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Book cover art by Stephen Hickman.
Review © 2006 by Thomas M. Wagner.

The Far Side of the Stars continues the picaresque adventures of Daniel Leary, Adele Mundy, and the crew of the Cecile (that's Sissie to you) as they traverse the dangerous spaceways of the Republic of Cinnabar and beyond. On balance I liked it better than Lt. Leary, Commanding, though in the end I'm docking it half a star for Drake's making some dubious storytelling choices in the book's final third — a problem not dissimilar to that marring the otherwise exciting Lt. Leary itself. But make no mistake. Leary, Adele and Co. may well be the most likable and human heroes Drake has yet created, and I'd rather share a berth on a rickety corvette with them than with any of the posers in Lucasfilms' overstuffed dramatis personae.

Drake's story this time is largely inspired by actual ocean voyages of the 19th century, when those of the leisure class were the only ones with the opportunity and money to travel the world and see other cultures and countries firsthand. An uneasy peace exists between Cinnabar and its enemy, the Alliance of Free Stars. Many of the RCN's finest are standing down, going on half-pay, Daniel Leary among them. The decommissioned Cecile is purchased by an aristocratic couple, one Count Georgi Klimov and his flirtatious wife.

Klimov is a dilletante who wants hunting trophies, while his wife is an amateur ethnologist. They want to tour a rather dicey area of space called the Commonwealth of God, a loosely governed collection of trading worlds, many of which are in a fairly primitive state. But what they're really after is a priceless relic from their homeworld, a massive diamond the size of a child's head, hollowed out, with a map of ancient Earth's continents on the inner surface. This was stolen by their homeworld's ex-ruler, who disappeared into the Commonwealth after being overthrown.

It turns out that the Klimov's plans have gotten the attention of Cinnabar intelligence. After some behind-the-scenes machinations, it transpires that Leary ends up back in command of the now-private vessel Cecile. All his old crew are with him, including, naturally, Adele, who is under instructions to determine whether or not rumors that the Alliance is building a secret base on a remote Commonwealth world are true. The Commonwealth holds added interest for Adele, for it's where her last living relative fled, along with an entire RCN ship full of deserters, while the conspiracy that backfired and led to her entire family's annihilation was busy unraveling.

As in the previous volume, Drake seeks to add more layers and texture to what began as a lovingly rendered, old-fashioned space opera future. The plot here is impressively intricate without going overboard into self-indulgence, and the pacing is swift despite the book's tendency toward overlength. More attention is devoted to character interaction, with not so much in the way of action in the early chapters — though we do get one showstopper of a bar brawl. (Leary and his crew must rescue their employer from a full complement of Alliance crewmen, when the count gets a little too lucky at cards.) Some well executed subplots, particularly the one involving the RCN deserters and their concerns over whether they're facing horrible punishment or repatriation, add to the richness of the overall story.

Unfortunately Drake makes some poor choices in latter chapters. At one strange point, the story takes an oddball left turn into quasi-mysticism, introducing a planet inhabited by a monastic order who serve some kind of sentient tree that communicates with people through dreams and apparently reveals the future with unerring precision. Apart from the nuisance that no credible explanation is given for the nature of this tree (and apart from wondering why billions of people from around the galaxy aren't swooping in to avail themselves of its revelations), the way the sequence plays out feels like Drake introduced it simply as a plot device to provide a quick resolution to the Klimov's quest, to get that part of the story over with so he could move on to the climactic showdown with the Alliance. The whole scene stands out from the book like a bug on a wedding cake; it just doesn't fit. It's as if Drake felt he needed to write himself out of a corner, when in fact he was never in one.

There's also another minor quibble: the wreckage of a ship, sunk in the swamps of a primitive world for decades, whose drives conveniently — and implausibly — still work when the Cecile needs to get out of a tight spot. Little moments of contrivance like this didn't need to be here, given all that's in the book that Drake gets right.

But what he gets right is often dazzling. The book ends in a richly satisfying orgy of action and carnage, which is what space operas are for in the first place. And all of the various subplots are resolved in ways that don't feel pat or artificial. The saga of Lt. Leary, RCN, is proving to be some of the most guileless and delightful old-school intergalactic swashbuckling currently on the racks. If those are the kinds of stories you've been hankering for, you ought to consider enlisting.

Followed by The Way to Glory.