Posts Tagged Dave Freer

Dave Freer’s “The Steam Mole” — Thrilling Action-Adventure

Dave Freer’s THE STEAM MOLE is the sequel to CUTTLEFISH (reviewed here).  Many of the same characters are present, including Tim Barnabas, Clara Calland, and her mother Mary (a chemist with a doctorate who has a formula that will literally change the world), but the setting has changed; instead of them all being cooped up on the coal-powered Cuttlefish, they’re now in Western Australia (called “Westralia”).

At the end of CUTTLEFISH, Dr. Calland and her daughter were dropped off to make some sort of deal for Dr. Calland’s formula.  However, the Imperial English government still wants that formula for itself and will do anything — literally anything it possibly can — to stop Dr. Calland from giving that formula to Westralia.

This is the main reason Dr. Calland lies near death at the start of THE STEAM MOLE, originally diagnosed with a case of the flu.  Yet there’s something badly wrong here, something Clara knows even if no one else does, but of course no one’s willing to listen to her as she’s still a teenager.

This is why she goes looking for her buddy (and love interest) Tim,  thinking he’s stayed with the Cuttlefish as he is, after all, a crewman there.  But the Cuttlefish crew has split up, mostly because they need money in order to ply their trade as they used up all of their fuel and just about every other possible thing as well just getting Clara and her mother to Westralia.

Tim has gone off to work on a steam mole (used for excavation), as the way it’s powered is sensible to anyone who’s worked on a coal-powered submarine.  But the Westralians aren’t exactly friendly to anyone with a black skin, which Tim finds out in a big hurry; worse, the crew he’s with contains none of his friends and shipmates, which is why things escalate out of control in a hurry.

While Tim is able to escape from his racist temporary crewmates, it’s not without cost as he’s forced to endure the Westralian desert and cross during the day — a big no-no in Westralia due to how hot and humid the climate has become due to “the Big Melt.”  And because Tim’s without much in the way of supplies, most especially water, this quickly complicates things.

Clara, of course, doesn’t know any of this when she sets out to find Tim.  But she figures it out quickly (partly because she’s smart, partly because she has nowhere else to turn), and goes in search of Tim.

Meanwhile, Dr. Calland’s condition improves, but she’s still not in any shape to hand over the formula.  This is why the royal Duke who heads the British Imperial Empire’s secret service decides that there’s only one way left to get a handle on Dr. Calland and stopping her from giving her precious formula to Westralia– and that’s by bringing her ex-husband, Clara’s father, to Westralia as a bargaining chip.

So there’s a lot of stuff going on — first, Clara and Tim are both alone and must show initiative and fortitude if they’re ever to be together again, much less stay alive in the process.  Second, Dr. Calland has to figure out what to do with her formula, especially as she’s unwilling to deal with the Duke’s men (who are akin to terrorists in her view, though the word is never used).  Third, Clara and Tim must figure out what to do about Clara’s father, as Clara has absolutely no intention of leaving her father in the Duke’s hands once she finds out about it.

All involved must make alliances quickly.  This means they must depend on their wits, as well as their past association with the Cuttlefish and its crew, to make sure that the good guys win and the bad guys definitely lose.

In other words, THE STEAM MOLE, like CUTTLEFISH before it, is a very strong action-adventure novel with just a hint of realistic romance between Clara and Tim.  Both are strong-willed, energetic people who are self-reliant and smart.  They have just enough differences to prove intriguing and know how to work alone or together, which is a big plus for any couple — much less a couple of mid-teens like Tim and Clara.

But the best part of THE STEAM MOLE lies in the characterization of Dr. Calland, Clara’s mother.  Forced by circumstances to be apart from her daughter for a long period of time, Dr. Calland refuses to pine away despite her brush with death.  Instead, she more or less adopts one of the local young women, Linda Darlington, and encourages Linda to learn about math and science.  And because of Dr. Calland’s shining example (women really can do math and science), this young woman learns that it’s not only OK to be smart, it’s actually a wonderful thing — a life-affirming thing, to be exact.

This all goes to show that one person — one individual —  in the right time and place can make a huge difference, which is a variation on the same theme introduced in CUTTLEFISH.  This is an extremely empowering message amidst all of the action and adventure going on, yet it doesn’t slow the tale down whatsoever.

That’s a really difficult thing to do, but Freer pulls it off with aplomb.

Overall, the balance here is excellent.  The action and adventure click right along.  The prose reads well and easily.  The world is solidly built and makes perfect sense (as it should; Freer himself is a scientist, though his field is ichthyology), while the characters include many you can fully root for along with a few fully hissable villains . . . really, what’s not to like about THE STEAM MOLE?

In fact, the only bad thing about THE STEAM MOLE is that no sequels are planned as of this time, partly because Pyr only contracted with Freer for two novels.  My hope is that these two novels will sell well enough that Freer will wish to write another one, as there are obviously many more stories waiting to be told in this universe — most especially from the viewpoints of Clara, Tim, and Dr. Calland’s protegée, Linda.

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Dave Freer’s “Dog and Dragon” — Cute Sequel

Dave Freer’s DOG AND DRAGON is a sequel to DRAGON’S RING (reviewed here).  As such, it’s about the further adventures of Fionn, the black, shapechanging dragon (also called Finn), his lover, Meb (née Anghared), and their devoted sheepdog, Dileas.

At the end of DRAGON’S RING, everything was thrown into flux.  You see, Meb believed that if she stayed with Finn, something awful would happen to the universes — the various planes of existence — and that Finn, in trying to save them (as that is, indeed, his job), would end up dead.  That’s why she leaves Tamarind and ends up in Lyonesse, the place of her birth; while she hadn’t intended to go there, her magic tends to send her wherever she’s most needed.  And Lyonesse, it turns out, is in major need of a heroine.

Meanwhile, Finn and Dileas are searching for Meb.  Searching the various planes isn’t as easy as it sounds, even for a shapechanging dragon like Fionn/Finn; fortunately, Dileas is an excellent tracker, and despite the fact that Meb’s translation from Tamarind to Lyonesse was nearly instantaneous and didn’t go by way of the planar travel Finn and Dileas are forced to endure, Dileas ends up getting them in the right direction.

Back in Lyonesse, Meb makes common cause with the only decent people around, the formidable Lady Vivien, a widow, and the young noblewoman sent to become Meb’s maid, Lady Neve.   But both women are being blackmailed — more or less — by Mage Aberinn, a man who’s kept Lyonesse in thrall for the past fifty years.  And because of this, Meb has difficulty figuring out how to become Lyonesse’s predestined “Defender” — who, as it might be expected via prophecy, will defend the land from villains such as Aberinn.

Now, why is Aberinn such a bad guy?  Simple — he’s kept Lyonesse at war with six or seven other planes of existence by way of something he calls “the Changer” for most of the past fifty years.  And when people can’t grow crops due to the constant warring — when people can’t be safe in their own homes — well, it’s a situation that’s good for Aberinn because the people are scared and cowed.  But it’s an appalling situation for everyone else.

Worse yet, there’s another figure — a shadowy presence — encouraging the constant warring in Lyonesse.  So between this shadow-person and Aberinn, Lyonesse is in bad, bad shape, which is one reason why it’s such a depressing place to live.

To Meb’s credit, she understands that the constant warring has caused major problems nearly immediately and vows to do something about it.  But she has few allies; Vivien feels compelled to stay where she is due to her two young sons, while Neve just can’t do much.

Never fear, however; there are other allies on Lyonesse, such as the knockyan (called “knockers” by humans), a type of dwarf akin to the previous book’s dvergar, there are the ant-like muryan, there are spriggans, and of course there are pixies.  All of them eventually end up aiding Meb in repelling any number of invaders, merely because Meb can’t help being what she is — a very powerful mage who comes from this odd world and has strange links to it by birth — and while it’s good that Meb gets aid, perhaps some of that aid comes to her a bit too easily.

Really, the better part of the story here lies with Finn and Dileas; they have all sorts of adventures.  Bad things happen to them, or at least are attempted, and most of them are rebuffed with humor and/or forethought — but despite Finn’s near-immortality and near-invulnerability, I never got the sense that things happened too easily for Finn and Dileas, especially as they had to work really hard to find Meb in the first place.

Overall, DOG AND DRAGON is a really cute story, and the adventures Finn and Dileas have are fine and funny.  But is it up to the rousing action-adventure of DRAGON’S RING?  No. 

And are Meb’s adventures as interesting as the ones experienced by Finn and Dileas?  No, they aren’t, precisely because everything seems to come just a bit too easily for her — something that did not happen in DRAGON’S RING — and because I couldn’t help but get the sense that despite all of her Defending, she really was there for one plot purpose and one plot purpose only: to wait for Finn and Dileas to find her.

Granted, had DRAGON’S RING not been so outstanding, I may have been happier with this adventure.  But DRAGON’S RING was and is outstanding, which is why I really expected more here — and I didn’t quite get it.

That said, this is still a cute story and I enjoyed Finn and Dileas’s adventures.  Meb’s a good character, too — I liked her, even though I thought Lyonesse was a rather depressing place and that most of the people there were obnoxious at absolute best — and I’d like to see more adventures for all three of them.

In other words, DOG AND DRAGON is a strong B-plus — nothing to sneeze at, mind you, and a book that I enjoyed quite a bit (especially when Finn and Dileas were “on stage”) — but not quite up to the standard set by DRAGON’S RING.

— reviewed by Barb

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Dave Freer’s “Cuttlefish:” Excellent Alternate History, with Subs

Dave Freer’s CUTTLEFISH is an excellent story.  Set in an alternate 1976 where the British Empire never fell and that’s still dependent on coal as its main energy source, CUTTLEFISH features the stories of two teens — cabin boy Tim Barnabas, and passenger Clara Calland — and a rollicking action-adventure plot that never lets up.

In this world, submarines have been made illegal because they are able to go where other naval conveyances cannot.  This is important because Tim is one of the “underpeople,” as he comes from London’s now-flooded streets.  (London, in this conception, has become the new Venice, complete with canals, due to what Freer calls “the Big Melt” — otherwise known as climate change due to the overuse of coal.)  The underpeople believe in democracy, something the autocratic British Empire would rather stamp out, and have created a thriving business by trading in things the British Empire would rather leave alone.   They use the illegal subs as a way to trade.

Of course, Tim is a bright young lad with no future in London’s tunnels.  He needs an occupation, soonest, which is why his mother gets Tim a berth on the Cuttlefish in the first place.  Tim is quick-witted and learns to love the sea, but doesn’t really care much for the other cabin boys as he finds them either too rambunctious or too juvenile, take your pick.

Clara is on the Cuttlefish because her mother, an English scientist, has figured out a new scientific process.  Every country in the world wants this process, but Clara’s mother refuses to allow it to be turned into a weapon; that’s why she’s turned to the underpeople and their submarines, hoping to find a way to either the United States or Western Australia as these two countries are the least likely to use her scientific discovery to make war.

But Clara is still a teen, and she’s both bored and lonely due to a lack of intellectual stimulation.  Her father, an Irishman, is in prison after being branded a revolutionary, while her mother is severely distracted due to running for their lives.  However, because Clara is younger and bounces back much more quickly than her mother, she needs to find at least one friend on the sub.  This is why she initially talks with Tim — he’s her age, he’s known privation, and as he’s mulatto, she feels she has something in common with him due to the fact that she’s half-Irish.  (Note that the term “mulatto” is not used.  Tim just sees himself as a Londoner, same as any other.)

During the course of CUTTLEFISH, there are many adventures in store for Tim, Clara, and of course for Mrs. Calland.  Some of these adventures you may not expect, but all of them flow naturally from the story and are sensible in context, something realized once the book is over (after you’re able to catch your breath).

And before you ask, of course a romance is in store for Clara and Tim.  But this is a gentle, G-rated romance that builds out of Clara and Tim getting to know each other as people first, then members of the opposite sex, second.  As this feels quite true-to-life under the circumstances — and as it’s always subordinate to the action and adventure that can’t help but go on all around Clara, her mother, and Tim — it makes perfect sense.

Best of all, the sub is filled with all sorts of people, which is unusual in any form of fiction nowadays as it seems too many authors in all genres want everyone to get along.  Some of the people on the Cuttlefish are good, some are not-so-good, and a few are out-and-out blackguards, which helps ground the story nicely and makes the story far more plausible on an emotional level.  (Trust me — Freer already had the other levels covered.)

Overall, CUTTLEFISH is an excellent action-adventure yarn with just a tad of romance that’s suitable for all ages.  It’s meticulously researched, well-thought-out, and reads quickly.  Buy this one for anyone on your list who likes naval adventure with a touch of romance, as this is a novel that should appeal to more than “just” the SF/F audience.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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