BOOK REVIEW: Restless Lightning, by Richard Baker

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Publisher: Tor

Series: Breaker of Empires (#2)

Genre: Military SF

Pages: 428

Publication Date: 01/11/2018

Verdict: 5/5

 

Sikander North is not the military’s favourite person. Consigned to a remote posting in the stagnant Tzoru Dominion, the last thing he needs is more trouble. But rebellions and uprisings have never cared for the concerns of the rank and file . . .

 

Richard Baker’s 2017 novel Valiant Dust snuck under the radar somewhat, never getting a UK release. I only found out about it online, and when I eventually got around to reading it, I thought it was pretty decent, if nothing special. The usual tale of one man against the odds, with a flair for deep discussion of technology and tactics. Still, it held a lot of promise, and two years later I finally picked up the sequel. Surprisingly, it wound up being one of my favourite military SF stories of the year.

Baker has a firm grip of both technology and military. He has personal experience serving in the armed forces, and it shows in spades. This expertise is never overly obtrusive, but it is ever-present. Every interaction between military personnel is informed by Baker’s own background, lending an air of realism non-military writers may well have struggled with. The naval hierarchy is complex, and having an experienced hand at the wheel is invaluable. So too is the weaponry as realistic as I can expect. Not necessarily plausible, but enough so to convince me. As with all the best military SF, Baker takes into account the unique terrain of space, as well as the problems of relativity.

Whereas Valiant Dust largely concerned itself with human affairs, Restless LIghtning introduces an alien race to the mix. The Tzoru are an interesting species. Rigid and hierarchical, even more so than the navy, their empire is tens of thousands of years old. But while humanity is scattered and expanding in every direction, the Tzoru dominion is a single, stagnant entity. Cultural stagnation is a favourite trope of mine, and Baker explores it well. Of course, the Dominion is not as unified as it outwardly appears, with multiple competing factions.

Just as its predecessor did, Restless Lightning concerns itself with a rebellion, with Sikander once again caught in the middle. This time, however, Sikander is not playing for a particular side. Rather, his efforts are focused on simple survival. With fleets driven away from the capital, embassies under siege, and riots in the streets, survival is not so easy a task as it might first appear. While using so many of the same ingredients, this is a very different story to Valiant Dust. Between civilians under siege, fleets on long retreats and infiltration of enemy bases, Restless Lightning is essentially a checklist of everything I look for in my military SF.

Both of Baker’s novels function as standalones while still forwarding the overarching plot of Sikander North’s troubled career. The third installment, Scornful Stars, looks set to continue this trend, and on the strength of this book it is one I plan to pick up sooner rather than later.

Restless Lightning is a cracking piece of military SF, and I hope there are many more still to come.

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