Honor Harrington

by David Weber

On Basilisk Station

Rating: ★★★★

Lots you could quibble about -- heavy on exposition, slightly stilted scene-setting efforts and technology that is clearly being designed to produce a particular sort of 'naval warfare in space', rather than exploring a completely new tactical problem. Yet none of that really matters, because this is just undeniably fun. Harrington is stuck in a hole, and has to dig herself out of it with ingenuity, attention to her duties and the best use of a capable crew. It goes well, but not perfectly. The foe is not dumb, but they are outmaneuvered. It's exactly what I like from military science fiction.

The Honor of the Queen

Rating: ★★★★

The previous novel in this series, On Basilisk Station, was an implicitly feminist book. By which I mean: Honor, the main character, was incidentally a female, but you could change her gender and almost nothing in the story would change as a result. Manticore is a feminist society, and nobody in the setting has an issue with a female starship captain. There are roughly equal numbers of male and female characters at all levels. Both males and females are grizzled old veterans, both males and females are fresh young recruits, both males and females are incompetent wastes of space. Some men considered Honor attractive, but this was always a side-note to male and female reflections on her as a captain. One villain had once tried to rape her (she stomped the crap out of him, and perspective shows she could've sunk his career if she'd dared at the time). People generally seem to notice gender in the same way they notice the colour of your hair. Gender bias was minimal: one character assumed that the captain of Honor's ship was a he, but far more people were surprised by her age. This is, I think, approximately what most sane people want. Harrington does her job and kicks ass, and nobody gives a damn what's in her pants.

The Honor of the Queen is by contrast an explicitly feminist book. By which I mean that Honor literally does space-battle with the patriarchy, in the form of a regressive religious cult which treats women like actual chattels and gangrapes female PoWs. Generally speaking I would find this a downgrade from the previous book -- it's stressing that she's a woman and you should find this unusual, which is the opposite of the whole idea -- but Weber engages with the topic with such breadth and nuance that I can't really fault it despite how cartoonish the precis must seem. For example, Honor is placed in the position of allying with one insanely regressive patriarchal society against another, much more regressive, nation. She has to handle both discourteous dismissals and, perhaps worse, awkward hesitation from well-intentioned individuals coming from a society with no tradition of women in positions of responsibility. She has to consider not only what is best for her and her government's interests, but what the effect will be of her example to the women that look up to her. There are lots of small points and diversions -- particularly early on -- which indicate that Weber is really engaging with the theme, so I'm willing to let him have at it for now, so long as we do get back to Honor's gender not being very important.

So far as the main thrust of the plot, the novel builds nicely on the galactic political situation we were oriented to in the previous book, with a real shooting war being carried out via proxy in Yeltsin's Star. The action breaks earlier, the larger scale allowing for more advances, reverses and breaks in combat, which keeps things zipping along under tension. The local bad guys were slightly too 'evil and dumb' for my taste -- it's a lazy combination for military fiction -- but it fit with some minor notes of the book's theme. Honor was pulled out of her suicide run by the hand of God, here, I think for the next one Weber's going to have to show me she can get out of a battle without being nearly torn apart.

The Short Victorious War

Rating: ★★★

A bit less satisfying than the previous lot, perhaps because it doesn't wrap up the engagement between Manticore and Haven in quite the way it seemed like it might. Weber seems to be throwing a lot of blunders Haven's way, too, and their stupidity seems to be rising through the series. Similarly, I was not impressed with how Young was revealed to be a coward --- it's a lazy choice, giving him a flaw he hadn't demonstrated previously, and makes him into nothing more than an excuse to boo (rather than a real villain).

Would it not be more interesting for Young to be competent, and for Honor and him to be forced to work together despite mutual loathing? Warring with each other in internal politics, seeking to win their allies, score points and set policies? It would be more interesting to read about Honor in political warfare with Young as the 'domestic' portion of these books than it was to read about her getting more girlish about makeup and getting laid (which, also, I found it kind of creepy that the entire battle group was invested in her and Paul having had sex, and her superior made weird comments about it).

Field of Dishonor

Rating: ★★★

An extremely tribal book. Weber pushes us to vilify the bad guys for certain underhanded, nepotistic tactics, and then to accept and even praise the exact same behaviour from Honor and her allies. The back and forth of the two sides was at least entertaining, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. In more detail:

Cromarty bristles about the Conservative leader learning of an impending court martial, but insists on learning of its panel composition, so 'they' can plan around it politically. This is a 'technical violation', rather than a 'contempt for the law', so surely that's fine.

White Haven responds to the politicised nature of Young's trial by pushing the 'opposed' judges into a corner and insinuating they would vote politically before they've even had a chance to say anything. White Haven praises as 'apolitical' a fellow judge who thinks exactly like he does, and who is continually attacking her fellows with irrelevant personal jabs. He never reprimands her for this behaviour, and reprimands her targets when they look like they'd jab back. Everyone is very apologetic to Honor when they fail to execute Young, as if she were the plaintiff in a criminal trial, rather than a witness at a court martial. They later talk about having failed to protect Honor, as if his desertion had somehow been a personal attack on her.

When Denver deliberately provokes Paul into a duel, this is bad. When Honor does the same thing to Denver, it's fine. In fact, Honor's allies conspired to fraudulently use military assets in an illegal operation to capture and torture Denver, a civilian who had broken no laws. They also falsify a flight plan just so she can evade the press, and her accountant schemes to help her evade taxes when investing in a company she ordered created in her own public office. All of this is somehow okay.

Flag in Exile

Rating: ★★★

The series plodding along. Still somewhat entertaining, but the Grayson politics were less than gripping because of Weber's inability to write political conflict with nuance. You are either an evil bad-guy, a heroic good-guy, or a dupe. Honor cannot be reviled by people who are not also scheming to discredit her, her allies cannot be less than effective, loyal and compassionate, and it's not possible for them or her to actually do something wrong. Given that Weber can conceive of and write 'respect for the enemy' when he's paying attention, I feel like he could do better.

The Grayson naval detail was sorely lacking. Honor was made an admiral, and thus her crews started shaping up. It seems like Weber didn't consider that we would like to see how any of this happened. Surely there were decisions to be made, conflicts that had to be solved, logistical problems to tackle? All we saw were slight reservations about Yu, which were brushed aside without incident, and then the set-piece naval battle which was (again) a Havenite blunder which left Honor sorely wounded. The snippets from the Havenite side didn't really add much, and spread the plot a bit thin.

Honor Among Enemies

Rating: ★★★

One much like all the previous, including several of the same problems as previous books. Big irritant: people are always swooning over Honor's amazingness, even the people that hate her, and it's getting to the point where I want to see her suffer just because of that.

Points that kept me interested include the development of the geopolitical situation so it doesn't seem that Manticore is simply steamrolling the war, acknowledgement of gallantry by nominal bad-guy officers (though of course, they are Respectable Military Guys who hate their own government, and so not the real bad-guys), and a premise that at least makes it somewhat understandable that Honor could sucker-punch so many bigger ships (rather than her just doing this fortuitously). Oh, and her crew was less than perfect for once.

Perfectly fine low-energy entertainment, even if it does sometimes look a bit too obvious that Weber is patching the technical holes in his Hornblower-in-space setup as and when someone writes in to point them out.

In Enemy Hands

Rating: ★★★

Rather more talky than the previous in this series, at least early on, and the Grayson scenes in particular seemed to be cutesy bits of nothing-important which padded out the book. The romantic subplot introduced seemed like a very bad idea, and how that was all delivered seems to taint the only character ever established as Better Than Honor who wasn't also dead.

The overall narrative is far more appealing than some of the others, though, with a compelling low for Honor as a captive, some visceral threat via Nimitz, and a genuinely exciting prison-break sequence. I'm left on something of a cliffhanger, as the fallout from this latest Honoresque explosion seems like one of the more politically intriguing developments in the conflict so far. My fear is that Weber is going to go entirely local in the next book, and not carry on any of that.

Echoes of Honor

Rating: ★★★

Probably a mild improvement on the series' previous slow downward trend. The opening was slow, and a little odd given that many characters didn't recur later. Honor's prison-break sequence was good, though, and the balance of Haven landing a few good strikes whilst suffering from the riposte of White Haven's fleet and Truman's LAC-carrier seemed a lot more true to life than previous engagements along the 'Haven fuck up again' pattern.

The novel was broken up into different books, but I'm not sure why or what the books were meant to demarcate. The character cycling didn't really change except insofar as new ones were brought in to give context to the next battle. Still, the pages didn't really hinder my reading. Weber still over-explains some things in a suspiciously 'someone wrote in to point out this issue' manner, but at this point you just have to be willing to roll with it.

Ashes of Victory

Rating: ★★

Much slower and less gripping than the series average. An awful lot of tedious talking chapters in which very little of consequence to the plot was covered, and the transition to the 'shooting' was less satisfying than usual. For once, it was the PRH segments which carried some actual tension. There's a sense of wrapping-up going on, which looks a little worrying given the series' length.

Looking ahead at the series, it seems like Weber continues to slip, with long and indulgent novels that become ever more detached from Honor, and mostly serve to worship her when she does appear. Given that the next book after Ashes of Victory picks up several years later, and seems to be spinning up a whole new war, I think it's best for me to alight here, while I can at least notionally consider the plot closed.

At its best, the HH series was spacebattles and military manoeuvres, with Honor making best use of relatively little (like in On Basilisk Station, certainly the best of the lot). At its worst, it was long domestic sequences where Honor was 'forced' to be a princess-cum-business magnate. I can tolerate but not applaud Weber's info-dumps, but both they and his always-good characters became more and more annoying over time as the editorial reins loosened. The political side of things, and the worship of the armed services, is quite obviously calculated to appeal to Weber's audience, but I don't mind that too much in military science-fiction.