A Call to Duty

A Call to Duty - David Weber, Timothy Zahn

(I got an ARC courtesy of NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)

Let's not dwell for too long on the cover, which is definitely a reminder of older SF books design, but didn't do much for me. (To be faire, I got my share of gorgeous covers hiding stupid novels, though. So I assumed that the contrary might be true as well.)

I must also say that I never read any of the Honor Harrington novels; as a result, I can't say if it's true to the Honorverse or not, and can't compare it to other similar works by those authors. I went into this one not even knowing what I was going into, except that "it seems to be military sci-fi, and I kind of feel like reading this genre at the moment." Especially since the blurb depicted a somewhat decadent Navy, and that such settings are always ripe for a lot of themes I tend to appreciate.

Travis Long is a young man, even a teenager, whose family doesn't pay much attention to: his half-brother Gavin is a Lord, and his mother is busy with her work. On a whim, he decides to join the Royal Manticoran Navy, both craving for a discipline he was never subjected to and for a place to be after a stunt that almost went wrong for him. To be honest, I'm still not sure about his motivations: I would've liked to see his family problems depicted a little more deeply, perhaps, or to be given more details, because as it is, it seemed just a little "woe is me". Fortunately, this doesn't last for long, and Travis doesn't dwell on it for the whole novel; we only get a little reminder a couple of times. The character tends to be a rule-stickler, which fits as an echo of what he craved. On the other hand, it holds good potential for inner conflict: he sticks to rules, but has a natural tendency to think outside the box, and while the latter helps in tense situations, at some point, I can envision both aspects of his personality getting pitched against each other. Although Travis isn't a terribly likeable young man in the beginning, there's definitely room for development here. He didn't strike me as a character who would forever remain the same.

The novel focuses on two major themes: Travis's life in the Navy (as well as the problems that it has to face later—not going to spoil), and the game of politics that runs behind the scenes. The Manticore system is an interesting enough setting: a kingdom actually born from what used to be a corporation, Manticore Ltd. (I have no idea how the Board ever came to decide going monarchical was a good idea, but why not. This is also one of those aspects I would've want to learn more about. However, as I said, I don't know the Honorverse, and perhaps this is explained in another book. I still wish there had been more of an explanation here, for readers like me.) In a way, it reminded me a little of parliamentarian monarchies like the UK's, with a king—and even a former ruler named "Queen Elizabeth"—who holds decisional power... but not so much that he can afford to disregard Parliament's pressures.

In the novel, the political intrigue runs mostly around the conundrum of "what to do with a Navy that has never known a war, and whose last round of battles was against some pirates, one century ago?" Gavin Winterfall, Travis's half-brother, plays a minor role in this, but one that might expand in the next novel, perhaps, because he turned out to be more intrigue-savvy than his own allies thought at first. As for the RMN itself, its own people sometimes question their place, wondering if what they do is so useful, and if they'll be ready the day a real war looms.

The story itself was quite entertaining, though a little heavy-handed on technical and military terms; I could adapt to those, and I enjoyed the atmosphere they created, but they might be a problem for readers who're not keen on them. The dialogues made me feel like I was really on a spaceship, with operations going on following a given protocol. I also enjoyed how Travis manages to play an important part, thanks to his ideas, yet isn't the one who completely saves the day all the time (he's only enlisted, not a captain or another officer, and his being THE saviour who does everything wouldn't have fit in my opinion). Even the way he gets rewarded reflects how Navy personnel has to traipse around potential political mishaps.

I'm not exactly fond of the ending, though. It seemed kind of... predictable to me.

The novel has its flaws, and I wouldn't consider it as excellent, but as a beginning to a series, I think it sets the stage for a lot of potentially interesting developments, and I certainly wouldn't mind reading the next installment.