(Timberwolf, $26.95, 316 pages, hardcover, November 2003.)
With every book, there's hype -- some of it warranted, some of it manufactured,
and 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?
of it seeping in from another universe. Bill Baldwin's
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
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.