Books Considered: Recovery Man, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch; Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik
Recovery Man is the latest -- sixth novel (plus at least one shorter work) -- of Kristine Kathryn Rusch's long series of Retrieval Artist novels. These feature a Retrieval Artist named Miles Flint who works on the Moon. Humans are part of a loose alliance with various alien races. One agreement humans have signed on to as part of that alliance is that when in alien territory humans are subject to alien laws. The problem is, these laws can be absurdly draconian. Or, perhaps, appropriate to alien species, psychologies, and physiologies, but stupid when applied to humans. Much of the tension of the stories in the series comes from seeing humans subject to harsh and, by any reasonable (and human, but so what) evaluation, unfair punishment due to these alien laws. In response, many humans "Disappear" -- take on new identities. Retrieval Artists are the most overtly ethical of a variety of people who find those who have "Disappeared". In their case, these people are found for their own good -- perhaps they are no longer wanted by the aliens concerned, or perhaps they have come into a big inheritance or something.
These books have been slowly edging in the direction actively confronting this rather horrid situation. One of the problems I've had with past books is that there has not been enough acknowledgement that these rules are a problem. Another is that the books mostly display (not unreasonably) the most ridiculous alien laws -- presumably in many cases humans who violate alien laws are guilty and deserve punishment -- and the punishment they get is appropriate. But as displayed in the books, the aliens collectively are batshit crazy, and the proper response of humanity would be to have nothing to do with them. To be fair, this can be seen as a response to seeing a Retrieval Artist's cases -- which might naturally gravitate towards the (presumably few) extreme situations.
(My other problems with the series' underpinnings are twofold. Economics, for one: I can't make myself believe that the Retrieval Artist business would be quite as thriving and lucrative as portrayed. Science, for two: the details of such things as solar system travel are not well-handled -- jaunts to the outer planets are about as hard as getting in your car and travelling to Florida from St. Louis.)
As hinted above, I have had issues with most of the previous books in the series. But I keep reading. Why? Well, Rusch is an engaging writer -- the books are fast and involving reads. Miles Flint and the various other characters we meet (notably Lunar security chief Noelle De Ricci and ambitious and ethically challenged newswoman Ki Bowles) are fairly interesting to follow.
Recovery Man is a bit different from the earlier volumes. For one things, it is not primarily set on the Moon. For another thing, Noelle De Ricci and Ki Bowles are for the most part absent -- this book focuses on Miles, and on a couple of new characters. These are Rhonda Shindo and her 13 year old daughter Talia. They live on Jupiter's moon Callisto. Rhonda is kidnapped by a "recovery man", while Talia is left locked in their house. It appears that Rhonda is wanted by an alien species, the Gyonnese, for a heinous crime. The thing is, they don't really want Rhonda -- they want her child. But, the Gyonnese being aliens, not just any old child will do. It has to be a "real" child -- and Talia, we learn, is a clone. The Gyonnese believe that Rhonda has hidden her real child, and that clones like Talia are a diversion tactic. So a "recovery man" (a sort of unethical inverse retrieval artist) is bringing her to the Gyonnese, who hope to learn from her the location of her real child.
Meanwhile, back on the Moon, Miles Flint is learning some disturbing secrets about his own past: secrets hidden in the files of his mentor Paloma. We already knew that Miles' career as a Retrieval Artist, and before that a policeman, is in part a reaction to the death of his young daughter due to the negligence of a day care worker. We also know that the stress of this loss broke up his marriage. Well, his wife's name was -- Rhonda. Indeed, she is Rhonda Shindo, and begins to seem that there is a mystery about their daughter's death ... perhaps tied to Rhonda's past, especially to her dealings with the Gyonnese.
So the three strands followed involve Rhonda's struggles with her kidnappers; Talia's difficulties after being abandoned in a company town, and her taking control of her own life and legal case; and Miles's search for better understanding of Rhonda and their child. The central mystery, really, is "What did Rhonda Shindo do?" But this book turns out to be more of an adventure, less of a straight mystery. And it certainly leads us in the direction of greater understanding of Miles's past, and also greater understanding of the tangled mess humans and aliens have mutually made of their relations. As such, it's a pretty positive development in this series of books. I rather enjoyed it, on the whole.
Finally we get book four in Naomi Novik's extremely fun Temeraire series. One shouldn't complain -- the first three books came out in such quick succession that I got spoiled, and waiting a more typical year for subsequent books is going to be difficult. But there you go. At any rate, for those who haven't read the books so far, these are stories of an alternate fantastical history, with dragons. They are set during the Napoleonic Wars. The main human character is William Laurence, a successful Naval captain who becomes bonded to a new dragon, named Temeraire, captured from the French, and who is then, of necessity, transferred to the Aerial Corps, which consists of dragons and their crews, who act as a sort of air force. Through the first three books Temeraire and Laurence are introduced to their new positions; learn of Temeraire's special ancestry -- he is a Chinese Celestial dragon -- and his special powers -- instead of breathing fire he can create a pressure wave and knock down opponents; travel to China and make an enemy of another Celestial; return by land and recruit some feral Russian or Turkish dragons; and become tentatively involved in the cause of dragon rights.
Empire of Ivory opens with Temeraire and Captain Laurence and their new band of recruited feral dragons struggling back to England after their doomed attempt to save Prussia from Napoleon. Their reception is curiously quiet and almost insulting, but they soon learn why. The dragons in England have been struck by a deadly disease, and those who have been exposed are slowly dying.
Eventually people realize that Temeraire, despite getting exposed to the disease, doesn't get sick. They jump to the fortunate conclusion that something Temeraire happened to eat on his long journey to China conferred immunity on him. (I thought this leap of logic -- however correct it turns out to be -- a bit of a stretch.) So Temeraire, along with a few valuable dragons who are well enough to travel, gets back on board a dragon transport, and heads to Africa to try to figure what it was he ate.
Of course they find a cure -- it wouldn't be much of a series if they didn't -- but the real interest of the book comes from what else they learn in Africa. Captain Laurence is already a confirmed abolitionist, which causes a severe rift between he and his former lieutenant, now captain of the transport. And Laurence is further disgusted by the treatment of blacks at Cape Town, where he looks for the cure as well as dropping off a missionary couple, both freed slaves. But in the interior they find -- or are found by -- something very interesting indeed -- an advanced African civilization, ruled in great part by dragons. And these people are understandably in no mood to tolerate slavers -- or anyone associated, however tenuously, with slavers.
It was already somewhat clear that Novik's Napoleonic Wars were taking a different path than those in our history, and events in this book suggest that the divergences could be radical indeed. And, in fact, the book closes -- on a cliffhanger! -- with a dramatic decision by Captain Laurence, back in the UK, which certainly bodes well for fascinating future volumes. (I understand two more are planned.)