RogerBW's Blog

Daring, Mike Shepherd 09 January 2023

2011 military SF, ninth of the Kris Longknife books. Kris leads an expedition in search of an alien menace.

OK, so we finally get to move forward on the matter of the big scary thing that was given away in the blurb two books ago, with a group of systems from which (allied, alien) scout ships never return. There's a new technology that allows very limited observation through jump points, so obviously the thing to do is…

…charge off in a completely different direction, randomly out into the galaxy.


"I'm hunting for whatever's eating up your scout ships," Kris said.

"You are a far distance from where they went and did not return."

"Well, yes. We call incidents like exploding scout ships a hot datum. They draw attention. We don't want to draw any more attention to those spots. Anyone who comes nosing around them might keep nosing and bump into you. I want to come at them from the other way around and draw their attention this way."

But because the author's thumb is on the scales, sure enough, Kris finds the menace in a completely different part of the galaxy, and it's a different bit of the same menace. Who turn out to be suicidally brave, and utterly committed to fighting at all costs and blowing themselves up when they lose. You can try to talk to them, but they just attack you with overwhelming force, so you gotta shoot 'em lots.

In other words they're the space equivalent of pulp Nazis. None of those tricksy moral dilemmas here! We laid down our $7.99 for space battles, not space ethics!

And then, looking at the enemy tactics, they're clearly communicating back through jump points (a later ship in the attack does something clearly based on information gained by an earlier ship which was blown up before it had a change to return). This is supposed to be impossible (though it's an obvious application of the top secret see-through-jump-points-o-mat that the good guys have invented). Nobody seems to notice that this is unusual.

And as a third strike against the book, well, we've established that going through a jump point at high relative speed lets you jump to another point further than the usual one, and that this is risky. Well, it's not risky for Kris, probably because she has the entire universe's supply of sentient computers on board; and during the trip back with a damaged ship, they save fuel by keeping up a high speed while traversing systems from one jump point to another.

In other words these ships can maintain their speed while changing direction, like a car turning a corner, and not at all like a spaceship (except one in an orbit, which these aren't). Walter Jon Williams got this wrong in The Praxis (2003), too, but there it wasn't as vital to the plot; and Williams is a rather better writer than Shepherd.

In order to generate tension, this ship that was expected to be making a long voyage into the middle of nowhere is only capable of wilderness refuelling by heroic efforts.

I mean, I don't mind "Kris is presented with a problem that to anyone else would be impossible, and solves it". That's what the series is about. But it's nice when the problem is one that would logically have occurred rather than one invented just to challenge her, and she solves it by her skills, or by her nature, or even by virtue of having picked the right friends, rather than by luck or by obvious authorial favour.

Every time reconfigurable matter is mentioned in dialogue it's called "SmartMetal™", with the trade mark symbol.

Oh yeah, the romance for Kris that's been hanging fire since book one finally goes off. Woo.

There are bits here that are great. Several long-term characters die, and often in a sudden random way (because they're doing dangerous things) rather than getting a chance to make a heroic speech first. The survivors struggle with guilt over being alive when they didn't do anything better than the dead guys except be lucky. This is good stuff. But there's much more that either doesn't work at all, or is so clumsily done that it might as well not work because it drags me out of any possible immersion.

This is book 9 of the main sequence. The latest published is number 19, and there are side stories and a spinoff novel series too. And the things are simply becoming increasingly hard work for me to read, perhaps because the growing scope of the larger plot, and the desire to do things that haven't been done before in previous books, seem to be exceeding Shepherd's writing ability.

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See also:
The Praxis, Walter Jon Williams

Previous in series: Redoubtable | Series: Kris Longknife | Next in series: Welcome Home / Go Away

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