David Drake’s newest novel in the RCN (Royal Cinnabar Navy) series, WHAT DISTANT DEEPS, is an appealing departure from the previous seven novels in this series. Captain Daniel Leary is the youngest captain in the RCN fleet, yet peace has broken out between Cinnabar and the Alliance of Free Stars due to the end of the seventh novel IN THE STORMY RED SKY and that, seemingly, would deny Leary and his best friend, Signals Officer and spy Adele Mundy, an easily defined opponent. And because of their previous adventures, Leary and Mundy have been sent to a far-off world, Zenobia, which is allied to Cinnabar loosely due to the fact the recent Commissioner (the Cinnabar civil servant resident on Zenobia, roughly equivalent to an ambassador) has died and a replacement needs to be taken there forthwith.
Now, Zenobia is very far off the beaten track, being located in the Qaboosh region of space. The closest planet to them is Palmyra, led by Autocrator Irene, an insane dictator who’s used to enforcing her will and believes she knows best, always, even if she’s completely uninformed and incompetent. (The current parallel to someone like Irene would have to be Moammar Qaddafi, complete to the megalomania and violence.)
The thought was from the higher-ups in the RCN, including Mundy’s spy-supervisor Bernis Sand, was that Leary and Mundy could use a vacation. Sand knows there’s something going on in the Qaboosh region, even though she isn’t sure what, but thinks it’s something Mundy can handle on her own; the “mission” to Zenobia is supposed to be peaceful, tranquil, and boring.
Now, you must be asking yourself why anyone would want to write about a “normal, boring mission.” This isn’t the usual fare for Drake, or really any military SF author I’ve ever seen, because it’s tough to keep the reader interested in adventures that don’t have a lot of shoot-’em-ups or thrilling space battles, and most authors would rather give the reader some serious conflict to deal with rather than building up a story to a boil, gradually.
Yet Drake does the latter, and he does it brilliantly by showing Mundy figuring out what really is going wrong by using her main talents of information-gathering and loyalty to her friend Leary to their best advantage. Mundy’s story is the one to watch, but the sub-plot dealing with Lady Posthuma “Posy” Belisande, former mistress to the head of the Alliance, is also well worth the read. And when these two strong women team up to form an unlikely alliance (Posy is the sister of the Zenobian Leader, and one of his top advisors), the rest of the universe had best look out.
Because of course there’s intrigue going on here; the only question is, who’s doing it and why? What’s their angle, and what does the tyrannical, dictatorial Autocrator Irene have to do with it all?
As for the weaknesses, I only found one worth noting, and that’s the lack of growth in the character of Captain Leary. Leary, of course, is a brilliant commander of any vessel, which has been explicated in seven previous books and is shown to good advantage here again, but he seems to be completely clueless about women. Leary has an “understanding” with a woman named Miranda back at home, yet his Signals Officer, Mundy, has been interested in him for years and has been unable to make Move One because of her background, general problems relating to people, and being unwilling to unbalance their strong and good friendship by admitting she wants more. But Leary is shown to be good with people otherwise, almost a consummate, master manipulator, and that just does not follow.
In other words, Leary’s character is at a standstill. He’s a brilliant captain, yes. His skills are needed, yes, and are shown to great effect, as always. Without him, the book wouldn’t work, yes, as always. But it’s only “as always,” because there’s really nothing new about him here, possibly because it’s more a book about female bonding and unlikely allies than anything else.
Anyway, this last is a drawback, but a minor one; the book is interesting and thought-provoking otherwise, and an intriguing and memorable departure for Drake. WHAT DISTANT DEEPS is more about politics than it is about war, but it surely does show that sometimes, the newest of allies can make the strangest of bedfellows. And that unlikely, yet realistic, detail is one reason why this particular series of books is so very, very popular.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes milSF, space opera, naval battles/historical or just a good far-future read that’s based on a solid empirical foundation. Drake gets many things right, and he’s well worth reading even in his weaker books; me, I’d put this one somewhere in the middle, mostly because of Leary’s complete and utter inability to see what’s as plain as the nose on his face.
— Reviewed by Barb