Book Review: The Ship Avenged by S.M. Stirling
As many an after school special has taught us, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
But what about the author photo on the inside of the cover?
I really shouldn’t throw stones, being an awkward nerd myself (which reminds me, I could use a haircut). But on the other hand, I will never pass up an opportunity to post that S.M. Stirling photo, ’cause it’s freaking hilarious. It’s his ‘my book about spaceships and lasers is serious business’ expression that gets me more than anything.
But I guess we should actually talk about the Stirling book I read, huh?
The Ship Avenged is the sequel to The City Who Fought, a novel Stirling co-wrote with famed author Anne McCaffrey. I reviewed The City Who Fought awhile ago, and found it to be a rather … interesting book. Namely, while a lot of the action and sci-fi stuff was well done, the relationships and interactions between the characters were pretty cringeworthy. And that’s before you get into the rapey Nazi Space Pirate Drow antagonists.
Now, the interesting thing is, The Ship Avenged was written by Stirling alone. One of the biggest questions I asked about The City Who Fought was which author wrote which sections. So I figured reading The Ship Avenged might provide some clues to that. Which it did! Just not nearly in the way I expected.
The Ship Avenged centers on the scrappy-kid character from The City Who Fought, only she’s ten years older now and has her own spaceship for space opera adventures. It’s also worth noting that said protagonist is named Joat– an acronym for “Jack of All Trades.” Why she didn’t just call herself Jack, I couldn’t say. In any case, I guess Joat was Stirling’s favorite character from The City Who Fought, because the rest of the earlier book’s cast are mentioned only a couple of times, and don’t get any screen time of their own.
Instead, Joat gets caught up with some dude named Bros Sperin, who is like Space James Bond or something? He might’ve been mentioned in the earlier book but I don’t remember him. Anyway, Sperin ‘recruits’ (read: blackmails) Joat to go do some spy stuff for him on a space-pirate planet, which is honestly making it sound a bit cooler than it comes off. Oh, and Joat gets sent to scope out a space-mobster who coincidentally happens to be the evil uncle who sold her into slavery when she was seven. Oops.
Meanwhile, there’s also some business about the vengeful Space Nazi Drow Pirate bad guys from the first novel developing a weird biological weapon to use against the good guy planets. Of course, this plan fails terribly because the good guys also have an alien scientist named Seg on their side. Seg’s been studying the biological weapon on their side, and so he promptly immunizes everyone before bad stuff can happen. Plot-convenient as this is, Seg turned out to be my favorite character in the book. He’s a literally four-eyed alien nerd who invites himself along on Bros Sperin’s mission because he’s read too many spy novels. Fun stuff!
In any case, there are a lot of differences between The Ship Avenged and The City Who Fought. For one, the whole brain/brawn gimmick in which a terminally ill person is hooked up to a computer network to run a ship or a space station with the help of a physically capable ‘brawn’ assistant is completely absent. There’s a little business with Joat and her ship’s fussy AI, but that’s pretty standard sci-fi stuff.
What was most surprising was the fact that The Ship Avenged was a lot less problematic than The City Who Fought. I mean, sure, there’s some vaguely iffy stuff in that older men keep hitting on Joat, and the Nazi Space Pirate Drow themselves are all kinds of weird. Because not only are they dark-skinned and inherently violent, but they also breed faster than ‘normal’ humans, and … yeeeah. But they don’t actually rape anybody over the course of the book, so that’s something? (A low bar, I know). In fact, there’s a sub-plot in which the nicest of the Space Drow and one of his prisoners fall in love and escape from the Bad Guy fleet. This … is covered in all of about two chapters. It’s just ‘oh hey I don’t want to torture-murder you’ in one chapter, and then, after about a hundred pages of Joat tooling around space, we return to Bad Guy fleet where they’re like ‘we are so in love! Let’s run away!’
This romantic subplot (or lack therof) is indicative of The Ship Avenged as a whole. The book comes off as undercooked– it reads like Stirling’s not sure if he wants to write a swashbuckling space opera, a star-crossed romance, or a taut space-espionage thriller.
The Ship Avenged is a middling-to-decent sci-fi adventure, but I’m still glad I read it. Seeing as of how the book is devoid of its prequel’s weirdo “Nice Guy” relationship dynamics, I presume that some of The City Who Fought‘s most questionable elements were from McCaffrey, and not Stirling. It’s certainly the opposite of my hypothesis when I started reading the book, and something I’m gonna have to keep in mind the next time I get the urge to read a Pern novel or something.