Review: Valiant Dust (Breaker of Empires, book 1), Richard Baker


Richard Baker’s Valiant Dust has some good points, and some legitimately tense scenes, but it stumbles with its sideplot and some strange choices.

Valiant Dust is supposed to kick off a new series from Richard Baker and Tor, who sent the book my way, and in the sense that it definitely leaves things open for a second book and beyond while being a pretty enjoyable dose of military science fiction, it succeeds. It’s tense, involves an honest-to-goodness space battle and keeps things pretty short.

The rough outline is this: Sikander Singh North has just started a stint aboard the Aquilan space navy ship CSS Hector, only to find himself going to Gadira with the rest of the crew and the ship to discover that what seems like a simple “planetary uprising” (as described on the book’s dust jacket) is not so simple.

It just seems a little strange that although Sikander is quite fascinating, the system he’s from, Kashmir — and the system at the heart of the main plot, Gadira — are both presented as “backwater” systems because they’ve lost contact with other colonized planets, and take nods from India and the Middle East, respectively. Technologically speaking, they’re behind.

And while Baker makes attempts to say that despite not having the technology, the peoples and civilizations are valid and have important contributions to make (and they do — Sikander is the hero, and his love interest is the heiress to the sultanate of Gadira), it’s made stranger by the fact that the main powers are called Dremark, Aquila and Montréal. It almost feels as though Baker is trying to make a greater point about colonialism but doesn’t necessarily get to where he’s going. Perhaps that’s for a later book.

This is not to say that some other parts of Valiant Dust aren’t satisfying to read. Sikander gets a chance to take some reckless actions that mark a pretty traditional hero, which is itself a good thing. And, as I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of action scenes. It’s here that Baker’s prose does best. In quieter scenes, his tendency to often default to flat-out telling us how things work or describing technology in detail didn’t always click with me as a reader.

What — or perhaps I should say who — did click with me was Ranya, the heiress previously mentioned. Even despite the vaguely out-of-nowhere romance plot showing up (and it did show up), Ranya doesn’t turn into a completely useless character once it does. Was it unnecessary? Absolutely, though it does end up working its way into the main plot for some convenience of character placement. But then again, don’t a lot of action films have a love interest? At least Ranya has something of a personality of her own — and that’s aided by her having point-of-view chapters.

It’s a shame Elise Markham, captain of the Hector, doesn’t get the same, but she does get some atypical fleshing out that Baker points out that he’s doing through the eyes of Sikander. So, it’s a bit like one step forward, one step back.

Next: Review: Steal the Stars, Nat Cassidy

The whole book, come to think of it, feels that way. It could be more than it is, but it just seems a little too surface-level. Do the scenes of combat read extremely well? Yes, they do. Do some of the characters have great personalities? Yes, they do. Does this book necessarily have something interesting to add to a conversation about colonialism? …The strongest answer this reader can give is a solid maybe it will next time, and I doubt that that’s the answer that I’m supposed to be giving.