Book review: In Fury Born by David Weber

In Fury Born has everything a fan of action science fiction could ask for.  A sprawling space opera.  Strong and personable characters.  Intense combat with set pieces that jump straight from the pages.  Emotionally charged aftermath that may be difficult to read at times.  If the book wasn’t so disjointed, and if it wasn’t for the titular Fury, this book would have easily been a modern classic.  As it stands, it is still a highly entertaining page-turner that I’d be re-reading in the future.

Alicia DeVries is a young woman with the potential to be exceedingly successful in the Imperial military.  That’s no wonder: her grandfather is the most highly decorated marine alive, and her parents offer a mix of personalities that helped to raise a confident and very mentally stable child.  Alley, as her friends and family call her, fulfills her potential by graduating near the top of her class, and is sent to a marine detachment on a planet in political turmoil.  Shortly after arriving, the capital is thrown into chaos as anti-government protests escalate into a full-blown rebellion, and her unit has to run the gauntlet to rescue the members of the government.

Her performance earns her an invitation to join the Imperial Cadre, a special forces unit, where she goes through far more rigorous training, before she is dispatched into a hostage situation.  Instead of the promised straightforward rescue, however, her platoon is massacred on arrival, with only few surviving soldiers led by her trying to stay alive and rescue the hostages.  At the end, they prevail, but out of hundreds of soldiers less than a dozen survive.  Every one of them is awarded high honors, with the Empire’s highest honor reserved for Alley.

Fast-forward a few years spent fighting with the Cadre, and Alley now leads her own platoon to a planet invaded by the Rishatans, a lizard-like species, who are ready to commit mass suicide rather than surrendering, taking most of the human population with them.  Alley had earned a degree in Rishatan psychology, though, and through clever tricks and selective fighting she manages to take the leader captive.  In the process, she even saves the leader’s honor, for which Alley is rewarded with the information that the intelligence officer responsible for overseeing the hostage rescue that left her unit massacred was an agent, working for the Rishatans.  He was tasked with destabilizing the Empire, by discrediting the Cadre’s capabilities.  Alley immediately arranges a meeting with the officer, where she beats him within an inch of his life, and only the timely arrival of his guards prevents her from killing him.  She is sparred court martial, but when she is told that the officer would be used as an intelligence source instead of being tried and shot, she considers it as treason against her dead comrades and resigns in disgust.

Fast-forward a few more years, and Allie with her family are tending a homestead on a newly colonized planet.  While she is out foraging, a pirate fleet attacks the planet and kills everyone they find.  One group is dispatched to Alley’s homestead, where they kill her entire family.  She comes back in time to slaughter them all but is grievously wounded in the fighting.  At the verge of dying, she hears a voice inside her head offering to help her avenge her family, at a price.  She agrees to give everything she has for the chance to strike back.

Alley is found a week later by a rescue party, even though she should have been long dead.  This sparks the interest of the Cadre, which dispatches a ship to retrieve her.  Meanwhile, Alley regains consciousness and slowly learns that a supernatural entity, the Greek mythical Fury named Tisiphone, has found a home in her head.  Tisiphone is capable of reading minds, and while Alley is recuperating, she is able to learn enough to become an expert hacker.  Together, they hatch a plan where Alley would pretend having mental problems, in order to be reassigned to a hospital near the sector capital, where they hope to learn more about the pirates.  Once there, however, Tisiphone forces Alley to escape and hijack an alpha synth, an overpowered single-occupant star fighter with an advanced AI, with which Alley has to mind-meld.

Alley names the AI Megarea, and along with Tisiphone the three start a slow ad arduous process of rising within ranks of less scrupulous traders, in order to gain intel on the pirates’ whereabouts.  With the help of Tisiphone’s mind reading abilities, Alley is able to make much faster progress than the Imperial special investigator Ben Belkassem, who finally gives up on his leads and instead shadows Alley.  Just before joining the final link in her chain of contacts, Alley is ambushed and Ben jumps to rescue her.  Alley still manages to learn the whereabouts of the pirate fleet, and together with Ben they secure the help of a fleet of independent mercenaries to battle the pirates.  Alley, who slowly slips into berserker-like madness and tries to avenge her family at the cost of her own life, must battle on two fronts: the pirates, but also to rescue herself, her mind and body.

The first thing to be aware of is that this book is actually a combination of two novels.  The entire storyline from the attack on Alley’s homestead onwards was published under the name Path of the Fury.  Weber returned to it fifteen years later to write a prequel, which explains Alley’s background and reasons for leaving the Cadre.  The difference between the two parts shows, and not in a good way.  Unlike many other readers, I found the prequel better.  It is more mature, dark and gritty, with excellently placed set pieces, great character motivations and superb emotional payoff.  The award ceremony after the hostage situation left me so emotional that I was choking up, and I could easily sympathize with Alley’s decision to try to kill the intelligence officer later on, and to throw her career away when she learns that his life would be spared.

The second, original part, is more of a high adventure, where the author cut corners wherever possible.  The motivations of the pirates seem unrealistic.  I’m not talking about the overall plan, which is actually suitable the space opera format, but the fact that thousands of them go willingly into high casualty combat with very little payoff.  Even their highest leaders don’t seem to value their lives highly enough to try to betray their employers in exchange for clemency.  However, the biggest sin in my opinion is Tisiphone.

A quarter of century after Path of the Fury, Craig Alanson published Columbus Day, the first book of the Expeditionary Force series, which is fairly highly regarded by aficionados of space opera and military science fiction.  There, an army of human soldiers is stranded in an increasingly dire situation on a foreign planet.  Just as things turn really bad, the protagonist finds a slightly unhinged but apparently omnipotent AI that spans multiverses, and with its help he is able to turn the situation around.  I hated this twist so much that I never picked up the second book in the series.  However, it has its value: it serves as a good educational example for a magical item, which turns the already capable protagonist into an unstoppable force of nature.  For me, this cheapens all the hard work the protagonist performed to this point.  This is the case, to a lesser degree, with Tisiphone.

Weber is very good at portraying strong characters who straddle the line between a plausible protagonist and Mary Sue.  Alley is a great example of that.  Her only powers are a very stable personality that doesn’t crack under pressure, and dogged determination.  Suddenly, here comes Tisiphone, who saves her from certain death, allows her to read minds and hacks any computer system for her.  She even defeats Megarea who initially resists Alley’s attempts to take her over, and Megarea then proves to be just as capable a help for Alley as Tisiphone.  In my view, this set Alley firmly in a Mary Sue territory.  Weber has been trying to introduce some tension with Alley’s madness, against which even her two additional personalities struggle to fight, but it was too little too late.

Still, I truly enjoyed the book.  The first part features some of the grittiest combat I’ve read in a long time, with two very different battles.  The first showcases the technological and tactical superiority of the Imperial Marines, where they are able to slice through insurgents with very little trouble.  The second thus comes as a shock, when the even more superior Cadre soldiers are mowed down in seconds.  Weber does an excellent job keeping the battle realistic and concludes with a hard-earned but plausible victory.  The set pieces are so gripping that I refused to put the book down until they were over.  Then comes the award ceremony where all the dead are honored, and the few survivors awarded high honors.  I read this while eating my lunch (sorry, mom, I know you taught me not to read while eating).  There, I had to put the book down because I choked up so hard, I could not swallow anymore.  Very few other books had the same effect on me.

The second part is a completely different beast.  Despite the tragedy at the beginning, it’s much more lighthearted, and more about adventure than action.  The fact that Alley is on her own, and the explicit linearity of her quest, completely changes the character of the story.  Together, the two parts clock at nearly 600 pages, and the easy-going second part makes this much more manageable.  Instead of being bogged down, the story seems to pick up speed and fresh energy.  This is not usual for books of this size, and it is a very welcome feature.

Other aspects of this book are well crafted as well.  Alley has plausible and quite deep character development.  Secondary characters all show just the right amount of depth, and unlike some other authors, Weber does not linger on their back stories if they are not pertinent to the plot.  This allows him to cycle through an impressively large cast, without expanding the novel by a few hundred pages, while still presenting believable motivations for the actions of most characters.  I wish some people had more distinct voices when talking, but there’s only so much one can do when the number of people who get something to say is so large.

Ultimately, this book offers some great light reading.  The story is very linear, there are no deep philosophical or moral implications, and it doesn’t even offer any kind of redemption arc.  One can fully enjoy the action, set pieces and well-flowing writing style of the author.  I personally enjoyed the book so much that I believe I’ll return to it in the future or recommend it to my kids when they reach mid-teens.  I was surprised at how quickly I finished it, given its size.  If you are looking for something straight-forward and entertaining, but also to jiggle your emotions a little, I can fully recommend In Fury Born.

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