Monday, March 26, 2012

A Rising Thunder by David Weber

Victor Cachat and Anton Zilwicki have been traveling incognito on the most unused shipping lanes of the space trade, ushering their guest, Herlander Simoes, to the Republic of Haven, hoping to bring his report on Mesa and Manpower, the organization that runs it, to the attention of both the President of the Republic of Haven, Eloise Pritchart, and Queen Elizabeth Winston III, Empress of the Star Empire of Manticore, who, unbeknownst to both their peoples, are even now brokering peace between their nations, secretly, feeling that the Solarian League, better known as the Sollies, is going to use the late attack on the Manticorean Star System itself, as a prelude to taking down Manticore, and then the Republic of Haven, seeing both as little better than jumped up "Neobarbs" who should clear the way for "civilized" Sol to take them over, especially considering that there have been two battles already between Manticore and Sol, and in both cases, Manticore won handily against larger numbers of ships, and larger tonnages of ships.

Though Star Nations have been hesitant to go to war with Sol and the Solarian League, the truth is that after so many years of war between the Manties and the Havenites, both of their technologies, and their ships, far outclass what the Solarians can bring to the battle, And while the Solarians have yet to shed their innate feelings of superiority because of their previous advantage in being able to field the best ships with many crews to fill them, they will soon be disabused of that notion in spades- if not their leadership, then the people who make up their Star League.

But while they still feel that they can win the day, the Sollies send out a fleet of aggression to take the Manticorans in their own star system. Reports of what happened there were so horrific that the Sollies feel that by directing an attack on the Manty home system, they can simply wipe out Manticore and win the day. Operation "Raging Vengeance" is formed with over 430 Sollie ships of the line, and they make their way to the Manticoran home system by roundabout ways to sneak in through the back door and take the Manties by surprise. At the same time, though, Cachat and Zilwicki end up in the system where Elizabeth and Eloise Pritchart are discussing terms of Peace, and what they here from Simoes is enough to pull them both up short and make them agree to the best peace terms they can get on both sides. His explanation of what Manpower is doing, and what it has done, makes them take him very seriously. In fact, beyond just the notion of peace, both sides agree to ally with each other, and all their allies, against both Sol and the Manpower/Mesa group. This means not only Haven and Manticore, but the Graysons and Beowulfans, of whom Honor Harrington's mother is the sister of the man closest to the Emperor.

The Manticorans also withdraw all their merchant shipping from the Solarian League, as well as closing all the wormhole termini between Manticore and the Solarian League, and since they are responsible for a great deal of that shipping in the League, this means that the Sollies bottom line is going to take a massive beating. It could mean the same for the Manties, but their new alliance with the Havenites gives them a completely new, untouched market, meaning that the financial fallout will not be as bad, and might mean they will actually do better over the long term. Empress Elizabeth and Eloise Pritchart try to warn the Sollies about what Mesa and Manpower's plans are, but they aren't believed, and are believed still less when they try to warn the Sollies that Manpower has developed Nanites that can take over someone's body and make them act in a way totally foreign to how they would normally.

But when "Raging Vengeance" finally makes it to Manticore, the fleet, led by Honor Harrington, who has made it clear that she doesn't want to kill anyone else unless she absolutely has to, the Manties convince its leader, Massimo Filareta, to surrender to their combined force. But a Mesan-controlled officer fires off all the missiles in their pods rather than making them self-destruct, and Manticore wipes out most of the Solarian force in consequence. However, evidence of the Mesan conspiracy to do so is wiped out along with Filareta's command vessel. At the same time, forces in Beowulf prevent even more Sollies from joining the massive battle fleet gathered at Manticore, not liking where all this is going. The officer in charge of the fleet tells them that if they do so, she will open fire on Beowulf and its people, but she is stopped by the appearance of a fleet of Manticoran starships and is allowed to leave for the Solarian League without further incident. However, her inciteful words have been recorded, along with the actions of Filareta and Honor Harrington, and are released to the Sollies soon after the incident.

Needless to say, rather than being grateful, the Sollies immediately blame the Manties for everything, and while their Supreme Admiral, Rajampet Rajani, is assassinated by the Mesans nanites ina way that makes him seem like he committed suicide. Meanwhile the five "Ruling Mandarins" of the Sollies decide to blame the people of Beowulf for the failure of their Revenge fleet and also say the Manticorans were responsible for blowing up Filareta after he had decided to surrender. The Solly people, long used to being lied to by their leaders, swallow the lies hook, line and sinker, and the Solly senate aims to place blame on the "traitors" of Beowulf. In response, Beowulf says they will put in motion a plebiscite to withdraw from the League- something allowed by the League's constitution, but which will put the League in even greater trouble if they happen to allow it- as other systems, angry with the League's inability to win the war, will leave as well, causing the disintegration of the League as a political entity, which the League cannot allow. As the Sollies make plans to harass the systems of Manticore with pirates (itself a suggestion of a Solly officer in the pay of the Mesans, they also plan to destroy the Beowulf system by attacking Beowulf, itself unprotected by the Manties during the plebiscite due to political considerations. But even as a Solly military officer is looking into the truth of the Manties claims about the nanite assassination plot, due to the seeming suicide of Rajampet Rajani, the Manticorans are contacted by the Sphynxian Treecats, who have decided to support their humans by helping them in the war, and they say they can detect the nanite control of the human body if they are close enough. Some treecats leave Sphynx for Grayson and Haven so that they can protect their humans, now including Thomas Theismann and Eloise Pritchart.

Well, in some ways, I loved this story, and in some ways, it was a bit of a disappointment. Those who are used to Honor Harrington novels being about battles between spaceships and ships of the line are going to be disappointed. There is one rather major battle in the book, the battle against Raging Vengeance, and it ends up as a non-starter, as we get to the confrontation, Filareta is about to surrender, his subordinate fires the missiles, we cut away to Honor being forced to fire back, and... that's it. We never see the battle. We are told about its aftermath, and that's really all we get to see. The major battles fought in this book are political ones. Which means that the Battles are fought with words, not sword, gun or laser-headed missile.

Because of this, the book ends up seeming like endless convocations of talking heads. First we see discussions between our allies, the Manticorans and Havenites. Then we see our enemies- the five Mandarins of the Solarian League and the heads of Manpower and the Masans. When we do finally get to see some conflict in space, the lead-up to the battle is described in detail, but not the battle itself, presumably because we already know the outcome of that battle is a foregone conclusion- the Sollies will lose, disastrously, and the Manties are going to win with a tiny number of casualties on their own side- and they do.

It may just be the realities of writing the series, but what disappointed me about this book was how much the Sollies get bashed, and it ends up making them a lot like the Havenites under the Legislaturist government- the Havenites were an example of a Welfare state gone awry and yet the government was depicted as pretty much corrupt and evil, and now the Sollies get painted with the same brush, except the roots of their government are different, but it's pretty much the same sort of thing- the haves (here, the core worlds) are the ones given favorable treatment and which have the attention of the government while the have nots (every other system besides the core worlds) are given short shrift and expected to fall into line when the government barks. And in the guy investigating the Mesan conspiracy, we see that not everyone in the government bureaucracy is corrupt and power-loving, and who suspects that he, one of the people on his team, or someone very much like him will end up in control of the Sollies at the end of the war?

It's the very sameness of it that annoyed me. I'd love to see a mix-up, to do something different, but it's just... all the same all over again. Yes, at this point I will read it, but I'd love to see Manticore and its allies taking on the Mesans and blowing them to Kingdom Come before dealing with the Sollies, and to maybe cut short this war when the Solarians realize how they have been tricked. I realize it probably won't happen, but that's what I'd like.

I didn't mind the talking heads, because that is still a sort of conflict, but of a different sort than in previous novels, and political infighting can be at least as page-turning as the other kind of war. But the sameness of the conflict just wore on me, and that's what made me like this novel less than others in the series. Even if this sort of thing is exactly what you like, this is not a good place to start reading this series- so much has gone before that you will very quickly be out of your depth as so many characters from earlier novels return. But it's still a strong novel that I did happen to enjoy. I just want to see more depth in the enemies of Manticore, because that leads to a stronger story than if they are just evil with no hope of redemption like St. Just in the People's Republic of Haven. Recommended, but not highly. DO NOT START WITH THIS BOOK if you want to read the series.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Agency: Traitor in the Tunnels by Y. S. Lee

Mary Quinn is still working for the Agency, albeit this time as a senior agent. She has been assigned to the Palace, working as a chambermaid, to investigate the theft of a number of trinkets from the palace. Since the palace is full of trinkets, it seems the thief is someone in the palace, perhaps a servant. But as the Queen doesn't want to place the blame unfairly on a culprit, she asks the Agency to investigate.

The Agency is a private detective Agency staffed and run by women, as women are more likely to be perceptive and to be overlooked as agents, since it is assumed that any detective agency will hire men. But the two women in charge of the Agency, Anne Treleaven and Felicity Frame, warn her that Mary's old compatriot and sometimes foe, James Easton, has been employed by the crown to investigate the sewers that lie underneath the palace of Buckingham, itself converted from an older manor that was given to the crown.

But before Mary can be recalled to the Agency, she discovers that the Crown Prince was involved in an attack that killed a nobleman in an opium den. The Prince, Albert, says he cannot remember what happened, but that The Honorable Ralph Beaulieu-Buckworth was involved in an altercation with a Lascar, an elderly one, and ended his life facedown on the floor with a knife buried in his chest. The Lascar in question has been arrested, but some question remains if he intended to attack the Prince or The Honorable Ralph, who has a reputation for unsavory pastimes, and his taking the Prince to an opium den is full proof of that. Nevertheless, the Queen wants the question answered, and when Mary hears the name of the Lascar who supposedly attacked and killed the Honorable Ralph Beaulieu-Buckworth, she is struck speecheless- the man's name is Lang Jin Hai, and once upon a time, she knew him as "father".

As soon as she hears that he has been blamed for the attack on the Honorable Ralph and the Prince, she knows she has to reveal herself to him and save him from being killed for his crime. But at the same time, she must also keep her true parentage from those around her, as those of Chinese descent are seen as less than human, and her own half-Chinese parentage would lead to her being tarred with the same brush. But as she continues playing the role of a maid, she finds that the Prince is attracted to her for her seeming sympathy with his plight. But does he just want her sympathy or is he only out to get more from Mary?

Mary also finds herself worried about her bosses at the Agency, who are increasingly quarreling over the details of running the agency. If they decide to go their separate ways, what will happen to the agency? Will there even BE an Agency? And what about James, the man she secretly loves? What is going on in the tunnels beneath the palace, and do she and James have any chance of saving the Queen should it come to that? Why is someone else interested in the tunnels, and who is behind a possible plot to kill the Queen and the entire Royal Family? And can Mary convince her father to talk to her and tell her the truth about her heritage, and can she save his life from a septic wound that could easily kill him?

I love this series, but this book had the air of "last book in a trilogy" type feeling to it. I don't know if there will be more books after this, as pretty much all the problems that Mary has- that James doesn't know about her heritage, that the two women who saved her from the gallows, and who mean everything to her, as well as employ her, might be on their way to breaking up- and taking the Agency apart with their split- is solved at the end of the book. I mean, there could be more books after this, but the main narrative thrust behind the series is gone- that the Agency is made up of only women. Perhaps we could see stories about other agents?

The book begins by standing several things on their head, including the image that Queen Victoria projects in all known images of her- stolid, sober, and almost positively unfriendly. We also get to see Prince Albert Edward Victor, and he's not a very admirable figure- and neither are the other men he surrounds himself with. He's also pitifully naive, much as James was at the start of the series. But like Mary, James has grown a lot- finally recovered from his disastrous trip to India, he gets to play an extremely heroic role in the story, and there may be hope for a relationship between him and Mary by the end.

I don't know if this is the last book in the series or not. But I did enjoy it tremendously, and I hope to read more about Mary (and James), and if not them, some other girl at the Agency. I'm not sure I'd want them all to be romance-focused, though- maybe more actual spying and derring-do. In any event, I have no problems recommending this book and this series. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Double Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Dexter Morgan is the blood splatter expert for the Miami-Dade Police Force, but he also has a second life, a double life as the serial killer once known as "The Bay Harbor Butcher". But Dexter is more than just a serial killer- he's a serial killer that preys on other serial killers, thanks to the direction and teaching of his adoptive father, the Cop known as Harry Morgan.

But nobody else understands what he does, not his fellow cops, not even his sister, Deborah, even though she knows what he is. So when Dexter is out taking care of a Pedophile, giving him an up close and personal session with his "Dark Passenger" -Dexter's term for the more predatory, serial-killer part of him, he becomes aware that he is being watched. Dexter attempts to chase the watcher, but doesn't catch him. Instead, the man climbs into a beat-up Honda and drives off.

Dexter goes on to get rid of his former playmate, but the idea that someone knows who he is and what he does is more than a little disturbing to Dexter. Dexter does a search on the car he saw, and goes out jogging every night to try and find the man who saw him, but meanwhile, cops are being murdered, their bodies showing up with every bone in them broken- the first of which is found in Dexter's car.

Deb, who is assigned to catch the killer, naturally asks Dexter for help, but he's caught up in trying to find the man who spied on him. Meanwhile, Rita is eyeing Dex's new nighttime activities with suspicion, and has taken to drinking. Then, Dexter finds his Spy, now calling himself "The Shadow" is interested in blowing Dexter's life and activities wide open. But at the same time, he's also taken up the same sort of activities Dex enjoys, and finds it very liberating.

WHile Deb catches the man responsible for the dead cops, another worker in the Miami-Dade Police Force, a woman named Camilla Figg, who has a HUGE crush on Dexter, is killed, and the Shadow, who killed her, makes it seem like Dex is to blame. Rita is certain that Camilla is the cause of Dex's late-night activities, and accuses him of having an affair with Camilla.

Dex, at his wit's end, asks his brother Brian for help with the Shadow, but Brian kills the wrong man, unbeknownst to Dexter. Rita also wants to move into a bigger house, with now three kids and Dexter sharing the house, it's just too small. Dexter manages to make her believe that he had nothing to do with Camilla Figg, and soon the cops realize it as well. Dexter and Rita and the kids go to Key West to look at real estate and relax, and the Shadow, who is still alive, kills another cop and leaves him in the room that Rita and Dexter are sharing. He still wants to trap Dexter, and manages to snatch Cody and Astor and take them to a small island as bait to trap Dexter.

Dexter, who manages to evade the rap the Shadow wants to pin on him in the case of the Cop's death, must race to rescue Cody and Astor from the Shadow. But will he be able to save his family from the man who wants to kill them, or will Cody and Astor, themselves aspiring serial killers, be able to take out the Shadow on their own? Or is this the kind of thing that only Dex can do for his family?

I liked this book a lot. The Dexter of the books is very different from the Dexter of the television series. For example, the Dexter of the TV show still has emotions, he's just in denial about having them, whereas the Dexter of the books is colder, and truly has very few emotions- most of them relating to his "Dark Passenger", a sort of satisfaction when he kills, and so on.

This book is unique in that the serial killer that Dex has to confront is started in his work by witnessing Dexter at work. The serial killer likes killing, but he also wants to bring Dexter to justice- to get the congratulations that Dexter gets for catching all sorts of killers and murderers in his job. So in a way, the Shadow almost wants to become Dexter himself. But he's a lot less sane than Dexter and, of course, doesn't follow the code of Harry. He just wants to kill Dexter because Dexter is a cop, and this serial killer kills cops.

There was a lot of stuff in this book that I didn't expect- like the ending, for one, and for Dexter to call on his brother Brian for help during the case, since in the past, he's wanted to keep Brian away from his new family. We also get to see that Rita is no prize, herself. She's at least as damaged as Dexter and her kids are, she just hides it better. But the surprise ending made the book for me, and I honestly found the book unable to be put down. Highly recommended.