One of my popcorn guilty pleasures has for the last several years been David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which with spinoffs and what-not is now quite a large number of books. I have read most of them, I think, and while at this point the continuing series is beginning to drag quite a bit, I have this thing about finishing books I start, at least eventually. So when I went to the library and noticed a new pair of titles in the series I figured I’d read them. One of the causes of the series getting quite so large was that Weber started doing collaborations on side-stories with other authors. At this point I think the other authors do most of the writing for their particular bit, and Weber mostly checks it over for consistency – more or less – with the main story.
Cauldron of Ghosts with Eric Flint
Eric Flint is another sci-fi author who mostly deals in time-travel scenarios and whose writing is not very good. This particular book is a touch above his regular stuff, but in the end it’s pretty much the same kind of thing. Flint doesn’t provide much substance – his characters, much like the stereotypical American movie-going public, mostly all seem to like sex and stuff blowing up. His plots, such as they are, are wildly implausible. His heroes are basically superheroes in all but name. It’s hard to find much of a redeeming factor to his work – about the only thing is that he makes it clear that he, the author, knows exactly what he’s doing. He also writes some very funny scenes, with a tendency to slapstick. I don’t know that the book’s much good, though.
A Call to Duty with Timothy Zahn
Zahn, on the other hand, is a fairly solid writer – stylistically better than Weber, let alone Flint. He’s best known for a pair of series in the Star Wars “expanded universe”, but his own stuff is also pretty good most of the time and usually fairly interesting. He writes mostly sci-fi, with a lot of aliens. Commonly he features characters with technologically enhanced abilities (for good and bad), and his plots tend toward mysteries and spying, though often with a background of, as the phrase goes, galactic unrest.
Almost all of Zahn’s protagonists, though, tend to be practical, not to say hard-bitten, type who know how the world works and just want to get their job done. So it was a little bit of a surprise to find that the lead here is a kid just out of high school; and the setting, years before Weber’s main timeline, back near the beginning of Manticore’s history. (The series – this is apparently going to be a series – is called “Manticore Ascendant”, so that’s not a spoiler.)
Anyway, this one doesn’t quite work. Part of it is the problem of trying to write a protagonist who doesn’t quite know what he’s doing and still make him out a hero. Part of it is a general lack of detail in explaining how various things work – an odd complaint when Weber is usually criticized, and rightly, for putting in too much detail, but true all the same. Mostly, though, the pacing of the book doesn’t quite work. The thing is spread over several years, and yet the characters – and situations – don’t develop much.
So neither of these books was particularly good. Cauldron was more entertaining, taken by itself, but I’m rapidly running out of patience with Flint’s schtick (and with the whole Mesa storyline, for that matter). A Call to Duty was a weak book, but the story might have some promise going forward. At least it’s a newer (to the reader) setting.