Vanilla ice cream gets a bad reputation. Most would consider it secondary—a side dish to better, richer flavors. But on the contrary, vanilla ice cream does one thing better than anything else: simplify an experience down to its best attributes. Vanilla ice cream is sweet, smooth and, most importantly, tastes exactly as expected, every time.
Richard Baker’s Restless Lightning is a wonderful, delectable bucket of vanilla ice cream, set in an idealistic vision of a future age of space exploration. Baker is not afraid to flood the reader with alien and military lingo, flexing twenty-five years of experience designing tabletop role playing games for industry titan Wizards of the Coast. The dearth of unexplained vocabulary avoids obstructing the flow of the story, instead creating a pseudo-realistic atmosphere a la “Star Trek.”
As the book opens, our hero, Lieutenant Commander Sikander North, finds himself assigned to a backwater station, set up as a diplomatic agent to a race of fishlike beings called Tzoru. The Tzoru are a civilization that has traveled the stars since before humans built pyramids. Tradition and peace have made them a bastion of stability, but the Tzoru way of life is changing faster than they can adapt. Unrest follows, tossing North and his intelligent romantic interest, Dr. Lara Dunstan, into the center of the action.
Combat breaks up the rising political strife, and Baker depicts space combat into a more naval, less Star Wars-style dogfight, experience. Ships line up in formation, forty thousand kilometers away from each other, firing broadside mounted “K-Cannons” at extremely calculated angles. Baker has a knack for writing each encounter in an interesting, dynamic way, without succumbing to bombastic explosive indulgence or boring mechanical descriptions.
Restless Lightning is not going to shake the foundation of science fiction. Instead, amidst a slew of gritty genre offerings like “Game of Thrones” or “Altered Carbon,” this book takes a rose-colored detour to a universe where every character has the best intentions. The most evil character, on a scale from one (least evil) to ten (most evil), ranks at a solid “high school bully” level of malicious intent. Even the main character’s relatively bumbling attitude is endearing; while clearly not suited to be an intelligence officer, North’s struggle to prove his worth is certainly worth cheering for.
In fact, the only weak aspects of this novel are some poorly timed flashback sequences, where Sikander North faces demons of his past. These sequences try to bring depth to North as a protagonist, but unfortunately end up hurting the story’s otherwise smooth plot. These sections are thankfully few and far between.
Four hundred pages later, Baker’s space romp concludes with a space battle, foot chase and an explosion, as it should. Wrapped up in a pretty pink bow, Restless Lightning is a fun fireside read, perfect to break up the stresses of everyday life.