When David Weber puts a book in your hands and tells you to read it, you do, and so here is my book report on my recent ARC of Valiant Dust by Richard Baker.
In Valiant Dust, Sikander Singh North is an aristocrat-turned-soldier, off to begin his first mission on the Aquilan Commonwealth starship CSS Hector. Sikander himself is not wholly Aquilan; rather, he is from Kashmir, a colonial possession of Aquila that, while economically valuable, does not yet have the technology to construct its own fleet of interstellar warships, and so he serves there to learn how he might better serve his home. As he does so, though, he’s in for a bumpy ride. For CSS Hector has been sent to the planet of Gadira II, where tensions between the ruling sultanate and the rebel caidists have long been mounting on the planet, and where forces that aren’t supposed to be there have suddenly appeared in orbit…
Valiant Dust is easily one of the best pieces of military sci-fi I’ve read this year. Its fast pace and its complex, yet efficiently characterized cast make it a fun read, while its streamlined descriptions of far-future ship tech make it accessible. If you’re a reader who has been wanting to try military sci-fi but has been daunted by the overwhelming techno- and military-babble that is so common in the genre, Valiant Dust presents an excellent starting point.
Those praises (and David’s recommendation) aside, I have to admit that the cultures involved were what grabbed my attention most. Sikander hails from an Indian-descended planet, while Gadira II is Arabic-descended and Islamic-influenced. The ruling powers of Gadira are liberal enough to be okay, if uneasy, about a princess taking an active interest in military affairs, while the citizenry is variably conservative – though not, it should be noted, necessarily terroristic, except where the story’s rebellion is concerned. And even then the rebellion is not religiously-based, but rather rooted in citizen concerns that their rulers are making deals with offworld powers that will benefit the elite, not the common people – or that will eventually benefit the offworlders exclusively, leaving Gadira an exploited, ruined planet. The only actual terrorism in the book takes place in Sikander’s past, where he loses much of his family and innocence in a politically-motivated attack. The circumstances surrounding that tragedy – expressed in well-placed flashbacks throughout the book – give Sikander an emotional tie to the aforementioned Gadiran princess (that is, Amira) Ranya Meriem el-Nasir, who lost her parents in a similar manner. (Ranya herself is one of the most engaging characters in the novel. Though a small romance blooms between her and Sikander, it takes a backseat to her whip-smart attention to political details and her consequent involvement in the uprisings that eventually take place. She became one of my favorite characters as soon as she appeared in the book.)
I don’t know enough about the intricacies of Indian or Arabic cultures to comment upon how accurate the depictions are – and really, given that the novel is set so far in the future (implying plenty of time for cultural change) the point is moot. However, given that the vast majority of sci-fi and fantasy involves Western-inspired cultures, the fact that this novel puts non-Western cultures front and center in a respectful, detailed, effortless, timeless way makes it an instant gem. I mention the last detail in particular because while this is a novel made up of currently-contentious puzzle pieces – namely complexities surrounding Islam and capitalist/imperialist exploitation – those pieces are handled in such a way that readers will be able to pick up this book 50+ years from now and still be able to find some meaning in it. It doesn’t try to provide obvious commentary on any of its components, which in turn makes it one of the more accidentally-engaging political reads I’ve ever read.
All that said, though, this book isn’t trying to be an Important Political Book. What it’s trying to be is a hecka fun military sci-fi action book that just happens to have political complexities at its center. The food for thought is there if you look for it, but it’s still a great read even if all you want out of it is explosions.
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