Review: 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies

The Ring Of Fire books are a mixed bag. Sharecropped by many authors, ringmastered by Eric Flint, they range from plodding historical soap opera to sharp, clever entertainments full of crunchy geeky goodness for aficionados of military and technological history.

When Flint’s name is on the book you can generally expect the good stuff. So it proves in the latest outing, 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, a fun ride that’s (among other things) an affectionate tribute to C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels and age-of-sail adventure fiction in general. (Scrupulously I note that I’m personally friendly with Flint, but this is exactly because he’s good at writing books I like.)

It is 1636 in the shook-up timeline birthed by the town of Grantville’s translocation to the Thuringia of 1632. Eddie Cantrell is a former teenage D&D player from uptime who became a peg-legged hero of the Baltic War and then husband of the not-quite-princess Ann-Catherine of Denmark. Now the United States of Europe is sending him to the Caribbean with an expeditionary force, Flotilla X-Ray, to seize the island of Trinidad from the Spanish and harvest oil desperately needed by Grantville’s industry.

But it’s not a simple military mission. There are tensions among the factions in the allied fleet – the United States of Europe, the Danes, the Dutch, and a breakaway Spanish faction in the Netherlands. And the Wild Geese – exiled Irish mercenaries under the charismatic Earl Tyrconnell – have their own agenda. Cardinal Richelieu’s agents are maneuvering against the whole enterprise. And as the game opens, nobody in the fleet knows about the desperate, hidden Dutch refugee colony on Eustatia…

If the book has a fault, it’s that authors Flint and Gannon love their intricate wheels-within-wheels plotting and elaborate political intrigue a little bit too much. It’s fun to watch those gears turning for a while, but even readers who (like me) relish that sort of thing may find themselves getting impatient for stuff to start blowing up already by thirty chapters in.

No fear, we do get our rousing sea battles. With novel twists, because the mix of Grantville’s uptime technology with the native techniques of the 1600s takes tactics in some strange directions. I particularly chuckled at the descriptions of captive hot-air balloons being used as ship-launched observation platforms, a workable expedient never tried in our history. As usual, Flint (a former master machinist) writes with a keen sense of how applied technology works – and, too often, fails.

If some of the character developments and romantic pairings are maybe a little too easy to see coming, well, nobody reads fiction like this for psychological depth or surprise. It’s a solid installment in the ongoing series. Oh, and with pirates too. Arrr. I’ll read the next one.

24 thoughts on “Review: 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies

  1. > If some of the character developments and romantic pairings are maybe a little too easy to see coming, well, nobody reads fiction like this for psychological depth or surprise

    Um, I have to disagree here, if mildly. It’s quite disappointing to me that we see so little focus on character development in this kind of fantasy fiction. It makes the writing feel quite flat and unrealistic, especially to more sophisticated readers.

    IMHO, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter fanfic Methods of Rationality is a surprisingly good model here. Due to the work’s instructional focus on rationality practices, the characters’ thinking processes, patterns and yes, inner conflicts are quite often at the forefront – and many significant decisions are seen to ‘gel into shape’ in a way that makes it easy for the reader to accept them. It’s something that’s not seen very often, especially in S-F where world-building and plot seem to get a lot more attention. Yes, these things are important, but should they be _everything_?

  2. There are precious few books that my roommate and I share, The 1632 series are among them. We wait for the paperbacks come out, so we just finished The Papal Stakes not long ago, and we keep coming back for more.

    Please, please, please tell me that Eddie Cantrell doesn’t succumb to Hornblower-class whiny, or else I’ll have to grab him by the throat and slap him into next week…

  3. >Please, please, please tell me that Eddie Cantrell doesn’t succumb to Hornblower-class whiny, or else I’ll have to grab him by the throat and slap him into next week…

    He doesn’t.

  4. I do find it amusing that you and Eric Flint get along so well, despite his blatant union-driven leftism…though he does do a good job of not letting it influence his writing very much.

  5. >I do find it amusing that you and Eric Flint get along so well, despite his blatant union-driven leftism…though he does do a good job of not letting it influence his writing very much.

    Eric is weird that way. Talks about being a Marxist, but thinks and writes more like a libertarian than a million Gramscian-damage cases who would sincerely deny being Marxists if you asked them.

  6. I particularly chuckled at the descriptions of captive hot-air balloons being used as ship-launched observation platforms, a workable expedient never tried in our history.

    Probably because you’re overestimating the workability. Raising and lowering the balloon without getting it fouled in the rigging would be a non-trivial problem. Then there’s what the balloon’s sail area would do to the ship’s handling if it got to a layer with a significantly different wind direction or speed. Plus the fatigue loads on the handling equipment due to the ship’s motion in the water. And let’s not forget the risks associated with building a fire large enough to raise a balloon on the deck of a wooden ship with natural fiber ropes everywhere, the whole thing covered in pitch and tar and stuffed with gunpowder.

  7. >I am formally calling for the return of Raymond’s Reviews.

    You may get your wish. Go look at netgalley.com; I signed up, and put in my profile that I have over 20K blog and G+ followers. All but one of my requests were approved within hours.

  8. > Eric is weird that way. Talks about being a Marxist, but thinks and writes more like a libertarian than a million Gramscian-damage cases who would sincerely deny being Marxists if you asked them.

    I thought the point of inflicting Gramscian damage wasn’t to convert the victims into Marxists, but to convert the victims into decadant and weakened non-Marxists, with real Marxists needing to avoid being infected themselves by the weaponized memes they spread. So of course if Eric Flint won’t much resemble a Gramscian-damage case if he’s a real Marxist. Or even if he’s a lapsed or non-observant Marxist who has mananged to avoid the infection.

  9. >I thought the point of inflicting Gramscian damage wasn’t to convert the victims into Marxists, but to convert the victims into decadant and weakened non-Marxists

    The Soviets took that if they could get it, but they tried even harder to subvert Western culture into turning out people who had internalized their propaganda memes without realizing they were regurgitating Marxist (and nihilist!) ideology. They succeeded far too well. The entire left wing of American politics since the early 1970s is witness to that.

  10. I guess I need to restart 1632 and read through the series. I kind of lost interest somewhere around the Bavarian Crisis. Part of the problem is that the number of characters and areas of the world that they are involved in has got so big I can’t actually remember who did what when where and to whom 5 books ago.

    There’s a similar problem with the Honorverse but it hasn’t got quite so bad.

    (Disclosure – I actually wrote a couple bits for the Grantville Gazette)

  11. >Part of the problem is that the number of characters and areas of the world that they are involved in has got so big I can’t actually remember who did what when where and to whom 5 books ago.

    That’s a significant problem, yes. I’ve given up on trying to follow it all.

  12. .>Probably because you’re overestimating the workability

    The British had catamarans long enough to make Hobson-Jobson. Put a catamaran packed with black powder under a hot-air balloon, aim downwind, crew with sailors who made Napoleonic fireships work – might still fail, but so did a lot of fireships. JFK’s smarter older brother was killed trying the WWII equivalent, but he knew it was a ‘death or glory’ mission. So did Admiral Cockburn.

    I’m more a David Drake fan.

  13. For those who find the pacing in Eric’s Ring of Fire novels a bit tedious, I suggest giving his collaborations with Dave Freer a try. The Rats, The Bats, and The Ugly would be a good choice, but go pee before starting.

  14. I am surprised that we got a book review (even if for a Flint book) rather than commentary on perhaps the one of the more significant failures of open source in recent memory. Especially given that the “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” quote is mentioned even on WaPo.

    “Open-source advocates often claim that their work, as opposed to software produced by private companies such as Microsoft, has fewer problems, because of the inherent transparency of the process. The belief is captured in a saying popular among the community: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” — meaning flaws are not terribly serious and are quickly fixed.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/heartbleed-bug-puts-the-chaotic-nature-of-the-internet-under-the-magnifying-glass/2014/04/09/00f7064c-c00b-11e3-bcec-b71ee10e9bc3_story.html

    To say that some open source opponents are gleefully crowing is only mild exaggeration.

    The OpenSSL foundation got a measly 2K in donations and has (according to the article anyway, I didn’t bother to check on Ohloh) a dozen or so active committers. Given the importance of that project that’s rather meager.

    Theo, predictably, is not overly amused and has made a few scathing remarks.

    All that said, I’m a big fan of Flint and the 1632 series. I wish he had kept the 1812 series going as well. I can’t recall, did he say that was done or that he’d someday revisit it?

  15. I’m more a David Drake fan.

    Between Drake, Weber, Flint and Ringo I rarely have time for new SF authors given how prolific they are. Unless they co-author with someone…

  16. > rather than commentary on perhaps the one of the more significant failures of open source in recent memory.

    I actually answered this one in my Slashdot AMA weeks before the Heartbleed story broke. The rejoinder is pretty obvious.

    But perhaps I’ll write something about it for the slow-witted.

  17. fewer problems

    As opposed to, say, the NSA paying your vendor $10 million to insert backdoors.

  18. Not hot air but it seems to me the U-boats tried some odd things to get eyeballs in the air – maybe balloons at one time or another?

  19. I’m personally friendly with Flint

    I see the Eric Conspiracy is alive and well.

  20. Re the German U-boats; They had towed gyrocopters, similar to the unpowered Benson gyrocopters, that could be folded up and stowed when not in use.
    For use with a sailing vessel, I’d go with kites rather than balloons. I believe manned kites were used for observation somewhere in the late 1800s by a guy named Cody.

  21. meaning flaws are not terribly serious and are quickly fixed.”

    Isn’t this a misrepresentation? I thought Linus’s Law meant that serious bugs had a better chance of being fixed when source code is available, but it’s not a magic wand that promises a quick fix to all bugs, especially the serious ones.

  22. Enjoyed Commander Cantrell, but the first thing I would do if I were him is ask for a searchlight for the steamships. Even in the dark, they could hit what they could see. Surely there are some leftover truck headlights?

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