Liz Bourke Reviews Though Hell Should Bar the Way by David Drake

Though Hell Should Bar the Way, David Drake science fiction book reviewThough Hell Should Bar the Way, David Drake (Baen 978-1481483131, $25.00, 416pp, hc). April 2018.

Though Hell Should Bar the Way is the twelfth and latest novel in David Drake’s Republic of Cinnabar Navy (RCN) series, published in the UK by Titan Books and in the USA by Baen. Drake is well known for his command of military science fiction – his record of success stretches back to the Hammer’s Slammers series in the 1970s, and draws on his own experiences in an active warzone – and the RCN series combines a realistic approach to the (emotional and physical) consequences of military service in warzones with a keen eye for enjoyable action sequences and the strong influence of Drake’s antiquarian bent in its worldbuilding.

Where previous RCN instalments featured Daniel Leary, an extraordinarily talented RCN officer, and Adele Mundy, the extraordinarily talented librarian who becomes his Signals Of­ficer (as well as a spy) after her first return to Cinnabar since the political purges that killed her family, Though Hell Should Bar the Way changes protagonists and point of view. Here we meet Roy Olfetrie, who was destined for a career as a naval officer before his father’s disgrace for peculation destroyed his hopes. Now he’s doing odd jobs around the docks of Cinnabar’s capital city, until a chance encounter offers him the op­portunity to crew on with Captain Leary. Leary’s captaining a courier ship that’s delivering a dip­lomatic mission to arrange the incorporation of an independent polity into the Friendship of the Republic of Cinnabar.

One member of the diplomatic mission – the most junior – tries to convince Roy to help her derail the mission. Her patrons believe that this mission will lead to a renewed war between Cin­nabar and their major rivals, the Alliance: a war that neither Cinnabar or the Alliance can afford. (They do not know what Leary, Mundy, and readers of the series who recall the political manoeuvring of a book or two ago know.) Part of how she attempts to convince Roy is by seducing him, but he turns her down flat.

Unfortunately, he’s in a foreign port when this happens, and it results in him being press-ganged aboard a barely functional merchant ship – which is then taken by pirates. Roy finds himself sold as a slave on a planet (modelled, it seems, after Drake’s impression of the Barbary pirate states in the early modern period) with very low literacy levels, ter­rible punishments for people who annoy the ruler, and a large harem for the ruler.* Purchased to keep the computers running for the household steward of the ruler, Roy starts using his position to look for a way to escape. Then he discovers a well-brought-up young woman, Monica, in the ruler’s harem who doesn’t want to be there, and – because he’s a well-brought-up young man, and because she’s pretty – determines to include her in his plans for escape.

His escape doesn’t exactly go off without a hitch, but with Monica at his side, he manages to make his way back to Leary and Mundy. This leads to Monica’s father, military action, and triumphant success for Roy, who finds himself at the centre of significant unfolding events. Well paced and told in the first-person voice from Roy’s point of view, this is a classic blend of adventure story and Drake’s trademark military action, and should definitely appeal to fans of the series.

There’s a fly in the ointment, though. Drake’s portrayal of women and their interactions with men leaves something to be desired, especially when his viewpoint character is male. In the other RCN novels, this has been offset by the presence (and caustic wit) of Adele Mundy, who, to a greater or lesser degree, provided an antidote to the kind of boy’s-own-adventure writing where women (sub­type underhanded politician) primarily attempt to manipulate men by offering to sleep with them even when it’s clear that this isn’t going so well; or where a woman who’s just been rescued from a form of forced marriage (and who, we find, had previously been repeatedly raped) immediately enters into a relationship with the man who rescued her – not out of gratitude, or an understandable strategic desire to cement his goodwill and inclination to further help her, but because she’s fallen for a bloke she hardly knows? (This is not a universe that appears to be big on any form of mental health treatment other than heavy drinking, worse luck for all involved.) But here, our only viewpoint is Roy’s, and his apparent attitude towards conventionally attractive women means Though Hell Should Bar the Way affords women far less interiority than most of Drake’s other recent books. This kind of depiction of women and women’s sexuality is a frustratingly off-putting note in an otherwise enormously fun novel.

*The planet comes across as rather on the Orien­talist fantasy side of “Turkish/Arabic influence in science fiction,” which is a little unfortunate.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the May 2018 issue of Locus.

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