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The Helmsman

by Bill Baldwin

(Timberwolf, $26.95, 316 pages, hardcover, November 2003.)

With every book, there's hype -- some of it warranted, some of it manufactured, and cover scansome of it seeping in from another universe. Bill Baldwin's The Helmsman announces itself as the return of a bestselling series, this particular reissue being a "Director's Cut" Special Edition! So, the question is raised, what if any of this holds merit?

Now many of you out there are scratching your heads: "Who's Bill Baldwin?" Fair question. I asked it myself. The answer I received from those who I thought knew SF history better than I was: Who?

See, much to nobody's surprise, the term "bestseller" is accurate in many different milieus. For example, a best-selling coffee table book will not register as a New York Times Bestseller, but still qualifies for the term "bestseller". In this case, my guess is that The Helmsman has sold very well for its small press publisher, and thus Bill Baldwin is the bestselling author of this series.

Does any of this matter? Of course not. I'm only writing about it because the publisher plastered the claim on the cover and it made me think. What really matters, naturally, is what we find between the book's front and back.

Before I get any further, here's a quick history lesson: The Helmsman first appeared in 1985 and had a few subsequent reissues (most notably for Warner Questar). It is the first in a six-book series, all of which will be reissued this year by Timberwolf. The publisher has also contracted a seventh book, The Turning Tide, which will appear at the end of the year.

And so to the plot. Wilf Brim is an ex-miner from the lowly world of Carescria. There's a big war going on and it's taking so many lives that the Imperial Fleet (these would be the good guys) has decided to admit a few of these lowlifes into the Academy. Now, Wilf is a Sublieutenant and off to the exciting world of war aboard the I.F.S. Truculent. His job -- why, he's the helmsman, of course!

The first chapter is a botch of clunky exposition that does such a disservice to this novel that I'm shocked it remained in this "Director's Cut". Not only are we subjected to massive infodump, but the technobabble and alien names read horribly. (I find it odd that in some novels, numerous alien names sound perfect to the reader's ear, while other writers just can't pull it off. Why is this?) It's a shame because this will no doubt turn away many prospective readers, and the story that unfolds is surprisingly good. After that first chapter, things run fairly well. The action is fast-paced and the overall feel of things is, well, just plain fun.

The Helmsman reads with an old-style feel, invoking both the good and the bad of yesteryear's high adventure science fiction. The characters are classic military sf portraits of heroism. The action scenes are written with a great professional flair that often kept me reading an extra ten pages before I went to bed. But there is an overindulgence in the description of things we don't care about. And even a big moment in Brim's life, such as when he first helms a destroyer, is so bogged down in detail it takes nearly thirteen pages to lift the darn ship off the ground.

There is great opportunity for character development, which perhaps we will see in Wilf's further adventures, but in The Helmsman it comes off more as a series of missed opportunities. Wilf is, supposedly, born and raised in the lower classes. There are a few moments of blatant prejudice against him, but don't worry -- Wilf is the best adjusted human I've ever read about. He always has the right reaction to these slights. In other words, we never get to see too deeply under his skin. On the other hand, his complicated relationship with Margot (who is really a princess) is presented well enough that I felt sorry for the difficulties they must suffer.

On the other hand again, both Margot and Wilf quote way too much lousy faux-poetry, and their alien compatriots have way too many colloquial sayings. A little bit of colourful characterization is one thing, but this became overkill and stale.

On the other hand, I've run out of hands.

The end result is a book mixed with highs and lows in which I had a lot of fun but had hoped for more. Is it worth your time? Well, if you want a light (very light), enjoyable read and don't mind a few flaws, then go for it. It'll certainly be entertaining during a long flight to somewhere. I suspect, however, that if the author could simply excise the unnecessary descriptions (I need only a few sentences, if that, to tell me about the appearance of a minor character -- not half a page), and fill that space with depth to the main characters, then (I suspect) Tor would be publishing the book, it would have earned the "bestseller" description, and we all would know the name Bill Baldwin quite well.

Review by Stuart Jaffe.

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