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

Overlong and sometimes way too talky, Lt. Leary, Commanding still makes for a creditable sequel to With the Lightnings, even if it lacks much of that book's pure adrenaline. That this volume doesn't simply seek to rehash the first is a plus. David Drake puts forth an enormous effort here to add complexity to his narrative, with the result that this volume is impressive for getting away from just being a formulaic actioner. But then action is what Drake's good at. The RCN universe has had some depth added to it, even if Drake doesn't exactly innovate the military SF subgenre to any real degree. While I missed the simple, atavistic shoot-'em-up fun of Lightnings, I did find this sequel an agreeable — if not entirely nitpickless — pleasure.

The plot this time is awfully dense. Leary — hailed as the Hero of Kostroma for his role in the first book's events — is now in permanent command of the Princess Cecile, with Adele Mundy his signals officer. Leary isn't aware, though, that Adele is also working for Cinnabar's civil intelligence.

Intel is concerned that the government of Strymon, a world under treaty to Cinnabar, is secretly intriguing with the Alliance. The Cecile is dispatched to join a squadron already en route to Strymon — to "show the flag," as it were — with Adele under orders to ascertain Strymon's intentions. Just before liftoff, the Cecile's crew is joined by Delos Vaughan, son of Strymon's president. Delos has been on Cinnabar a hostage to ensure Strymon's loyalty. Some in the Cinnabar government are displeased that Delos' father has been so effective in suppressing piracy in his system, as a number of Cinnabar firms have under-the-table deals with the pirates. There are factions who'd prefer Strymon's regent, Nunes, running the show, keeping Delos away from continuing his father's anti-piracy successes. But if Nunes is the one making nice with the Alliance, then it would be best for Delos to return home and assume the presidency. It's a sticky political situation; prior to the mission, Delos narrowly avoids assassination at a party.

The story gets a little problematic when the Cecile meets the RCN squadron for a layover on the dubiously named planet Sexburga. Delos cooks up a plan to maroon Leary and several of his crew on another continent so that he can leave the planet without Leary's knowing. It's hard to see why this was necessary. As Delos has a reserve naval commission, it would appear his presense on Leary's ship in the first place would have been due either to Admiral Anston, who gave Leary his orders, or to Cinnabar intelligence. (Even the information-scrounging Adele doesn't know.) And on Sexburga, Leary is under the command of the arrogant Commodore Pettin. So I can't quite see what Leary would have been able to do had Delos flown off for Strymon right in front of him. It's not like he could have launched the Cecile and chased him down. There's also an intriguing subplot about Sexburga's native fauna that is introduced, then allowed to drop — meaning it ought to have just been left out of the book, tightening the whole affair by about fifty pages.

There are some other storytelling choices Drake makes that I have issues with. It takes many chapters longer than it should to get the Cecile off-planet and underway. I was also amused by the way Adele — whose devotion to information-gathering borders on an obsessive-compulsive disorder — wields her portable data console like a magic everything-device. There's literally no computer system in the galaxy she cannot hack, and she obtains encyclopedic information on every situation that crops up in seconds; it practically makes her omnipotent. You're perhaps better off not wondering just how this little pocket-sized gizmo can tap into turret cameras and enemy security systems and, well, anything, apparently in less time than it takes to read this sentence.

But I suppose the reason these little nitpicks didn't damage the book's entertainment value for me in any notable way is that, in a story like this, you kind of have to expect a certain degree of contrivance, as long as it's not so much that the book tips ass over teakettle into absurdity. This is why I managed to shrug off a fairly implausible scene late in the book, where Adele does something rather audacious in front of about a thousand potentially hostile pirates. This is escapism, after all. If your heroes don't get a little blustery and show off every once in a while, what good are they?

The final quarter of the book makes up, mostly, for the gripes of earlier chapters. The Cecile, arriving at Strymon at last, discovers trouble, and Leary finds some unlikely allies to help him save the day. Drake is in his element in a good space battle, and the final chapters deliver the action fans will be looking for.

I dug such things as the nifty way Drake incorporates elements into his far-future setting from the old-fashioned, Patrick O'Brien-esque adventures that inspired him. I remember once Poul Anderson noting that he was trying to come up with a convincing concept for a spacecraft with oars. Drake's spacecraft have masts and sails, which is how they enter the Matrix (no, not that Matrix) and cross interstellar distances. And in sharp contrast to lots of space opera, Drake's ships take a real beating. There's nothing like racing across space and popping in and out of parallel universes to put wear and tear on a spacecraft. Details like this help offset the story's frequent stretching of disbelief-suspension with nice little doses of realism.

While I don't think many readers outside of Drake's core fan base and the usual Baen's Bar regulars will feel like picking this up, there is plenty here to please fans just looking for a dose of traditional skiffy heroics. You could do worse than be under Lt. Leary's command.

Followed by The Far Side of the Stars.