Some Golden Harbor – David Drake

In this installment of the RCN series, Leary and Adele are sent on the Princess Cecile, Leary’s private yacht, alone to stop the Alliance-backed attempt to invade Dunbar’s World.  With most of their allies as well as all of their enemies ready to stop them, it seems like a hopeless task.

The key is the base on Dunbar’s World, which is packed with troops and defended by plasma cannon and anti-ship missles.  The only ship that can land is the scheduled resupply ship…so the only thing to do is to invade the invader’s home planet to steal the ship!

And then the real problems start…

This book throws the book at you in terms of adventure.  From rescuing a ‘damsel’ in distress, to ending slavery on a planet, the good guys put everything to rights even though they are pretty rough around the edges themselves.  And in Drake style, even winning can be very costly and messy.


The Destruction of the Bismarck – Bercuson and Herwig

This book is about the five-day cruise of the German battleship Bismarck from May 22 until May 27, 1941.  The ship, a huge 50,000 ton monster, was the pride of the German Navy and the terror of the Royal Navy, but like many peacetime projects turned out to be rather less effective in wartime.

The operation, code-named “Rhine Exercise” was intended to be a commerce raiding venture, with several ships breaking out into the Atlantic to attack convoys.  But damage to the other ships from previous tries limited the sortie to the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, a cruiser.  Since the point, supposedly, was to overwhelm the possible response with numbers and mass, paring down the attempt to one small group would limit the success you would expect.  And given that battleships invite battles, the thought that the German ships could poke about the North Atlantic and sink cargo ships seems strange.

This uncertainty about the goal persists in the orders.  Previous expeditions had led to Admirals being accused of lack of aggressiveness in engaging the enemy on return. And the Navy was, as a service, desperate to have some success to match those the Army and Air Force were having.  But sending a few vessels with a limited operational range out would surely provoke a concentration of effort on that one opponent.  And so it did.

Reports of the sailing were coming in even before the operation began. Neutral ships leaked info to the British, and planes soon tracked down the ships near Norway, and then spotted the empty harbor after the operation started.  Bad weather made it difficult to track them more closely.

But now the hunt was on.  Light elements spotted and tracked them coming south out of the gap between Greenland.  The first major units, the battlecruiser Hood and the new battleship Prince of Wales met at the gateway to the North Atlantic on May 24.  The Royal Navy, egged on by Churchill to be even aggressive in turn, engaged at once.  The Prince of Wales suffered failures that made it virtually unable to fight due to its newness, and the Hood, its thinner armor no match for the heavy guns of the German ship, took a hit in a magazine and blew up, killing virtually everyone on board.

Tactically, the situation remained unchanged – the German units were located and tracked, and unable to attack commerce until they either evaded or destroyed their opposite numbers.  The British merely needed to assemble enough force to destroy them, or even wait for them to run out of fuel.

Isolated far from any bases, almost any damage would be serious, and the Bismarck had suffered a hit that reduced its already narrow fuel margin. The cruiser was in even worse state, and was released to refuel.  Evading the pursuit, the Prinz Eugen managed to shake the British and get back to Brest, in France.

The Bismarck remained the focus, and soon forces collected for a final battle.  A fortunate torpedo hit by carrier plane crippled the steering, and it was all over but the killing.  The ship was hammered to a ruin and sunk in a short action.

The surface vessels of the German Navy were something of a white elephant. There wasn’t enough of them to really affect the outcome of the war, but they were too powerful to ride out the war in port.  Some were run down and sunk in action, others were bombed in port and sunk there.

An interesting thread in the book was the extent to which the US Navy was ready to confront the Bismarck. Although outmatched, the US sent a fleet with the battleship Texas out to confront it.  If things had turned out differently, this might have been an early ‘Pearl Harbor’ and brought us into open warfare sooner.

The Way to Glory – David Drake

This is the fourth book in the RCN series.  In it, Leary and Adele have a new challenge to meet besides enemy fleets – Leary is put under the command of a paranoid captain who spaced a well-connected midshipman for mutiny on his last voyage.  The RCN is hoping that Leary’s popularity will balance the hatred of Captain Slidell, and that the rioting that broke out when he was acquitted will calm down when both are dispatched on a mission to a far distant system.

Just to make matters more interesting, there is a leak to the Alliance somewhere in the system that Adele must find and stop, Leary is charged by his father to get revenge, since the midshipman was a half-brother of his, and Leary must also rescue captive citizens to rescue from a barbaric planet and stop an Alliance invasion with an obsolete ship and a sullen crew, led by a crazed paranoid.

All in a day’s work!

The Guns of Cedar Creek – Thomas A. Lewis

This book retells the story of the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864 in a slightly different way than a normal battle study.  It is framed around the contrasting experiences of pairs of men on either side:

  • Jubal Early and Phil Sheridan, the generals in command.
  • Thomas Rosser and George Custer, classmate Cavalry generals.
  • George Gordon and George Crook, infantry generals.
  • Steven Ramseur and Charles Lowell, generals who fell at the battle.

The battle itself has generated more than its share of controversy because it is the last ‘coulda woulda shoulda’ moment of the war, where someone could argue that the ultimate result of the war could have been changed.  Leaving aside the entire west, which is typical in these kind of hypotheticals, this is the last battle in the East that the South even made a good showing.  And it was the last one before the election of 1864.

Continue reading

The Far Side of the Stars – David Drake

This is the third installment of the RCN series, and it is another good one.  I have been reading faster than I have been updating these posts lately, so I have a backlog.

Peace has broken out unexpectedly, and Leary is out of work, and his ship is sold out of the RCN to a pair of rich outlanders looking for adventure in a rarely visited part of the galaxy.  The Count likes hunting and gambling, while the Countess likes primitive cultures – but this is just a front in their search for a fabulous diamond lost for 60 years. In addition, the secret service wants Adele Mundy, gun-toting librarian, to look for any sign of Alliance infiltration.  And you can’t go in that direction without visiting the Oracle of the Tree, which can actually give dreams that predict the future with accuracy.

If fighting dragons on a primitive planets or angry sailors cheated at cards from an Alliance spy ship isn’t enough, well, they find that the Alliance is about to start the war up by taking the cluster by surprise, and there is only the tiny Princess Cecile to stop them by starting the war first!

Lt. Leary, Commanding – David Drake

This is the second book in the RCN series. Lt. Daniel Leary and his signals officer cum spy Adele Mundy are thrown into power politics in what should be a simple spy mission.  The goal is to have Adele find out if the reluctant ally planet Strymon is intriguing with the enemy. Sounds simple.

But then Delos Vaughn, usurped heir to the rule of Strymon, is ordered aboard to come along. Are these orders genuine, or fake? Adding to the complication is that Daniel earns the enmity of his Admiral with his shiphandling, and is ordered to a cold and remote base instead of the Strymon – where he finds an enemy fleet preparing to conquer Strymon and destroy the RCN squadron…

The plot of this book feels like those dreams you have where you are trying to get to school and things just keep going more and more wrong..except there is a big space battle at the end of it.  I didn’t even mention the  assassination plot, or being marooned on an unexplored continent, and pirates – two sets, actually.

Drake puts more action into his books than just about anyone.  Be warned that it all isn’t the ‘bad guy clutches his chest and falls off camera’ variety. Drake likes realism.

With the Lightnings – David Drake

I started re-reading some of my favorite SF books, perhaps triggered by H. Beam Piper on the Kindle.  This book is the first in the Lt. Leary series.  It is perhaps best described as “Aubrey and Maturin in Space”, but Drake puts his own twist from there.

I’ll go into the similarities between the start of this book and Patrick O’Brien’s  “Master and Commander”.  Two lead characters meet in a foreign port. One is a junior naval officer, destined for great things. The other is a friendless outsider.  The first meeting results in a challenge, but the two make up and become great friends. The outsider joins the officer as a guest on his ship, and becomes a spy.  One of the two is a dedicated naturalist.  One is an expert ship handler.

Both Drake and O’Brien use historical events as a base to add depth to their world.  O’Brien used reports of ship battles.  Drake uses historical situations to block out the situations.  In later books he even tells you what they were.

The Republic of Cinnabar is Leary’s home, and they are temporarily at peace with their enemy, the Alliance.  Cinnabar is modeled on the Roman Republic.  Leary’s father was the head of state when a plot was uncovered to betray the Republic. In the executions, Adele Mundy, expert librarian, had her entire family executed.  She was off world, and survived.  She is working on planet Kostroma and meets Leary, but the Alliance sponsors a coup to take over the planet.  Leary and Mundy must join up to avoid capture and defeat the coup.

Drake is a veteran, and makes his worlds gritty and realistic to the Nth degree. Guns get hot and burn the users, bodies don’t vanish like soap bubbles when shot, and the people around vary from the not-nice to the really-really-bad.  But it does feel real.

Notable Historical Trials III – Warren Hastings

Warren Hastings was appointed Governor-General of India in 1773.  This was in the stage where the East India Company was phasing from a company to a government, and from an independent fiefdom to an arm of the British government.

He returned to England in 1785 and presented his report to Parliament.  In 1787 a group of politicians decided to impeach him before the House of Lords and he was arrested and brought to trial.

Well, not exactly. The first session was not until February 1788, and consisted of lengthy speeches by Edmund Burke and Richard Sheridan trashing his character and accusing him of crimes — many of which were not actually on the list of what he was to be tried for.  These speeches were well received by the press and public.  Hastings was universally thought to be guilty.

The trial dragged on for an astonishing seven years, and with time opinion shifted. By the time the defense began, Hastings complained that many of his witnesses had since died.  Also, a third of the Lords sitting in judgement at the start of the trial had also died.

Finally Hastings was acquitted, having spent his savings on legal fees.

By most accounts Hastings was a good governor if not a saint – this was a period where the English were extending their official and unofficial rule across the Indian subcontinent.  There were excesses that he did his part in curbing.  But regardless, you can’t help but feel that the use of the full governmental apparatus to hound him for a decade was an abuse of power, and in fact impeachment has fallen out of favor in England since that time.