- Treecat Trilogy
- Young Honor and Elizabeth
- Prince Michael rescues and Honor dances
- On Basilisk Station
- The Honor of the Queen
- The Short Victorious War
- Irresponsible captain, itinerant noble
Continuing my review of Honor Harrington stories and novels in chronological order:
- Field of Dishonor by David Weber
I’ll be honest. When it came time to reread the entire Honor Harrington series thus far, this book (and the next one, Flag in Exile) was the big one I was dreading encountering again. My recollections of it were vague, but I remembered it as being something of a low point in the series—loads of angst on the one hand, cartoony villains on the other.
When I reread it, I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover it was not as bad as I’d recalled. I would still consider it a low point in the series, and it did have plenty of angst and cartoony villains, but there was a compelling story as well. This book sets the stage for a lot of personal growth on Honor’s part over the next few books, and in this case there is definitely no gain without a lot of pain.
The book begins with the trial of Pavel Young, whose cowardice at the end of the previous novel resulted in a lot of unnecessary loss of life. As the result of a political compromise, Pavel is spared the death penalty, and indeed any penalty worse than getting drummed out of the service—but that leaves him with a hefty dose of anger to work off—and a convenient target in the person of Honor Harrington.
Honor, meanwhile, is beginning to come to terms with the sorts of responsibilities required of a Grayson Steadholder, and making plans for the betterment of the Grayson citizens for whom she is now responsible. She is also beginning to enjoy a budding romance with Paul Tankersley. It seems as if her life is finally coming together—and then tragedy strikes, in the form of an arrangement between Young and the professional duelist Denver Summervale, last seen as a minor villain in On Basilisk Station. And Honor’s life is shattered.
The rest of the book covers what passes, on Manticore, for Honor’s “roaring rampage of revenge.” Her friends discover who was responsible for the tragedy, and who hired him, but not in a way that would be admissible in court. And so, to her friends’ trepidation, Honor turns to an archaic custom that is still legally permissible on Manticore: the public duel—even though Honor’s justice could come at an incalculable political cost to the Centrist and Crown Loyalist political parties that are currently in power in Manticore’s coalition government.
Prior to this book, we’ve seen Honor depressed, but never seen her completely crushed. We see that for the first time here, and it will not be the last time by a long shot. Weber has a habit of being cruel to his characters, though barely not more so than they can take. Of course, it’s pressure that makes diamonds—and if that’s the case, by the end of this book Honor is just about ready to put on a ring.
And there’s a certain satisfaction to reading the scenes where Honor Harrington puts her revenge plan into motion. As in this scene, when Honor seeks out Summervale after learning Young had hired him:
“We’re all waiting, Mr. Summervale.” That icy soprano cut through his whirling thoughts, and he realized he was staring at her like a rabbit. “Aren’t you a man of honor?” There was emotion in her voice now, contempt that cut like a lash. “No, of course you’re not. You’re a hired killer, aren’t you, Mr. Summervale? Scum like you doesn’t challenge people unless the odds and money are both right, does it?”
“I—” He shook himself, fighting for control. He’d expected her to challenge him, not for her to goad him, to force him to challenge her, and shock had him off balance. He knew what he had to do, what his only possible response was, but it was as if the stunning speed with which she’d upset all his plans had blocked his motor control. He couldn’t—literally could not—get the words out, and her lip curled.
“Very well, Mr. Summervale. Let me help you,” she said, and slapped him across the mouth.
And we’re all standing right there on the sidelines cheering, “Atta girl, Honor! Hit him harder!” And the actual duel itself brings more of the same. After all that build-up of tension, there’d darned well better be some catharsis.
The downside of all this is, of course, that the angst heaped onto Honor in this book essentially descends to the level of melodrama—and the villains are cartoonish enough in their evil that all they lack is a mustache to twirl and a damsel to tie up across the railroad tracks. Of course, they don’t think of themselves as “evil” in their own internal monologues; they think of themselves as right, and build elaborate self-justifications around their schemes. But in a way, that almost makes it worse. They’re so over-the-top, chewing scenery external and internal, that it’s hard to take them seriously as characters.
Weber does get a lot better about creating believable villains later in the series—characters not driven so much by cowardice and hatred—but here the flaws are on full display. It doesn’t get much better in Flag in Exile, either, though I’ll get to that in the next review.
A number of memorable characters are introduced and not killed, Georgia Sakristos, formerly known as Elaine Komandorski, has her first appearance in this book as the head of Young’s dirty tricks department. She’ll become much more important later. And likewise, we meet Andrew LaFollet, Simon Mattingly, and Jamie Candless, Honor’s original trio of armsmen who would stick to her through thick and thin from then on.
But there’s one character who is killed off that bothered me for a number of reasons. (Those who’ve read this book know which one I mean, but it’s a spoiler I’ll not state explicitly until the next review in keeping with my policy.) He had a lot of potential as a character, and it’s a little sad to know he was introduced in On Basilisk Station solely for the sake of being killed off down the road. It feels a little like a cheap trick on the reader. But Weber has long been clear that even (or especially) sympathetic characters could be killed off at any time:
Military fiction in which only bad people—the ones the readers want to die—die and the heroes don’t suffer agonizing personal losses isn’t military fiction: it’s military pornography. Someone who write military fiction has a responsibility to show the human cost, particular because so few of his readers may have any personal experience with that cost.
Sympathetic character deaths make stories more powerful. As a fan of the animated TV series Robotech, I’m well familiar with that. But in this case, in retrospect that particular character feels a little too much like a designated redshirt, rather than a developed character.
As this story ends, Honor moves away from the Manticoran Navy for a while, heading off to Grayson to administer her steadholding for a while, and undoubtedly causing considerable consternation to those who expected this to remain a space navy series. For the moment, the greater political situation with Haven remains in abeyance, with Rob S. Pierre and his Committee of Public Safety consolidating their hold on the planet but not intruding overtly into the narrative. But sooner or later, both elements will return.
This is a story that I really can’t find much to say about. It is competently enough written, but for all that it has to do with the “main” Honorverse, it could just as well be from some other setting altogether. It takes place on a world we never see again, featuring characters who never appear elsewhere, in an action that has little significance to the overall outcome of the war.
The story involves a couple of military consultants for Manticore and its allies leading local forces of one country on a small planet in the backwater of the galaxy against another country that’s occupied by Haven. The story of the battle, and individual heroic sacrifices, is exciting and well-enough written, but I’m all about the epic storyline and from that point of view, this piece is largely forgettable.