Once upon a time, there was a real-life historical figure named Thomas Cochrane. His dashing naval exploits inspired at least two historical fiction series: Master and Commander (I’ve read all 21 books in this series and enjoyed all but one) and Horatio Hornblower (I’ve only read the first book, which wasn’t bad, but didn’t lead me to continue). These historical fiction series in turn were the inspiration for at least two science fiction series: Hornblower for the popular Honor Harrington novels (I’ve read the first two, and it’s possible I’ll read more in the future) and M&C for the lesser-known RCN series which is the subject of this post. I also suspect that M&C inspired a fantasy series about the dragon Temeraire, but that’s just a guess on my part.
The RCN series currently consists of twelve books, but the author seems to write a new one about every two years, so we may see an addition in 2020. It took me five years to read the series, not because I was avoiding it, but because I used the RCN as what I call my “reserve series”, a literary version of comfort food. Whenever I’d read several terrible sci-fi books in a row and was thinking of giving up on the genre forever, I’d pull out another RCN book. I didn’t expect a mind-blowing, earth-shattering science-fiction concept, but I knew I’d get an adventure featuring characters and settings I’d enjoy.
The author, David Drake, insists that the RCN series isn’t military sci-fi and is simply space opera. I suspect most reviewers/categorizers will place the series as military sci-fi anyway, as the main character is an RCN officer who, in most of the books, commands a small military spaceship. Drake, a Vietnam veteran, recommends his Hammer’s Slammers series as an example of military sci-fi.
The RCN books aren’t non-stop action. There’s a climactic battle at the end of each book, usually a space battle, and there may be a small conflict like a bar fight earlier, but a lot of each book is taken up by worldbuilding and character-building. I normally like a bit more action in my sci-fi, but this series really worked for me (as did M&C, which followed a similar pattern).
I wouldn’t want to live in the universe of the RCN, but it’s interesting reading. In the Republic of Cinnabar, the nobles behave however they please towards the lower classes. For example, when they walk the streets, they have their retainers go ahead of them, shoving and beating commoners out of the way. Life is dangerous for the nobles, though, because disputes between them are settled with duels or even family massacres. The Republic is perpetually at war with a France-analogue space empire which has adopted Stalinist/Maoist-style socialism, so it wouldn’t be safe for anyone, of any class, to move there.
I enjoy a number of aspects of the RCN organization (strongly based on Britain’s Napoleonic-era Royal Navy) as well. The navy is chronically short of skilled sailors, but there is such a glut of upper-class officers that they sit in offices holding take-a-number chits, hoping to be called in for an assignment. Some of the junior officers aren’t very bright, but they are brave and committed to the RCN. In the upper ranks, there are some officers who make decisions based on their personal interests and political concerns, so I guess the scum floats to the top no matter what alternate universe you visit.
The main character of the series often appears to be nothing more than a junior naval officer, but he is also the son of the all-powerful speaker of the legislature, a man with near-dictatorial powers. Father and son had a nasty fight years ago and haven’t spoken since. This seems to make the son a political liability, so he’s often posted to assignments in out-of-the-way backwaters. This always ends up working in his favor, as he’s the most senior officer there when a crisis occurs, and becomes a hero by resolving it.
Sometimes I wonder about a minor warlord trying to kill this character, or an admiral who assigns him to an area where he could be killed. Sure, father and son aren’t speaking now, but if the son gets killed, do you want to bet your life on how the father will react?
Another character I really enjoy in this series is the main character’s personal servant/butler. He’s no snooty, upper-crust napkin-folder. He’s a former poacher who is handy in a bar fight and knows where to pick things up on the black market.
The second-most important character in the series is a librarian (which is apparently what they call super-hackers in the future) who joins the RCN to serve with the main character. Her entire family was massacred by the main character’s father, but she and the main character still end up as best friends. I didn’t like the librarian in the first few novels, as she’s a borderline sociopath, and I’ve had my fill of real-life sociopaths, so I don’t want them in my fiction, at least not on the good-guy team. Later, I warmed to her as she began to develop friendships among the crew, but then she also hired her own personal servant, a woman who is out on the serial-killer end of the sociopath spectrum. Apparently, the author really likes having a female sociopath in these stories.
In the first book, the main character is carrying out some unimportant assignment on a planet which has been a long-time ally of the Republic of Cinnabar. Abruptly, the planet’s government switches sides, allying with the socialist Frenchies, so all the RCN personnel have to find a way off-world, fast. I won’t give any further plot details about the first eleven books, but the twelfth book is different enough that it needs some explanation.
Though Hell Should Bar the Way, the most recent RCN book, strikes me as very different from the rest of the series, despite being set in the same universe. It has a different lead character, but to me, an even bigger difference is the pacing. While the other books build towards a climactic battle, this one has a more pulp-style series of shorter action or crisis scenes. The main character is drugged and shanghaied onto the crew of a merchant ship. Another crewman tries to kill him. They are all captured by pirates and sold into slavery. Their ship lands in a lagoon to pick up water for reaction mass, and a giant squid attacks.
If the faster pace of the twelfth book sounds more like your style, you could try reading it as a standalone, or as an alternate entry point to the series. For the other eleven, I’d recommend reading them in order.
As I mentioned, the RCN was my reserve series, and now my reserves are gone. What will I do when I’m becalmed in the dreary stillness of a go-nowhere plot? When I’m blown about by the foul winds of a political diatribe? When I’m dashed upon the rocks of an abrupt and inconclusive ending? Where is my safe harbor now? WHERE IS MY SAFE HARBOR NOW?