Thursday, February 23, 2012

Kris Longknife: Mutineer

The quick and dirty:
Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: On the high end of average (389 pages)
Publication: January 27, 2004 from Ace Books
Premise: The book opens with Kris Longknife, a Navy ensign fresh out of officer training, commanding a frantic hostage rescue mission. She struggles to balance her own doubts and the shadows of her own past with her drive to succeed and prove that she's deserving of her family's oldest histories. As soon as the mission ends, she's put on leave. She thinks that going home for a short visit with her parents will just kill time, but instead it introduces her to plots that were moving long before her birth and to the stirrings of a potential interstellar war.
Warnings: recounting of a past gang rape against many one-shot characters, past death of a child close to the protagonist 
Recommendation: If you really adore space opera with a dash of politics then you might enjoy this, but I can't honestly endorse paying full price for it. Take a look on your next used bookstore run if you're interested. 

Why this one is such old-fashioned fun:

Mike Shepherd knows how to start by flooring the gas; the opening sequence promises great things of the rest of the book. A tense hostage situation with high stakes, rescue on the fly, and hints of larger forces at work make for an incredibly strong first few chapters. Kris is new to command, but her marines and her sergeant aren't, which creates a rooted sense of connection with the rest of the military. She's taking point and owning the responsibility for her decisions, but she's doing so as part of a unit. Combining the chain of command, the solidity of the veterans with her, and the willingness to risk life and limb for another gives the story a sense of being anchored in military structures that date back to our present day and centuries before. That aura of tradition grounds the book more solidly in reality than most other space opera, and the tone absolutely works.

This book shines in the fashion of most good space opera. There's a proud military tradition of trying to avoid war whenever possible but doing anything necessary when the time comes. When the Space-Scots Highlanders show up, we're treated to a really wonderful story of Kris's great-grandfather leading a night charge up a hill to save a city. This story is told in high style, comes off as genuinely sorrowful for the lost, and places military history in a proud tradition, especially given the emotions and demeanor of the people telling it.

Kris's family history also works well in that vein, though by the end of the book you'll certainly be tired of seeing people call her "one of those Longknifes." She's part of a military tradition that skipped her grandfather and father, leaving her with two legendary great-grandfathers. Their style of getting it done in off-the-wall ways shows itself again in her. In most books I'd call that trite and simplistic, but space opera does Ancestral Tradition of Awesome really well. David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington series (more on that below), is the king of this trope; he tends to write dangerous-but-virtuous space monarchies that actually feel convincing.

Seeing Kris as a former debutante and daughter of a politician works well because it's unusual, a contrast to the straightforward damn-the-politicians protagonists you see in so much of space opera. Those lead characters certainly work, but watching Kris analyze how she can work with the flow of politics to steer the course of conversation, or compare the military to her father the Prime Minister's campaign strategy, provides a fresh perspective. Her mistakes tend to show up when she forgets all that background and moves on impulse, but impulse is often the source of her best ideas. It's nice to see her strength and weakness mirrored as one trait instead of trying to give her a set of good traits and a shoehorned tragic flaw. Kris's trauma over the death of her brother and her lingering alcoholic tendencies are by and large written well. We also see some well-written group trauma when Kris encounters a large farm that's fallen victim to raiders. Not many writers are capable of writing anything in that vein without getting stereotypical and playing the trauma as either plot point or a way to yank at the emotions, but Shepherd does a strong job showing how different people react to similar traumatic events.

The relief work on Olympia, a planet struck by natural disasters as well as looting and raiding in the aftermath, also provides most of the moral ambiguity. Many of the raiders are terrible, but many aren't; most are hungry in part because of the actions of the people they're now attacking. Explaining precisely why would involve spoilers, but Kris's musing over how to sort out the truly guilty from the weak bystanders when live fire means there are no second chances is quite compelling. It's refreshing to see that level of uncertainty, since much of space opera deliberately goes for us-versus-them to emphasize the good fight. Given that the raiders are so unambiguously immoral, it was an even more pleasant surprise to see that the soldiers hunting them down were new enough to the Navy that they started asking questions about their right to kill. They didn't act gung-ho about shooting the raiders after the first short firefight; they were unsure, not quite trained, and inclined to head back to base and dodge the whole problem. Kris's solution to that uncertainty reads as realistic and effective, but seeing the initial bravado collapse into very human reactions and then build into true confidence worked beautifully.

Liquid metal technology, used to take a ship from leisurely cruising configuration to a heavily armored smaller warship, is a really fascinating idea. We also see it used to make boats and bridges and the like, but the Navy use of liquid metal is where it really shines. Normally in military science fiction there's the obligatory discussion of how you trade off size, mass, armor, weapons, engines, and speed, and liquid metal both dodges that and puts it in a different light. It's not without flaws, sometimes relocating valuable supply cupboards to god-knows-where, and that keeps it from seeming too convenient. That element of worldbuilding shines, especially given the way it makes you feel like the universe is changing almost faster than the people in it can manage.

The red pen: 

I hate to start with the title, but honestly, let's do. Kris becomes a mutineer in the last forty pages of the book in a frankly underwhelming sequence filled with prose so purple that it makes Willie Wonka's suit look positively tasteful. This deeply unsubtle title means that by process of elimination, you hit about three-quarters of the way through, calculate pacing, and decide that she's obviously going to become a mutineer on her next ship. Given the intrigue behind the reasons for that mutiny, this shoots the tension with tranquilizer darts and leaves it to twitch feebly in the road.

In articles with a short editing window, like newspapers, things like typos and inconsistencies are to be expected. In a published book, basic typos and subject-verb agreement issues in the first chapter are very unimpressive. While typos mostly clear up after that, many of the later inconsistencies cast doubt on the structure of the worldbuilding. If your characters are using entirely metric units like meters, you've made a good guess because in the future everyone will hopefully ditch irregular units; however, then using degrees Fahrenheit to discuss the latest gadget comes off as distinctly odd. Ditto the fact that under 3.25 gees Kris weighs nearly 400 pounds (again, where are the metric units?). Math tells us that she weighs 123 pounds in normal gravity despite being described on the third page as being six feet tall. I do not care how notably small her breasts are in the tiresome and overplayed token attempt to make female protagonists physically unattractive, you cannot be in the military and pass strenuous physical exams with that height-to-weight ratio. 

Similarly, hearing about Kris's college class on current twenty-fourth century problems when we're shown past events happening in the year 2422 smacks of the universe's timeline not being thought through at all; 1922 was in the twentieth century, 2422 is in in the twenty-fifth. When firing three-laser bursts at an enemy ship, the fourth shot in the three-laser burst is closest to the target two times in a row. Kris breaks into the top fortress-office that's firmly stated as the most secure building on the planet by walking past a sequence of guards who were saying "hey, you can't go through that door" instead of hitting some sort of panic button to slam the door on her, shooting her with tranquilizer darts, or calling more competent security. Individually they seem like small details, but collectively they slap you out of the stream of the story because they do not make a cursed bit of logical sense. Neither, incidentally, does having people in the 24th century talk about Ghirardelli chocolate chips or compare an incoming ship to a Klingon Bird-of-Prey. Yes, good brand names have staying power, but throwing around things that are popular now without providing any indication that pop culture has even existed in the intervening time is shaky writing.

Tommy, Kris's loyal companion, has decent characterization, for a sidekick who just follows Kris's lead and appears to have neither a spine nor any original thoughts; he's on the better side of the dull secondary characters. That said, his cultural background is shallow. An Irish-Chinese colony is a fascinating idea, but despite having names from both sides of that heritage, Tommy shows no substantive evidence of belonging to that culture. Discussion of the leprechauns and ancestors mercifully dies off about halfway through the book, but even that sticks to tropes that you can pick up from the standard bag of cultural stereotypes. The Irish background gets something of a nod by way of Tommy's brief spurts of Catholicism, but the Chinese elements may as well not be there. It could have been fine if his planet had been a piece of trivia and he never mentioned his ancestry, but ancestors and leprechauns make for a patronizing and one-dimensional look at actual living cultures.

It's perhaps an unfair comparison, but this really comes across as an unfocused version of the Honor Harrington series. Calling it a ripoff would be a stretch, but they have quite a few themes and tropes in common; a dedicated young woman goes into the military, does brilliant things, is well-regarded by people high in the chain of command (less so by her immediate superiors), and has to use a mixed bag of grit, cunning, and improvisation to fix truly bad situations Against Impossible Odds. The difference between them as characters is one of approach to military life and its structures. Honor Harrington, starting out as a commander in the first book, exercises initiative when the chain of command is absent or criminally negligent; Kris Longknife is less compelling because she sees the chain of command as somewhat optional as an ensign. One of these people belongs in the military and the other needs either to find a better outlet for her need for community or figure out how the military operates.

For a character to succeed amid treachery and other obstacles in a high-intrigue space opera, he/she needs to have unbreakable strength of will, nigh-inhuman improvisational skills, or both. Kris lacks that steel spine or the mental agility to adapt. She's not stupid by any means, but she's slow to make connections and a bit too much of her information comes from family members just passing things to her so she can chew on them for ages and finally spit out a conclusion when it's convenient for the plot.

All in all, the first part of this book shines. I wanted to like the rest of it, but just couldn't sustain the suspension of both disbelief and common sense. The inconsistencies and errors break the flow to the point where it becomes annoying to read. The characters are too lightly sketched to make me invested to the point of not caring about the details, and there's too little buildup to the end to make it really feel like the future of the galaxy is at stake. This book needed to focus on either the chillingly hard demands of duty and concern about the loss of humanity's future that you see in large-scale space opera or the vividly drawn characters of a smaller-scale adventure. Unfortunately, the opening of this series couldn't deliver enough on either front.

Prospects: The ninth volume, Kris Longknife: Daring, came out last year and there are thirteen planned in total. Shepherd has also started some spinoff series set in other parts of the timeline.

Enjoyed this one? Try: 
~The Honor Harrington series by David Weber. He does the patriotism thing much, much better, and Honor tends to work around orders delicately rather than forgetting that they exist. When she does break all the rules, it's a thing of beauty precisely because she followed them so well before. 
~The Lost Fleet: Dauntless has a more rigorous approach to duty and exists in a grimmer universe. There's far less humor in it, but it hits the military aspect of military science fiction with more precision. 
~The Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. Miles is absolutely crazy, running on lies and forward momentum, but he's so audacious that you're willing to watch him pull the next trick and cheer when it works. 

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