, who (apart from the Chicago Sun-Times) would ever want to shine a thousand-watt bulb on something like Lt. Leary, Commanding, comparing it to the highest military fiction ever written? Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? Like Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga (begun in 1986), David Drake's RCN series has a quality that those who read for pleasure recognize and admire in a book—the quality of being better than it has to be.

Take Drake's The Way to Glory (2005), the fourth book in the RCN series. It isn't War and Peace. But it isn't Jim Theis's famously awful The Eye of Argon (1970), either. Within its space-opera genre—which is to say, within the confines the author has accepted—Drake's book is better than it has to be by a good two or three steps. It tells a coherent and interesting story, keeps the plot bubbling along, and uses its asides to give a reasonable sense of its characters. The prose is serviceable most of the time, and better than serviceable in the scenes of battle.

C.S. Forester had a talent for this, following a single fighter without allowing the overall course of a battle to be lost. Bernard Cornwell can do the same. But it is a rarer talent than one might suspect, and Drake proves again and again that he can do this kind of writing.

Drake's RCN series has improved over the past 21 years. The first volume owed its central characters a shade too deliberately to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey–Maturin series (begun in 1969), which set out to elevate into a higher form of literature the naval-war genre that Forester had defined (and such early Victorians as Frederick Marryat had invented). In the place occupied by O'Brian’s young naval officer, Jack Aubrey, Drake put a hero named Daniel Leary. In the slot of the eccentric figure of O'Brian's physician, Stephen Maturin, Drake inserted an eccentric librarian (and communications specialist) named Adele Mundy.

Even in the first RCN books, Drake's reading of O’Brian allowed him to turn away from the hard military science-fiction of the earlier Hammer's Slammers series. Character and politics grew to larger proportions, offering Drake the chance to apply his thoughts about historical situations. And a strong historical sense is one of the thickening devices, one of the ways in which the series proves more enjoyable than much other space opera. The Republic of Cinnabar is a futuristic amalgam of Ancient Rome and Victorian England. Leary and Mundy are thrust into political and military situations, from domestic spying to gunboat diplomacy, that Drake designs to model his interpretations of specific small wars and intrigues in (typically) the ancient world.

A fine imagination of what was actually afoot in historical events, learned from the Greek and Latin chroniclers. Some maturing characters, learned from Patrick O'Brian. An easiness of plotting in a well-defined genre, learned from long practice at writing fantasy and science fiction by the 73-year-old Drake in the course of producing nearly 50 books. And a talent for describing battle.

It's not clear what else one could want from a book like David Drake's To Clear Away the Shadows. In this latest addition to the RCN series, we get new characters in what remains a familiar universe. We get battle and politics. We get a historical feeling for how difficult it is to maintain an aristocratic empire. We get enjoyable space opera. And all of it, better than it has to be.