After years working on the sales side of publishing, W C Bauers demonstrates with his debut novel that he's in dire need of a proofreader and an editor.
The former is because there are more fixable slips in this novel than any other Tor publication I can remember, annoying little things like missing punctuation and badly spelled words that should have been caught by a spellchecker. The latter is because he's clearly a very promising writer, capable of crafting scenes of great emotional impact, but he doesn't yet understand what he should include and what he shouldn't.
There are quotes on the front cover and the inner sleeve of the jacket from David Weber and they're more telling than later ones inside from critics, as Bauers clearly wants his heroine, Promise Paen, to follow in the footsteps of Weber's Honor Harrington, right down to the shared alliteration of their names. However, comparisons from critics to Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers' are cheap, obvious and misleading.
Now I'm a huge fan of Honor Harrington, having duly signed up for the Royal Manticoran Navy; I serve on HMS Claymore in its eighth fleet. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see how it started to unfold like a Honorverse novel, merely in a different universe and with a different heroine. However, Bauers isn't up to Weber's standard and so the results are inconsistent. Then again, this is his debut novel and there's plenty of time yet for him to work on the lesser aspects of his writing and build on the greater ones. I'll certainly be reading the second Promise Paen novel to find out how he grows.
When we first meet her, Promise is a strong but isolated young lady on the verge planet of Montana, which means that it's out in the sticks of the universe and she's out in the sticks of the planet. She takes primarily after her mother, a long-deceased go-getter who, to give those critics a little credit, does leap right out of the strong Heinlein lady template. She's a supporting character here not because we flashback to see what she was like but because she keeps popping up out of nowhere to talk to Paen through an unexplained technological implant of some kind. She's a mix of angel and devil on her shoulders, guiding her forward through tough times and embarrassing ones. Promise also inherits some of the moral compass of her father, a staunchly religious man easily murdered by what are surely space pirates because he's a pacifist and refuses to fight them.
With her family all gone and her home burned to the ground, she decides to adopt her mother's surname and sign up for the RAW-MC, the Marine Corps of the Republic of Aligned Worlds, a sprawling galactic empire. While Bauers endows the RAW with a little reluctance to bother with helping out verge planets, they're absolutely the galactic good guys in this book. Naturally the marines are the best of the best in every way. Not a single character from the RAW side is anything less than morally upstanding, highly capable and honourable in the extreme.
Of course we need bad guys for them to fight. Initially the bad guys here are pirates but they soon become the Lusitanians, a rival empire who want Montana because in their hands it would place a vast swathe of buffer space between them and the RAW. At least here Bauers writes a little deeper with his characters as the Lusitanians aren't pure evil. Many are bad guys but most are just following orders and a couple are honourable men stuck on the wrong side; I fully expect one in particular to show back up later in the series. However, their actions are firmly taken from the bad guy rulebook and there's no way anyone can get confused as to which side to root for.
In between are the Montana natives, who are insular folk who aren't really fond of either side, making them all hearts for everyone else to try to win. Both the RAW and the Lusies want them on their side, but it's obvious from moment one who they will eventually align to because they're quintessential good guys too. The worst behaviour we see from any of them is one saying something inappropriate to a lady. No, we'd never buy these folk selling out to the dark side.
With such clean cut boundaries between sides, it ought to be easy to follow the moral line in the book. I had a few problems because everything's very rooted in our own times but from a different perspective to mine. The planet Montana is like the propaganda version of a western American state wary of big government. The RAW are just like the propaganda version of the United States on a galactic level. The awkward bit for me is that the Lusitanians aren't the usual German, Russian or Japanese villains, they're the arrogant colonial British. Maybe that makes Montana equivalent to pre-independence America. Whichever, I found myself briefly confused at the beginning of a lot of chapters because Bauers kicks them off with locations to trigger us to realise whether we're reading about good guys or bad. Placing us on a vessel named HMS Whatever, however, pushes me to expect good rather than bad, while Bauers expects the opposite. This certainly kept me on my toes.
The relentless Americana of the book didn't upset me on an anti-British or anti-colonialism standpoint but it still felt wrong. Bauers explains that the RAW was founded late in our 24th century, with the Earth far away and long gone, and the action we read about unfolds almost a century later, so I'd expect all the characters we meet to be a mess of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Bauers may give them names that feel foreign but they aren't. Everyone on Montana is a relentlessly gun-toting, Tea Party voting, anti-government, beer drinking, burger and hot dog eating, square dancing, fundamentally down to earth backwoods hick and everyone in the RAW is just as relentlessly a modern all-American hero. The continued blind patriotism for a country that no longer exists gets tiring and it's impossible to buy into such an anti-government Montana mindset when everyone's so ruthlessly honest. Two centuries of frontier justice and the entire planet hasn't had a single corrupt politician. That's beyond unbelievable.
If the black and white morality of the book is a firm downside, the upside is the tone of Paen's progression through the ranks. She manages to get off a planet to which she feels no attachment just in time to get assigned back to it to help fight for it. The details of her rise are as well written as they are entirely predictable, but Bauers shines in the way he handles her response to it all. Promise has a lot of, well, promise; but her capabilities do not come at the cost of her modesty. In her fight for the RAW, she finds a connection to her home planet that she never knew she had and her story arc is handled very well. I look forward to its progression.
Bauers explores her struggle with patriotism a lot better than her struggle with romance, even though he handles the rest of her emotions with aplomb. She's a wonderful character for readers with a taste for the emotionality of honour, respect and duty. He especially nails this during the finale which is sure to make anyone proud of the accomplishments of his heroine, if not shed more tears per page than they would be comfortable admitting to.
Promise Paen is certainly the best thing about this book, which is a good thing because it and the series to follow is all about her. She lives up to her name, however she has as much luck on her side as drive and talent. Bauers handles the military side of things capably, if without any ambiguity at all. I'd like to see this grow with the series, but with a more realistic grounding. I'm sure that even in the 25th century, equipment should still be imperfect and people should be even more so.
In the middle ground is the way that Bauers takes a leaf out of George R R Martin's book by killing off almost everyone, even after we become attached to them. Unfortunately he seems to be inordinately fond of introducing them in detail first, so we start to pay less attention during his introductions because we start to expect all of them to be redshirts. There are more disposable named characters in this book than the whole of 'Star Trek' and we're carefully introduced to every last frickin' one of them.
This attention to detail that absolutely doesn't matter is the heart of the downside. Much of this should have been cut from the book, in favour of more military manoeuvering, political intrigue and character ambiguity. I applaud Bauers's attention to detail but wish that he'd have ditched a great deal of it in favour of believable complexity.
I can understand why reviews are all over the place for 'Unbreakable'. Many readers rave about a strong military science fiction novel with morals. Many bitch about how predictable and tedious it all is. I'm firmly in between, as I found a lot of material to enjoy here along with a lot more that just gets in the way of that enjoyment and veers it off into blah territory. In a way, I wish Bauers had written this first novel as a standalone, so that he could learn his lessons as a writer and move on to a strong series character like Promise Paen. He may find that this will, over time, become the awkward start to a better series. ~~ Hal C F Astell