The Myriad (Tour of the Merrimack #1) by R.M. Meluch. Originally published by DAW in 2005. Approx. 310 pages (hardcover).
A few years back, I was intrigued by the cover of a book called "The Sagittarius Command" by R.M. Meluch (I was not familiar with her books at the time). I realized that it was the third book in the series, but going back, the cover of the first book kind of put me off from starting the series (puerile as it may be, I will admit that a cover will often make or break my purchase. Isn't that what it's there for?). Fast forward to now, and I did a search of my local library system for book one. Figuring that I can't go wrong reading a book with a bad cover as a loaner, I dove right in.
Suffice to say, it has been a unique journey. The Myriad is one of the most original sci-fi works that I have ever read, bar none. It is a work that juggles classic (arguably antiquated) character tropes with theoretical astrophysics. Meluch juggles with skill, though; skill and deft prose.
Here's an example of some of Meluch's spot-on wordsmithing, as she describes one girl's lowborn roots:
"Trailer park. An idyllic name for a slum where the landless lived in their mobile shelters stacked three high in the unpretty part of town with hard men, slutty women, and mongrel dogs."
The Myriad follows the adventures of the USS Merrimack, a space-borne U.S. battleship (at this point, the United States is the dominant world power) on its mission to destroy the Hive; an all-powerful, all-consuming, collective minded alien entity. To assist them in this mission, the Roman Empire attaches a "patterner" to the Merrimack.
Wait a minute....Patterner? Roman Empire? In the future? What's going on here?
I will probably mention again and again, Meluch has infused this tale with a good deal of interesting, clever, and fun ideas. One of these is the Palatine Empire (Rome). It turns out that all the intelligentsia of Earth which still used Latin in their professions (lawyers, doctors, etc.) were all along perpetuating the next rise of glorious Rome. Taking off from Earth, they colonized their own planet (as well as a few others). And for the next 150 years, Rome and Earth were at war; that is, until the arrival of the Hive. Rome, suffering great losses to this alien threat, sued for a tenuous peace.
Back to the Merrimack and her crew, interesting mix that they are. The Mack is led by one Captain John Farragut, the kind of stalwart, dashing, brave, good ol' boy that people can't help but fall victim to the charms of. A large focus also falls upon the company of Marines stationed on the ship, led by Lt. Col. Steele. Another character of note is Flight Sergeant Kerry Blue, a promiscuous young beauty with a tender heart. Added to the mix is the Roman patterner Augustus (just to clarify, a patterner is an augmented human with the ability to "plug in" and solve complex data problems of a wide spectrum. Their physical attributes are enhanced as well. All the tinkering is apparently quite traumatic on the patterned, though). Augustus is far and away the most dynamic character in the story; beneath his condescending veneer, he is obviously quite troubled. He has his ingrained, unquestionable fealty to Rome, and yet he lives his life knowing that they mercilessly tinkered with him as no more than a commodity. He is then attached to this crew of intellectual inferiors, knowing that these mental midgets are the ones that Rome essentially surrendered to.
Ok, that's the gist of the backstory. So what is this book about, and what is "The Myriad"? Well, early on, the crew of the Merrimack comes across something of an anomaly; a cluster of three planets bearing intelligent, humanoid life. This is odd since this group of planets was overlooked by the Hive, even though they were in their path. This group of planets is known as The Myriad, and the humanoids are led be an Archon named Donner; a prideful, yet benevolent dictator. Farragut establishes a rapport with him; neither side wanting to show all of their cards, yet both greatly respecting each other. It's just that there are some happenings going on involving the Myriad that goose normal conceptions of space and time.
One initial mystery involves the modes of transit and communication available to the aliens. They are something of a low-tech species, with most of their ships only attaining sub-light capabilities. And then there are the kzachin. Surrounding the planets of the Myriad are portals, similar to wormholes (except they do not collapse after usage). These transit tubes are what defies all known logic, and as the crew attempts more and more to dissect their import, they realize the potential for trouble; a real time paradox.
Around this time, the action really gets moving. A troublesome ship full of talking head dignitaries from Earth shows up, promising to undo all the goodwill established with their incessant meddling. Farragut is compelled to continue on his original mission, to hunt down the Hive. There is some decent human vs. alien action, and then, well, new problems arise.
This is all just a basic summary. I cannot do justice in this review to the scientific romping that Meluch experiments with, but it involves tweaking notions of spatial distance, as well as distance measured in time. There are interesting takes on technology, blending elements of low-tech concepts (Battleships and swordfights in space. Ships that conduct broadside assaults with projectile weapons in deep space) with legitimate discussions on gravitational pulls, faster than light travel, uses for antimatter, etc. Point being, there is a lot of thought put into the scientific aspects of this work.
Perusing some other reader reviews of this book, a lot of people take jabs at the dialogue and character interaction. The biggest complaint is that it is somewhat hokey, a throwback to the pulp novel era (as if that would be a bad thing). Trust me, Meluch is an intelligent writer, and every word in this book is purely intentional. The situations are reminiscent of a novelization of a popular sci-fi show or movie, from the accessible characters to the easy, snappy banter. The technology of "beaming up and down" and the "nearly human" aliens have a real Star Trek taste to them, and Farragut and Augustus give off a nice Kirk and Spock vibe, even if Farragut is more lethal than lothario and Augustus' aloofness is a by-product of tinkering, not birth. His sarcasm is 100% genuine, though. All the supporting cast fares well too; they may be trope, but Meluch fleshes them out well beyond the cardboard cutout realm. Exceptions to this include the character "Cowboy", who serves more as a metaphor for self-destructive machismo than anything else. His baseness, in the end, only serves to make him into an intentional running joke.
There isn't much that can be said that does not work well in The Myriad. Once affairs start on planet Arra, they feel as though they drag a bit, but not too much. Also, as enjoyable as the characters and technical aspects are, the alien battle scenes were a little lackluster. The descriptions of them are decent enough, but there is no tension, no blistering, edge of your seat effect in either the space battles or boarding scenes (in fact, the best action sequence involves an ambassador being assaulted with a muffin. Yes, you read that correctly). Again, the technical aspect is what makes the aliens interesting; such as the fact that they can "insinuate" through force fields, and how they home in on human "resonance". Another issue that I've seen being raised is perceived misogyny, or sexism. There are some pretty cold jokes made at the expense of Kerry Blue's ah.....promiscuity. It didn't rub me the wrong way, but if you have tender sensibilities, I guess you can consider yourself warned.
Some spoiler-y stuff below.
Captain Farragut! Incoming spoilers!
I'll be honest, I hadn't realized that I had grown so attached to these characters until Act III (aka the last chapter), where Meluch essentially hits the reset button (trust me, there is a reason). It is at this point that we lose Augustus, the most compelling character by far (who had just, in a heartbreaking scene, revealed himself as a homosexual in love with Farragut). Meluch also throws some subtle emotional jabs regarding Farragut and his first love in that chapter. But she also shows that even though things change, certain aspects remain cyclical. Is it enough to bring me back for book two? I don't know; I am pretty emotionally spent right now.
Here's what it is:
R.M. Meluch returns from a multi-year hiatus with a bold series that entertains and twists logic into pretzels (you'll get that reference after reading the book). Easy dialogue, spiffy science, and an emotional wallop at the end.
As mentioned in the opening, this cover is what deterred me from reading this book for so long. Even while reading it now, I wouldn't carry this book in public. The color scheme is ok, the rendition of the gorgons (the aliens) is fairly nice, but I really don't like the portrayals of Farragut (or is that supposed to be Steele), Augustus, or the girl that I am assuming is Kerry Blue.
On a bright now, they've bundled the first four books into two book omnibuses. So you can now get the first two books with this neat cover:
I'd go this route.
Cover Final Score: