The Far Side of the Stars is the third novel in the RCN series, following Lt. Leary, Commanding. In the previous volume, the captain and crew of the Princess Cecile have been marooned yet escaped, cut a deal with pirates, driven off an Alliance squadron, and installed a new president for Strymon. In the process, their ship has been badly damaged and was left in a Strymon shipyard for repair under Lieutenant Mon while Daniel and Adele return to Xenos.
In this novel, Daniel is temporarily at half-pay while his ship is under repair. He has been preparing a funeral for his uncle Stacey Bergen, the famous navigator and explorer. He is his uncle's principal heir and has been named as trustee for the widow. His sister Deirdre has passed on a message through Adele that he needs to find a yardmanager for his uncle's shipyard.
The Princess Cecile has been brought back to Xenos by Lieutenant Mon to be sold out of service. The Count and Countess Klimov from Novy Sverdlovsk have been carried on the Sissie as passengers and wish to buy the ship. Lieutenant Mon has been offered command, but the ship has encountered several problems in transit, so the crew think Mon is a hard-luck captain. Mon asks for advice from Daniel and is instead offered management of the Bergen and Associates shipyard, while Daniel takes the captaincy of the Princess Cecile. Everybody is satisfied and the crew happily cues up to sign the ship's articles.
The Klimovs have several requirements, including hunting, primitive societies, and card games. However, they are primarily searching for a huge carved gem called the Earth Diamond. Eighty years before, a mercenary soldier made himself Emperor Ivan the First of Novy Sverdlovsk. Twenty years later, he was overthrown but escaped in his private yacht with the Earth Diamond and other treasures. Since the present continents of Earth had been deformed by planetoid bombardment prior to the Hiatus, the information carved on the diamond globe is now literally priceless. The ex-emperor was last reported heading toward the Galactic North. Therefore, the first port of call for the ship will be 4795-C, where there are dragons, enroute to Todos Santos in the Ten Star Cluster.
Adele has an additional task bestowed by Mistress Sand. The RCN has received word of an Alliance base under construction on Gehenna, the satellite of Radiance, the capital of the Commonwealth of God. The Commonwealth has embargoed Radiance to foreign naval vessels, but the Princess Cecile is now a private yacht with the armament and sensors of a warship. Moreover, Bernis Sand arranges for the reinstallation of additional modules to further enhance the sensors.
The first part of the story is a quest for the Earth Diamond. Step by step the Sissie follows the path of the Emperor's yacht. They find a belt-buckle here and an artifact there, leading them toward the priceless relict.
They run into Alliance interference on Todos Santos in the form of Captain Bertram of the freighter Goldenfels. The captain begins to form a grudge toward Daniel when the Sissie is assigned to the berth that had previously been reserved for his ship. Then Bertram tries to cheat at cards, but the Count gets the better of him anyway. Moreover, the Goldenfels is not what she seems, for she has military grade security systems and over three hundred men on board; she has to be an Alliance spy ship. When the Princess Cecile leaves Todos Santos, the Goldenfels pursues her.
While this volume differs radically in plot from the first two in the series, the Princess Cecile nevertheless gets into some fearsome naval battles, even though she is now a civilian craft. However, she gains some unexpected allies along the way. Moreover, the plot was designed by Murphy: everything outside their control goes wrong and only the competence of captain and crew saves them from numerous perils.
This story takes place in an ambiance much like the Napoleonic Era. In fact, the Alliance commanders are named for French commanders of that time. However, the technology seems to tie this series to the Reaches trilogy based on an environment much like the early Spanish colonial period. If so, the Reaches stories must occur during the early recovery from the Hiatus. Maybe the author plans to connect these two storylines.
One thing seems to be incongruous, however. The author mentions that the communications protocols are based on those of his former unit in Viet Nam, which seems to be the case. But the RCN environment is sufficiently different to make those protocols problematical. While current naval (and marine) protocols need not be used, the naval call sign conventions are designed for the much more complex environment of a naval capital ship, both internally and externally. Some of the terminology also differs. However, call initiation, termination and other control practices are not very different in most environments.
To some extent, these commo practices were modified for communications with other ships, ports and so forth. While these modifications are sufficient for a small vessel such as the Princess Cecile, further mods would be required for a larger ship with a crew in the thousands and with dozens of excursions by landing craft, shuttles and other onboard craft. Moreover, larger craft have escorts and the larger the ship, the more numerous the escorts. In addition, naval communications and control is much more centralized than the military versions; so many vessels moving at such high velocities relative to each other must be controlled much more closely and require more complex communications protocols. Thus, naval protocols are much like that of a combined airport and seaport which is itself moving through space.
Nonetheless, this story was very convincing and filled with excitement throughout; the author knows how to keep the reader on the edge of his seat. The characterization, however, was rather wooden, with each character having only a few defining attributes. Adele has the best defined character, but she is deliberately handicapped with a notable flatness of affect; for example, she has little fear of dying and she presents a blank expression even when disturbed by some incident. One would hope that she loosens up more as the series continues.
Highly recommended for Drake fans and for anyone else who enjoys naval SF in a highly complex political environment.
-Arthur W. Jordin