A Call to Duty (Book 1 of Manticore Ascendant) by David Weber and Timothy Zahn
A Call to Duty – Book Review
Written by: David Weber and Timothy Zahn
Published by: Baen
Book 1 of Manticore Ascendant. Seeking structure in his life, Travis Uriah enlisted in the Royal Manticoran Navy, only to find out Parliament has other plans for the future of the economically-starved Star Kingdom.
DUTY CALLS, AND IS PATCHED THROUGH TO THE AUTOMATED PHONE MENU.
Travis Uriah Long joins the Manticoran navy on a sudden impulse; almost on a whim. He is a young man seeking order, yet as he progresses through boot camp and to his first post, he quickly finds that there’s a huge practical gulf between the disciplined and rigorous military life he’d been expecting and the corner-cutting, at times ramshackle operation of a spacefaring force in decline. It is impossible to follow the rules, dangerous not to, and when political wrangling sends the privilege-ridden, under-prepared navy blasting off towards disaster, perhaps only a straight-laced pariah like Travis Long can hope to save the bedraggled pride of Manticore.
A Call to Duty is set within David Weber’s ‘Honorverse’, where socio-political-cum-military science fiction is attended to with a trainspotter’s rigour and a crisp salute to the minutiae of the future. By and large, it is a self-contained book (the first in what shapes as being an autonomous series), but although the reader requires no prior knowledge when embarking upon this collaboration between David Weber and Timothy Zahn, nonetheless the novel has been tailored to meet the expectations of an existing fan base. Beyond the usual attention to detail, there is an exacting focus on technical and procedural elements, which Zahn fans might find excessive. Characterization, on the other hand, seems almost inversely proportional, and of all the (nigh interchangeable) navy personnel only the anally retentive Long — surely something of a backhanded compliment to the Honorverse faithful? — manages to put more than a hairline crack through the mould. Even in his case, the salient dots are joined early in the piece, and the rest of the book sees merely the same picture framed over and over again in ever-so-slightly different ways. It’s a bit like loading up the projector and watching Sisyphus’ holiday slides.
Without the protagonists offering much of interest, all hope must lie in the plot, which sadly proves to be an over-long build-up to not very much. One can imagine that, back in the day, the incongruous travails of Travis Long might have made for an engaging SF novella, but at a tad under 400 pages the ‘competent stickler at odds with an ailing, hidebound bureaucracy’ story becomes lost within a stygian murk of punt designs and ferrying protocols. The effect is not quite stultifying — indeed, by the third act the ‘space piracy on the high seas’ aspect has garnered sufficient momentum to qualify A Call to Duty as a slow page-turner — yet by novel’s end when readers at last close covers on their investment, it seems more likely they’ll feel inadequately repaid than in the mood to count lucky stars and speculate further in the Manticore Ascendant series. One unimpeachable facet of Weber and Zahn’s scenario is their depiction of the Manticoran navy as a space-bound white elephant, the scrapyard realities of which are a far, mournful trumpet from the effortlessly rich and glitzy future so frequently shown in more fanciful tales and on the big screen, where trillion dollar hardware is flung about like so much laser-heated popcorn and blown up by the bucket load. The concept of government factions squabbling over the planet’s ragtag fleet and frittering away what remains of the space programme will resonate with anybody who’s ever felt the inexorable dread pull of black hole officialdom at work. The realism in this instance is gratifying… just not sufficiently so as to annul the preponderance of brass tacks elsewhere.
The cover of A Call to Duty is a throwback to rousing, derring-do space opera. The call itself evokes more the long, slow toll of a bell, the intricate workings of which will be of limited interest to those with no background in acoustic engineering. Weber and Zahn may not have produced a clanger, but nor has their burgeoning co-authorship heralded any great victory.
Reviewed by Jacob Edwards
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#1 New York Times best-selling author Timothy Zahn. Growing up, Travis Uriah Long yearned for order in his life . . . some things his neglectful mother couldn’t or wouldn’t provide. So when Travis enlisted in the Royal Manticoran Navy, he thought he’d finally found the structure he’d always wanted so desperately. But life in the RMN isn’t exactly what he expected. Boot camp is rough and frustrating; his first ship assignment lax and disorderly; and with the Star Kingdom of Manticore still recovering from a devastating plague, the Navy is possibly on the edge of budgetary extinction.