There's nothing in With the Lightnings that David Weber's Honor books or Lois Bujold's Miles books aren't doing better. But it's still an entertaining, old-school space opera treat, demonstrating a light touch from David Drake that is absent in a lot of his other work — entirely so in his labored Lord of the Isles fantasies. This series also has none of the brutally de-romanticized, Vietnam inspired grittiness of the Hammer series. Lightnings is all in good fun, told with a charm that cuts through any cynicism or reservations one might have over its reliance on formula.
Daniel Leary is a lieutenant in the navy of the Republic of Cinnabar. Estranged from his politically powerful father, flat broke, but full of youthful enthusiasm for traveling the stars, Leary finds himself part of a delegation to the Commonwealth of Kostroma. Kostroma is a neutral world that has prospered in trade with both Cinnabar and its enemy, the Alliance of Free Stars, which isn't as free as it sounds. In the capital, Leary meets the Electoral Librarian, Adele Mundy, whose family back on Cinnabar were essentially slaughtered by Leary's father for their role in an Alliance-backed conspiracy. Following formula (nicely finessed through the setup of the conspiracy backstory), Drake has the pair initially hating each other. But when Daniel learns who Adele is, his disapproval of his father — who went rather overboard in punishing the Mundys — causes him to soften and extend an olive branch. They become, refreshingly, friends and co-combatants, with no romantic sparks.
Kostroma's two leading noble houses are at odds. The Hajas, who rule, want Cinnabar to strengthen their navy. The rival Zojiras see an opening, and launch a coup with the aid of the Alliance, one of whose agents blackmails Adele into helping him with their plans. Daniel and his fellow soldiers manage to slip away from the bloodbath, with a self-recriminating Adele helping via her access to the palace networks.
With the Lightnings wants to be nothing more than pure escapism, and on those grounds it's got game. I know, every swashbuckling space opera wants to be Horatio Hornblower. Alongside such modern ideas as the gender-neutral military, Drake is fond of incorporating 18th century ideas of class and honor. Leary even has a batman. But while Drake's tale hasn't got quite the Hornblower swagger, it offers gobs of crisp, page-turning action, which is all you're after here anyway. What is refreshing is the way Drake understands the archetypal nature of his heroes and keeps them from coming across as mere stock players all the same. Daniel has little of the macho bluster you'd associate with most military SF heroes, and he isn't a paragon of Lawful Good saintliness either. He enjoys boozing and getting laid as much as any soldier. When he has to get resourceful in a crisis, he knows by his inexperience he's flying by the seat of his pants, but also that he has no other alternative. The same can be said for Adele. She isn't the sort of heroine who makes a Big Issue of showing she's just as good as the boys when the chips are down. She can handle a weapon — dueling is a big part of Cinnabar culture — but having to use it is never pleasant. Her obsession is knowledge.
This is a solid beginning to a promising space opera series. I hope lightning strikes for all its sequels.