NESFA Members' Reviews

The Honor Harrington Series (I)

by David Weber

On Basilisk Station; The Honor of the Queen; The Short Victorious War; Field of Dishonor; Flag in Exile

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

Everybody loves Honor Harrington, I'm told. I even like Honor Harrington a lot, though I like Nimitz better; he's got more sense and Honor ought to listen to him more often. WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD!

It is perhaps wise to start with a little bit of explanation about the Star Kingdom of Manticore. It's Britain in the early 19th century--except with FTL starships, medical technology that confers really serious life extension, normal lifespans being two or three centuries, three habitable worlds in their system, a fully functional parliamentary democracy, sexual equality taken completely for granted, and racial/ethnic blending so complete that it isn't even meaningful to talk about "racial equality": skin color and eye shape really are no more significant socially than eye and hair color, not even conveying anything about ancestry except in the most obvious and banal sense. But other than these little details, there's no difference between the Star Kingdom and Britain in the early 19th century. Really. Did I mention the complete religious freedom?

The Star Kingdom's main enemies are the Peeps, the People's Republic of Haven. Haven is a failing socialist republic, with something like 90% of the population on the dole because Haven has a school system inadequate to the task of educating them to do anything useful, and an economy inadequate to the task of finding them anything useful to do. Haven has been engaging in a series of wars of conquest, to seize the resources of richer worlds to keep funding the dole, excuse me, Basic Living Stipend, but of course this only increases the size of their problem, as they destroy the economies of each of their new conquests in turn, and have even more people on the dole to support. Everyone is afraid of Haven because it has never lost a war, except of course for the people who can't believe that Haven really means to attack anybody they haven't already invaded and conquered.

On Basilisk Station starts off the series in a fairly promising manner, not great literature, but lots of action, intrigue, and adventure. Honor makes do with a too-weak force at an exposed and vulnerable outpost, with a ship not properly maintained and a not-ready-for- primetime crew. Or at least, they're not ready for primetime until Honor gets her hands on them. She has to cope with both foreign and domestic enemies; among the latter is one Pavel Young, son and heir of Earl North Hollow. Young is a fellow naval officer, the commander of another ship. (When they were both students at the naval academy, Honor rejected Young's rather piggish advances, and he subsequently attacked her with intent to rape while she was in the shower. Surprised, naked, and wet, she beat him to a bloody pulp and only just stopped short of killing him. Convinced that no one will believe the word of a daughter of mere yeomen against the heir of Earl North Hollow, she refuses to explain why, but others figure out enough that it's Young who is forced to apologize to her. It is repeatedly stated or implied in later books that, if only she had had the nerve to tell the truth, Young would have been prosecuted. I don't believe it, for reasons which will become apparent.) She overcomes her foreign and domestic enemies, and is rewarded with a new command and a new posting, in The Honor of the Queen, to Grayson, a planet that the Star Kingdom of Manticore would like to form an alliance with against the People's Republic of Haven, but which has doubts, serious doubts, because the Star Kingdom is ruled by a woman, Queen Elizabeth III, and takes the legal and social equality of the sexes for granted. Grayson was colonized by the members of the Church of Humanity Unchained, which wanted to get back to nature, cast off the unfortunate effects of overuse of technology, and restore the proper relations between the sexes. Grayson's principal enemies, other than Haven, which they don't yet realize is an enemy, are the religious fanatics from their neighboring world, Masada.

Honor Harrington has to cope with the Havenites, the Masadans, the political opponents of the ruler of Grayson, Protector Benjamin Mayhew, and, best of all, Reginald Houseman. Houseman is a Manticoran socialist (never mind how improbable that is), and a member of the government, and he's on Grayson, too, determined to prevent any such foolishness as Manticore fighting those nice, peaceful Havenites. Housman is a perfect character: a socialist, ill-mannered, badly dressed, stupid, a traitor, and a coward--and those are his good traits. The deck-stacking here is truly amazing; Houseman isn't even kind to children and small animals. Heinlein was fond of stacked decks, and wouldn't have attempted this, and Heinlein was a much better writer and could get away with things Weber can't. Houseman has precisely zero characteristics that could possibly account for anyone including him in the government, except that the plot requires it. The partial explanation we're offered is "family connections", but this doesn't have nearly as much supporting evidence as "it's the plot requirements, stupid." Unfortunately, neither "family connections" nor "plot requirements" explain why he's made of such cheap, soggy cardboard. There seems to be only one explanation for that.

But Honor survives all her travails at Grayson, and is a hero, and decorated and ennobled by a grateful Grayson, thus forcing the Star Kingdom to do the same. She goes home for extensive repairs, and then comes The Short, Victorious War, in which she meets up with Pavel Young again. Young is not a leftwing cartoon villain, like Houseman; he's a conservative, aristocratic cartoon villain. Other than that, there's not much to choose between them, in terms of cheap, soggy, cardboard characters. Young is not a traitor, and dresses better, and can at least manage to behave correctly on duty and/or in public. On the other hand Houseman was not a rapist, and was not into the personal abuse of power in the nasty way Young is.

I objected to the fact that Houseman had no positive characteristics whatsoever, nothing that would explain why anyone would trust him with anything, or want to. My complaint about Young is more specific: I do not buy the idea of Pavel Young as quivering coward. It seems to me that even granting Weber's premises with regard to Young, physical courage is the one virtue that he would have had. And it can't be said that his cowardice is necessary for plot purposes, either in The Short, Victorious War or in Field of Dishonor. That he is personally afraid of Honor Harrington, after she beat him nearly to death in a fight in which he jumped her when she was naked, wet, and completely surprised, does not require cowardice; it hardly requires more than low animal cunning, which Weber is willing to grant him. His withdrawal from battle works equally well if he had some non-cowardly, self-interested reason that--as things fall out--leaves him looking like a coward. In fact, for plot purposes, it would work even better, as Young's anger and resentment at Harrington being a hero again and he himself being cashiered for a cowardice he wasn't guilty of would be even greater. It doesn't need to change his decision to hire a duelist to kill Tankersley and Harrington for him. He's an earl, now, and doesn't have to do his own dirty work; that's what hirelings are for. It doesn't even need to change his determined efforts to avoid a duel with Harrington; after the way she kills Denver Summervale, professional duelist with fifty kills to his "credit", anyone with any sense would want to avoid a duel with her.

And now, at the end of Field of Dishonor, we finally come to my complaint about the Star Kingdom of Manticore. We're supposed to regard the Star Kingdom as The Good Guys. It can truly be said that they're better, significantly better, than the People's Republic of Haven. I have the impression, though, that Weber wants us to regard them as something more than "better than the Havenites, and strong enough to fight them". They're supposed to be genuine good guys, with some humanizing flaws. I cannot quite bring myself to go along with this. Young tried to rape Harrington, and a number of people, some of them with significant rank, knew what happened, supported Harrington--and Young got a slap on the wrist. Young has made a career of raping or coercing other attractive women junior to him in the service or elsewhere, and people know it, and nothing happens. Young abandons his post in On Basilisk Station, placing Harrington and the station at risk, and nothing happens except he's beached for a while. In The Short, Victorious War, he deserts under enemy fire, causing approximately eight thousand additional Manticoran deaths, and finally he gets cashiered at the beginning of Field of Dishonor--but anyone who wasn't the son of a politically powerful nobleman would have been executed. They quite deliberately bend the rules to avoid doing what they would have done to any less privileged officer. And once out of the Navy, and with the simultaneous death of his father, Young is now Earl North Hollow, and having been cashiered for (as everyone really knows) cowardice in the face of the enemy, does no dectectable damage to his political influence in the House of Lords. Also, we are once again reminded that Young is stupid, but he nevertheless comes up with an intelligent plan for making himself valuable to the government. (The government, in this Parliamentary system, is opposed by the Liberals, the Progressive Association, and the Conservative Alliance. We're not actually told who supports it.) To avoid stirring up trouble, Harrington is encouraged to take herself off to visit her Grayson lands and be formally admitted to the Conclave of Steadholders. The new Earl North Hollow, becoming far too valuable to the government to risk annoying, hires a professional duelist to get him his revenge on Harrington; he is to kill both Harrington and her lover, Tankersley, but Tankersley first, so that Harrington can suffer more. The duelist, Summervale, a cousin of the Prime Minister (but a disgrace to the family, yessiree), is very good, and Tankersley is a babe in the woods, and Tankersley dies. Harrington comes charging home from Grayson, determined to kill Summervale and die, but her friends manage to find out that Summervale was hired, and who hired him. Harrington's plans change; she's going to kill Summervale, then Young, and then maybe not die if she's survived both duels.

The inability of the usual legal authorities to provide justice for the death of Paul Tankersley is natural and understandable; they have no evidence to work with to tie Summervale to anyone. That anonymity is, after all, what Summervale was really selling, as well as his skill. Harrington's friends got an answer, but they have no evidence that's admissable in court. And with no evidence tieing Summervale to Young, Summervale did nothing illegal; duelling is perfectly legal in the Star Kingdom. (Another one of those little details that distinguish the Star Kingdom from its explicit model.) What's rather more shocking is what happens after the duel with Young.

The duel with Young is preceded by several weeks in which Harrington, having killed Summervale, publicly accuses Young of having hired him to kill Tankersley and herself, makes it clear that she wants to duel Young, and seeks to meet up with him so that she can formally challenge him. Young does not sue for slander, and dodges her very determinedly, leaving no one in any real doubt that that he's guilty, and that he's a coward. There is also, during this period, a very public attempted assasination of Harrington. Gee, that must have mystified people. Then, when they finally do duel (with pistols, by the way), Young turns early, and shoots Harrington in the back. She still manages to turn and shoot him dead. The dueling field is swarming with newsies, and there are multiple complete video records of Young's treachery and attempted murder of Harrington. So, naturally, the political establishment--which had no love for the new Earl North Hollow, and had lost what respect it had had by the time of the duel--is howling for Harrington's blood. She has unfortunately committed no crime at all, so the only thing they can do to her is beach her permanently. She heads back to Grayson, to resume her duties as Steadholder Harrington, but before she leaves, Admiral Earl White Haven, her professional patron, assures her that This Too Shall Pass, that in time the Navy and the House of Lords will realize that she did the right thing, and that they need her, and she'll command a Queen's ship again\emdash and Harrington is almost pathetically grateful to hear this. Huh? That, in time, Harrington's anger and disgust at what has happened would pass, and she'd be willing and maybe even eager to come back, is easy to believe. That, right now, when her lover has been murdered by someone who would never have had the chance if Manticore made even a serious pretence of maintaining equal justice, and she's disgraced and beached on half-pay because she obtained private justice by means perfectly legal and socially respectable in the Star Kingdom, she should be happy at the thought that in time she'll be allowed to come back, is not believable or plausible or reasonable.

In Flag in Exile, we get a picture of a very different society, thank Ghu. Grayson has its problems--its religious fanatics, its power-hungry opportunists, its social and political Neanderthals--but it doesn't have Manticore's corruption at the core. The government doesn't say, well, we can't oppose these people committing these nasty crimes because it's politically inconvenient, we have a war coming and we need to get the budget through. And in order to damage Harrington politically on Grayson, the reactionaries have to make her appear to be responsible, not for uppity insistence on justice from her betters, but for the real crime of skimming funds and using inferior materials in the building of a school dome, causing the deaths of thirty children. Bear in mind that this is on a planet where the fact that Harrington is a Navy officer, has been seen wearing pants rather than skirts in public, and had a lover she wasn't married to, are all really, geuinely shocking to public sensibilities. They still need real evidence of her apparent responsibility for a real crime before they even begin to turn against her. I like the Graysons, better than I like the Manticorans. Maybe this is what Weber intended, but I'm not convinced.

It should perhaps be noted, though, that I've read five of the books. I waited a long time between Honor of the Queen and The Short, Victorious War, but I did eventually start reading them again. They're not very good, but they are fun, if you're in the mood for lightweight military adventure sf.

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